A Four-Way Conversation:
Lila & Jamie Downs, Paul Cohen, John McLaughlin
[This conversation took place on Monday morning, August 27, 2001, at a Friendlys restaurant in Fort Washington, PA, where Lila Downs, the Oaxacan singer, and her husband/artistic director Paul Cohen went with us for breakfast and an interview, following the close of the Philadelphia Folk Festivals 40th Anniversary Celebration. The coincidence of Jamies last name with Lilas led to discussion about their perhaps shared family background, at some distance in the past, and Pauls Philadelphia background led to discussion with me concerning old friends at Haverford College and perhaps Temple University, since I had taught in Philadelphia some years before. But this soon turned into discussion of the Oaxacan artists we had seen in our visit there last February, with Jamies fine arts background (BFA, Kutztown, 1971) coming into play, as well as, of course, Lila and Pauls appearance at the just-concluded Philly Folk Festival, where they had shared the stage with Arlo Guthrie and Xavier, his family-based band, as well as workshops with Sarah Lee Guthrie, Woodys grand-daughter, and Tao Rodriguez Seeger, Pete Seegers grandson. Other areas of discussion included the music Lila and Paul are currently putting together for an upcoming movie with Antonio Banderas, on the artist-widow of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and a survey of their current concept-album, Border/La Linea (Narada World Records), with a suggestion of the parallels between the weeping mother of Mexican folklore, featured on the album, and Kathleen Ni Hoolihan, the Old Woman of Ireland who begins in age and ugliness and grows into youth and beauty as she calls her children to sacrifice. A lot of ground was covered, in other words, and we hope this brief introduction will help keep you on track as you follow this breakfast conversation between four people who began as strangers and ended, we hope, as friends. We begin with the tape running as the waitress serves us our breakfast, and Jamie explaining to Lila and Paul the background of The Digital Folk Life in our tabloid newsprint "magapaper," The Folk Life, of the 1970s.]
Jamie: Wed tape our interviews with people, and transcribe the whole thing pretty much verbatim for our magazine, which was tabloid newsprint, so that we had plenty of room for the interviews, and thats how theyd go up, unless of course our interviewees had some things in there theyd rather not see up there.
Mountains in Oaxaca
John: And so thats what were now putting up on our website we didnt know what else to do with them [Lila laughs] So: you come from the state of Oaxaca, not the city, but the mountains around it?
Lila: Yes. Its a mountainous area, with a lot of pine trees, and cool weather. And then I grew up also in Minnesota, in St Paul, actually.
John: St Paul? No kidding. Two weeks ago we were visiting my grandson and his parents, of course -- in St Paul.
John: Yeah, my son-in-law teaches in the biology department of Macalaster College, and he took us to an Irish festival while we were there. We missed Eileen Ivers, because Benjamin had a two-year-olds party to go to, so we had to go to the party -- we knew we couldnt escape Eileen at Philly [Lila laughs], so we went to Benjamins party. So you grew up in St Paul?
Lila: Yes, thats where I grew up, and, yeah, spent a long time there. Were going to play in November in Minneapolis. I went to the University of Minneapolis in St Paul, majored in anthropology and music there. Because my father taught art and cinematography there.
John: How did your father come down to Oaxaca?
Lila: He was working on a documentary movie that followed the blue-winged teal thats a duck that migrates from Canada and he went thro Mexico City, and then they went to a club, and he saw my Mom. She was singing.
John: Thats enough. That says it right there. [Lila laughs] What was her professional name?
Lila: Anita Sanchez. Her real name was Anastasia, but she went by Anita.
John: Was that a Russian background in the family?
Lila: No. No, thats just an old name that people used to use.
John: Im just curious about the family. You mentioned yesterday onstage your grandmothers Indian? background. What was that Mixtecan?
Lila: Yes, Mixtecan. My mother always spoke in Mixtecan in the family. My mother didnt teach it to me, because she was ashamed. In Mexico we also have much shame of our Indian roots, of our Indian-ness, of our color of skin? Because these things have centuries from, you know, the Spanish, to feel ashamed about these things. But now, with the Zapatista movement and everything, I think were finally coming out [Laughs] you know, things are changing. Well, I went thro a very difficult time, because I identified more with my fathers Anglo background? I used to bleach my hair when I was living in Minnesota, I used to be blonde! [Laughs]
Zapatista Caravan in Oaxaca February 26, 2001
John: Of course, if he was Irish, he might not have liked being called "Anglo"! [Laughter]
Lila: Right! Thats true. [Laughs] So I went right thro all those things. I dropped out of school, I followed around the Grateful Dead, I went to the Rainbow Gatherings. I think I needed to get in touch with the roots of humanity, of being just your basic who you are, who you come out as, and living on the streets taught me a lot about who you are. And then I go back to my grandmothers tradition. I remember the things she would tell me about, like the snake that comes from the sky, and brings the rain, and theres another snake underground, that brings the water. And these things I also found in the codices.
John: The Mixtec codices?
Lila: Right. Yeah. And I wrote poems about these things, together with my mother, interpreting the language, which is a poetic, beautiful language. And we did that Tree of Life album is there a tree of life in the other traditions?
John: There is in the Norse mythologies, yeah. Yggdrasil, I think the name is. The Tree of Life. Yeah. I used to run a radio program may run it again called, "Roots and Wings I have only two things to give my children, roots and wings" [from a poster in the birthing room where our son Stirling was born].
Lila: Thats beautiful.
John: Thank you. Your father just came down to Mexico, or did he go back and forth with you?
Lila: We would go back and forth, because he was teaching in Minnesota, and my mother had an auto parts store in Mexico. And I would stay with her for a year, and then come back to Minneapolis for another year. And I met Paul in my mothers store.
Paul: I met Lila because I had a clogged carburetor one day and my car stalled out in front of her mothers store. And she was singing in the background . [Laughter]
John: I like that! Thats a John Jackson story in there! [Laughter]
Paul: No, really! She was working in her mothers store, she was selling car parts, and we would meet, and go down the block, and she was singing jazz standards .
John: But her guitar was hanging among the pipes, the car parts? Theres a great John Jackson story in here, with you as Chris Strachwitz! [Laughter]
Lila: He used to come and watch me, and talk with the mechanics
John: But he had no interest in the mechanics, right?
Lila: No, not too much! Everybody knows that! [Laughing]
Basilica de la Soledad
You studied opera in Oaxaca, didnt you?
Lila: Yes, I did.
Jamie: Where? In that place just west of the Zocalo?
Lila: Yes, right next to the Soledad if you go to the Church called the Soledad, its right across that plaza. The "School of the Beautiful Arts," is what its called.
John: How early did you know you were going to be a musician?
Lila: I used to sing when I was really young, and I loved to fiddle with records and, you know, sing along to the music. But when I went to college, I was a voice major, and I was studying opera as well, and my days were busy with theory and piano and choir and all these things. And then I suddenly thought, "I think Im missing out on a big part of life." I wanted to know more about the world.
John: But its a great jazz voice youve got there. What is that, three octaves?
Lila: Yes that happened later on.
John: Weve got a friend, Janet Lawson, who scat-sings like that.
Lila: Wow. Well, I studied jazz later on, when we came to Philadelphia. We lived here for a year. I was working part-time, and also studying jazz.
John: You didnt meet Paul here, you met him in Oaxaca what, eight years ago?
Lila: Yeah, you know, I guess it was, eight years ago. He was playing in a salsa club.
John: Was this before or after he was a circus clown?
Lila with Tao Rodriguez
at Philadelphia Folk Festival
John: Not during?
Lila: [laughs] Not during, no!
Paul: It was my last trip as a clown, actually.
Lila: He was still juggling.
John: Juggling, David Gillies style? Did you see him this weekend?
Paul: Well, I know him from way back.
John: Were you in the Give and Take Jugglers at one point?
Paul: No. I was doing my own thing. It was comic well, its all comic. I was in circuses in Europe, I travelled quite a bit. One season we went to Oaxaca, and I started playing more music.
John: Was your first instrument the saxophone?
Paul: The tenor saxophone. Then after that the piano. And other things, by ear.
John: How did the band come together? its a very tight band, in the show and on the new album.
Lila: Yes. We had a big meeting with the band last night, didnt we?
Paul: The band that you saw yesterday recorded on the record, but we added two new people, a pianist and a guitar player.
Lila: It happened slowly, tho, because the harp player, Celso Duarte, started to play with us about three years ago.
John: Thats a beautiful harp. Is that Mexican made?
Lila: Its Paraguayan, actually. But it has a chromatic system of tuning, made by the Japanese. He goes to Japan a lot, with his family. He comes from a family of harp players. And he learned both techniques, from Paraguay and also from Mexico. And his fathers a kind of legendary harp player.
John: To me, in that concert in Oaxaca, my jaw was on the floor. I didnt know what I was listening to, with the harp and the saxophone crossing one another [Lila laughs]. Thats just a great sound. Did that develop early, or is that a recent sound?
Lila: The combination? Well, youve always been playing that horn, Paul, starting out with jazz standards, and then the Oaxacan music, with the guitar, and then the harp.
Paul: It was Lilas idea to add more, folksier, instruments to the band, so there was the jazz, and then the Mayan, and the salsa, and then more folk. We had a drum kit, and we moved that out because we wanted more folk percussion, other patterns.
Lila: Yes, it sounded too much like rock or jazz, and thats not what we wanted.
Paul: Yes, and whatever worked, thats what we kept. And Lilas voice, of course, it does whatever it wants!
Jamie: You can hear all three traditions in your voice, theres opera, theres jazz, theres folk. At that concert in Oaxaca, we were sitting way up in the rear balcony, and everyone around us was singing along with all of your songs they knew all the words and music.
Lila: [Laughs] Thats wonderful!
John: That concert in Oaxaca, February 24th? It was a benefit for "La Casa De Las Mujeres," a scholarship concert for the young women in the school. What was fascinating for me was that the scholarship money wasnt just for books and tuition and uniforms. It was to replace the money that the family cant have because the child cant work.
Children of Political Prisoners
Sell Baskets in Zocalo, Oaxaca City
Lila: Right. Thats a big problem, because everybody starts working, and then they drop out. And also they dont adapt to the urban way of life very well, because they come from rural communities.
John: Where the assumption is that everyone in the family supports the family.
Lila: And also theres tutors who talk with the girls and give them suggestions, since they know about the different backgrounds.
John: I was at a conference at MIT a couple of years ago, called, "Junior Summit." And MIT had recruited kids from around the world sent them video-cameras and computers, to record what it was like being a child, and wound up with an email discussion list, from which the kids elected about 75 kids from around the world to come to MIT and tell people at MIT what it was like being a child around the world. While they were there, all of the young delegates went to the Admissions Office and filled out applications to go to MIT! [Laughter] But they also said that you cant abolish child labor around the world. They were quite clear about it. Cant be done. Maybe you could have a child union. Run by children, with adult advice [Laughter] Those children wouldnt take too much advice ! Woody Guthrie does seem to have a strong effect in Mexico. A strong identification. I noticed in the concerts this weekend, you did not only the medley of "Pastures of Plenty" with "This Land Is Your Land," and your poem, "Land," which is on your Border CD, but also "Deportees," which is not on that CD. Very slowly. When I listened to the love-songs on the CD, I thought they were sad? Jamie said they were tender.
Lila: Hm. Yes. Melancholy? I think theres a constant tragic sense in Mexican souls. I think its this constant, melancholic sadness, mourning for the past. Theres a mourning for a time which, in my mind, is before the Europeans came. The verses in "La Llorona," "The Crying Woman," refer to that. It says, "Yesterday, I was a marvel. Today, I am not even a shadow." People can interpret it about anything, it can be about love, too. But I think its about that sadness, that "sentimiento" from the rancheros.
Paul: They are, theyre very sad songs, and theyre very passive too. For example, the story about "Corazoncito Tirano," its a lament by the woman or the guy, whoever mostly its the guy who goes north, for work.
John: About the other one having gone "al otro lado," across the border?
Paul: What do the words say its very pretty
Lila: "Without the water, there is no ocean; the sun, without light, is no sun. And I, without you, am nothing."
John: And the reason is that you have gone "to the other side"?
Lila: Theres another verse, "What far off lands are you stepping on, what far-off stars are looking out for you?"
John: Different constellations.
Lila: "Is your way good or bad?"
John: And I cant know because you have left me?
Lila: Thats it.
John: Some of that seems to me to carry that Woody Guthrie sense, of the lonesome traveler. This recent album, would you be willing to talk about the songs on it?
John: And its sitting right here, my goodness [Laughter] It seems to me that its arranged as a set, with Woody in the middle, and the others leading up to that and then away from there, with "Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps" as being perhaps something else.
Paul: We put that at the end, because that was one of those record company requests, because its going to be on the sound-track of a new movie thats about to be released, and theres another sound track for another movie thats going to come out, and they thought this would be helpful. It didnt fit in with the concept that we had, so we thought, "Bonus track," and put it on at the end and went from there. It was written by Osvaldo Farres and Joe Davis, and its been recorded about 200 times.
John: Yes, I thought I remembered hearing it in Tampico in 1957. I was there on St Valentines Day El Cumpleano de Amor Ah well .
Paul: Very possibly. Its an old popular song. Well, they needed it for the movie, so we did it didnt sleep for about four days, and got it all done.
John: I like it, because it reminds me of the music at the Zocalo in Oaxaca. Whos doing the movie?
Las Marimbas de los Hermanos Carreon
on the Zocallo in Oaxaca
Paul: Its by Hector Elizondo? Hes been in a number of movies.
Lila: Its directed by a woman, Maria Ripoll. Shes a Spanish movie director, and shes done a number of things in Hollywood.
Paul: Its based on a story that came out a number of years ago. Its about food. [Laughter]. Something Mexicans like to talk about.
John: I dunno, theres a chapter in Carlos Fuentes The Crystal Frontier, about a Mexican gourmand, in Los Angles I think, whos very scornful about American food. He says theres six cuisines in the world -- French, Mexican, Chinese Scottish .
John: I was kidding about that last one. [Laughter] A cuisine based on a dare. Let me ask you about these songs. What about this first one?
Lisa: The first one is based on a poem from Chiapas. It says, "My heart reminds me of the time that has passed, and I will cry for the time that is going right now "el tiempo que pasa" "The time that is passing is my death that is going " I admire and respect this poem so much, because I think the metaphors that are being used have much to do with our Indian identity. And she doesnt have to do it in a literal or narrative sense, its just rich in a universal way. And so the way that she speaks of death in this song, its so rich and peaceful. I always feel such deep peace when I sing this song. It doesnt happen with every song I mean, I try, and wish it could happen more and more for everything. But this is an arrangement that the band came up with, because we found this piece five or six years ago, and began performing it in Oaxaca, and it sounded quite different, and its quite evolved, and I think it sounds like something thats very different. To me.
John: Is there a reason why it led off the CD?
Lila: I guess we didnt really think it was going to be, at the beginning, did we, Paul? I think we finished recording all of the pieces, and then as we worked on it that one evolved, didnt it?
Paul: I think we thought, with the Border, lets not start with the political stuff. We did some more, less political stuff, before we got to "Corazoncito Tirano," and so on.
John: So you regarded the CD as a "set," then?
Lila: Yes, we do. Thats something where Paul really has a major influence, because thats how he works. Weve been doing shows, like Philadelphia, and its about making people happy, thats what music is about. Its supposed to move you, and if it doesnt do that [Laughs]
John: We did an interview with Liam Clancy some years ago, and the thing we talked about was being a "performer," with a set, as opposed to being a "musician," just a musician who plays tunes? Having a set, with openers and closers and carrying people along?
Paul: Well, thats the principle, from our first record, which has really a lot of weird things on it, boleros, Oaxacan music, this and that, five-part harmonies, and we didnt think about it much, and then we thought, "Lets try to do something thats a little more conceptual." With a centre Woody -- and pieces that work around it.
John: OK. So given that, how does the second tune work here?
Lila: Its a rhythm thats played on a tortoise shell. The tortoise shell used to be played in pre-Hispanic times, pre-Columbian times, and its played to this day its a very ceremonial rhythm, and it talks about something that Mexicans are very obsessed with, and many Latin-Americans, were obsessed with beauty isnt all of humanity? [Laughs] --and so this piece says, "I am the ugly one, and when people tell you, you know, what are you doing with that ugly man, tell them Im the one who loves you," you know, and and thats what matters, right? [Laughter] Its funny, because we are so obsessed with it, I feel more in the Latin culture. And yet its one of the favorite pieces, in all of Mexico. Its one of the pieces that comes from the Zapotecan culture in Oaxaca, yet everyone in the country pretty much knows what it says. So Its an unusual piece. The next piece is my impression about the Europeans coming to this country and how that worked, how the native community perceived the Europeans to be gods, and then now the other movement is that Indian people are coming up to the North to work, and theres a different kind of rejection, of the workers who are working in the restaurants and doing domestic work in the US, and also our own shame towards our Indian-ness that I spoke of before. You you really aspire to be like the Europeans, but you also really enjoy having your Mexican tortilla and tacos, so its a contradiction, youre always saying in Mexico City especially, theres a very anti-Yanqui kind of a feeling, and yet they adopt certain things that are OK. A double standard. So I kind of poke fun at that in this song.
And in the next song "El Corazoncito Tirano" theres that music playing. "La Nina" is dedicated to the Mixtec servants in Mexico. My mother, when she was very young, she was 14, and my grandmother married her by force, and I think she lived with the man for six months, and she ran away, and she went to the city, and she looked for a domestic job, anything she could get, and she was a nanny, and along the way she became an independent person, a very strong woman, and very thoughtful, thinking about all the women who go thro that experience. There are so many, so many in Mexico, you have no idea.
John: Working in the maquiladoras, near the border.
John: Difficult for men, in a macho culture, to accept that the women have a job and they dont.
Lila: Right. Exactly. And thats why they leave, because they cant put up with that. I grew up in a rural community too, and when my father died, I was 16, people stopped talking to me there was no man in the family any more! Thats just to that level. Just imagine if you have a child or you get pregnant or anything like that. So this is to be respectful towards women, to say, "Its OK, you can go and work. So, the next piece is a piece that we performed in the concert, a "Cumbia Maya," in the Mayan language, and its one of many funny songs that the people sing in the Yucatan, and Ive heard many of them.
John: I see you put on the comic voice here.
Lila: Right! [Laughs] I do that because, in the native communities, the high, nasal range is the "gusto," what people like to hear, and I learned that when I was working in the native communities, and so I like to respect that, and I like to play with my voice too, and so I get to develop
John: Your basic instrument?
Lila: Right! [Laughs] Many times animals and sexuality are very closely intertwined, on this culture. And next the "Pastures of Plenty," of course, is where we wanted to remind everyone that everyone has been immigrants, you know, weve all come over, weve travelled all over.
John: The combination of that, which you did in concert but not on this CD, with "Deportee," was very moving. I noticed in Oaxaca that the crowd was especially, ah, up for "Pastures of Plenty." The audience in the back of the hall, up in the balcony, which knew your music, also knew this one, they were on their feet, they just seemed to know Woody Guthrie. Your poem in between, "Land," sounds to me like an interrogation by "la migra" [The immigration authorities] "When did you come to America?" Strong combination. Was that intended to be the capstone of your set here? Its in the middle, of course.
Lila: I guess it was. It was important to get something in English, because hats important up here in the US, for people who are receptive to these things, I think. It may open their hearts.
John: In Oaxaca, your voice was really powerful in delivering these pieces. You really used your voice a lot. Whereas on the CD it seems quieter. Was that so that you can sit down with it in your living-room and you can listen to it?
Lila: I was recording this, and I was singing it strongly and I thought, "Wait a minute, this is a little too much." At that point, I wanted it to be a little less powerful, and thats why I did that.
Paul: It was preaching.
John: I know the live audience in Oaxaca didnt mind the preaching [Laughter] Another problem, perhaps, is how you get away from that strong a centre for a set. How did you get to the next one?
Lila: "La Linea"?
Paul: Thats a really strong piece in Spanish, about the border thing. Very strong. Well, its a new piece, its the newest one we wrote.
Lila: Right before we went into the studio.
John: It was recorded in March, 2001. So you must have written it right around the time of that concert in Oaxaca?
Lila: Right. Right. It was very new. Very new.
John: And where did you go from there? [Im looking at the CD upside down, its facing Lila and Paul.]
Lila: In Mexico, during Christmas, we venerate El Nino Dios, Little Jesus.
Navidad Wreath on Door in Oaxaca
John: Little Baby Jesus?
Lila: Baby Jesus, right. Baby Jesus has a quality that makes him like ah, I see it as the beginning of life, all over again, the way that we do in the pre-Hispanic stories that we have, and so I say that he is growing feathers, like the religious deity that came from the Serpent, and I thought, when I was reading all this information on the Net, about the women who are dying in Sur Juarez, and then I saw the migrant workers, dying at the border, and Im reading all this, and Im thinking, "Oh, so negative," and I know I have to write something positive that gives us faith in something the border is like home to me, when I go to the border I love it, I feel like Im home, I share a lot with people who live on the border, and I wanted to write something that was, that had to do with the spirit of the earth, the spirit of the water, of the ocean, and also that was reality.
John: The artwork on the CD is remarkable. Whos responsible for the art direction?
Lila: You mean ?
John: Well, for example, right there is a picture of the streets, of crowded highways, and also a young man with an incredible head-dress, a great head-dress. Its an amazing picture.
Paul: Yes, we got that picture for that spot.
John: Its not a compilation, a composite?
Paul: No, we got him up on that pedestrian bridge.
Lila: Yes, we met him and we asked him if we could take a picture of him.
John: Is there a reason why he was in that head-dress in the city?
Lila: Yes, hes a dancer. Yes, they dance like that on the streets in Mexico City.
Paul: We had another picture of him, but because all this copyright stuff is, you know, very real, Narada said, "You cant use this picture because you didnt get permission from the kid." So that day I thought, "Oh man, what a drag." So I went out, and I was on the street, looking for some office supplies, and I saw a couple of dancers on the street, and I said, OK, "Would you come and sign a paper, would you come and be a model,"and so they did.
John: Thats good on Naradas part, that theyre that careful.
Paul: Oh, theyre a very good company, were very lucky to be with them.
John: Thats excellent. We were at a pow-wow in New Jersey, a couple of years ago, and there were dancers from all over, including Mexican dancers, and there was this young dancer, wearing long feathers, just leaping and dancing. Jamie had some pictures of this leaping and dancing, the deer dance.
Lila: Where was this pow-wow?
John: In New Jersey. Wed thought it would be confined to North American dancers, but no, it was Mexican Aztec? Mayan? -- as well.
Jamie: It was in Budd Lake. Right on Route 80.
Meso-America Dancer at Bud Lake Pow Wow
Deer Dance, Bud Lake Pow Wow
John: And they drew dancers from all over. And you capture that sense of the history in this piece were talking about now.
Lila: And its influenced by that beat that they dance to. I dont know if youve been to the Zocalo in Mexico City thats where they dance all the time. Theres different dance groups that also live a spiritual life in that centre, and theyre you know, kind of a community. Many people in Mexico criticize them because they say, "Well, how do you know that these are the rhythms that were played in our pre-Hispanic past?" Nobody knows for sure, because all of that was destroyed, but it had a lot to do with our religion, so I think exactly, same people, why would it change? [Laughs]
John: Theres no reason to change.
at Tamayo Museum in Oaxaca
Jamie: I thought the choreography that we saw in Oaxaca seemed very deliberate.
John: And where do you go on the CD from there?
Lila: We go to "Acteal," which was about a massacre which happened in Chiapas.
John: Was that about two years ago forty-something people were killed? Lined up on the highway and just gunned them down?
Lila: No, this was in a church, and they were all women and children. It was really sad, because it was a war between these two communities over territory. Theyd been having this trouble way back in time, and it got complicated because of politics. And they came in and they just massacred these women and children, and everybody was just I remember the next day, the streets in Mexico City were just quiet. The people were still very afraid to do anything, because our government was still the PRI, it was still PRI-controlled.
Jamie: This was leading up to Fox, wasnt it?
Lila: Yes. Well, a lot of the liberals dont like him at all, because they think hes very close to the US, hes Coca-Cola, he likes the US, he likes George Bush.
Paul: But compared to George Bush, this political machine that was there for 80 years, thats something. And then maybe next time the other party will win. Fox is a pretty independent guy, his party is much more conservative than he is. Hes more like a freethinking kind of guy. I dont know about his politics, but he seems to have a good heart.
John: OK. Let me ask you, whats the one that comes after "Acteal"?
Lila: Oh, thats "La Martiniana." Thats the one that says, ""Little girl, when I die, dont come cry over my grave, but if you sing to me, my life, I will always live, I will never die." And thats a beautiful idea, a beautiful message.
John: But a little sad.
Lila: Well, yes, a little melancholic, but beautiful at the same time.
Jamie: Very uplifting.
Lila: Yes, uplifting at the same time as sad. I mean, singing is such a beautiful force in my life, but also song, life, its such a beautiful thing, you can change it with song.
Jamie: I mean, youre talking about conquering death, its very powerful.
Lila: Thats right.
John: OK Where are we now on the CD?
Lila: The next song is from the coast of Oaxaca
John: Ah "Soy Pescador" "I am a fisherman"!
Lila: Thats right. Groups of African-Mexicans, who have been living there since the turn of the century when was the California Goldrush?
Lila: Thats right thats when they came up.
Jamie: We saw those fishermen in Puerto Escondido.
Living on the Beach at Laguna Manialtepec
near Afro-mexican Villiage
Lila: Did you? Well, thats them. They came up to California, but then they just stayed in Mexico. And then the next one is "La Llorona." And it talks about how the Virgin has the same qualities as this ghost, who represents Death, at the same time.
John: Im thinking in terms of your own background of the Old Woman of Ireland, Kathleen Ni Houlihan? She starts as an old woman, but as she calls on the children, and the young men, to enroll in the war, and as they are sacrificed in the war, she grows young and beautiful. Its strange almost a vampire. Living on the blood of the young men.
Lila: Oh, thats strange .
John: Perhaps Llorona is crying out of some kind of guilt?
Lila: Thats interesting . I think thats true.
John: Shes lost her children, of course.
Lila: She kills her own children, you know. Are you familiar with that novel, that Toni Morrison novel, called, "Beloved"?
John: Im afraid Im not.
Lila: Its the same kind of a story, where a black woman kills her two children. She doesnt want them to be slaves, and nobody ever understands her, they think shes crazy. She does have her pride .
John: Has the old Woman of Mexico lost her children to immigration?
Lila: You mean, is that way of looking at it ? Yes, possibly .
John: Because Ireland has lost millions of people, over the past hundred years, to immigration.
Lila: Right, right .
John: So in that mourning sense. Apart from being a figure to scare the children "Dont go too far from home or shell get you"?
Lila: Oh. Right, yes.
John: Is that the reason why "La Llorona" is the climax of your concept album?
Lila: Oh yes. Shes important at the border. And in the Chicano community, in the Latino community that comes thro, and crosses the border.
John: Probably in other communities shes different in California from the Rio Grande versions.
Lila: Yes. She is. Shes very different . Thats interesting .
Paul: Lila also sings this song, well be singing it in this "Frida" movie that were doing for Miramax next year, with a director from New York, her name is Julia Taymor; shes worked with "The Lion King" on Broadway. Very interesting. Its with commercial people like Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas.
John: How terrible, you might even make money. [Laughter] Whos this "Frida"?
Lila: Frida Kahlo. That was married to Diego Rivera. They were in the Communist party, they were strong Communist members, followers of Trotsky, actually lived very close to where we now live, and her life is very interesting. Hopefully, her story will come out, and her story will be known by the world, and I think thats important.
Paul: Do you know Frida Kahlo, do you know her images?
John: Jamie does, Im sure.
Jamie: Well, I was a fine arts major, so.
Lila: Ah very interesting!
Jamie: In fact, when we were in Oaxaca, I was doing some painting, in the month we were down there, and my painting has always been abstract, but I couldnt do any abstract painting there, I said, "I cant paint about Mexico, I dont know anything about Mexico, so I was doing very literal paintings, and I did a painting of a little girl, everyone who looks at it says, "Oh, it looks like her!" Now, it doesnt, but you know
Lila: Yes, but when you know Mexico, everybody looks like that, right? There are hundreds of women who look like that, because we wear our traditional clothing, and braids, but you know, everyone needs to know that, right?
Little Girl in Oaxaca City
John: My hunch about Mexico is, "I think I got it, I think I got it I dont got it!"
Lila: [Laughs] But I think, you know, the visual thing, its very European, very psychological, its not exactly a Mexican thing in the arts of Mexico. Right?
Paul: And usually in the Diego paintings, theres a kind of musical narrative. Even the later guys, like Tamayo, are more like spiritual.
Jamie: Right. Right. We were in Oaxaca, we were there when Morales died, right afterwards, and we that show, the retrospective, and it was a beautiful show.
Paul: Yes that roomful of pillars? Did you get to see that?
Lila: No, I never did.
Jamie: It really was beautiful. He gave a lot back. I thought about your concert, and it seemed very important.
Lila: Right. Its a big responsibility we have. For one another.
John: It seems to be assumed, or expected, that one gives back to the community. Is that your sense?
Lila: Yes, in my Indian sense, and also in Minnesota, which is curious, because it doesnt come there from the Mexican background, where it does seem as if its everyone for themselves, which may be the cause of a lot of problems, which may be another story, but in Minnesota, you do things together as a community, you pick up after yourself. You dont rely on this hierarchy to do things for you.
John: Is it Lutheran? [Laughs]
Lila: It is, I do believe that it is. [Laughs]
John: We were listening to Garrison Keillor on the way over, perhaps a re-broadcast, News from Lake Woebegon, about Lutheran churchwomen.
Jamie: We have friends who lived in Minnesota, and hes black and shes white, and this was a while ago, and they just loved it there, they say it was one of their favorite places to live, and they said the people there were so helpful, one day he was having trouble wiring a two-way switch, and the next day all these people showed up to help I mean, where else would people do that for you?
Lila: Thats Minnesota for you [Laughs]
John: Whats your next project? Apart from the film, "Frida"?
Lila: Were hoping to continue to do something in the line of interest that we have had, collect pieces from Southern Mexico, and also do our own compositions in English and in Spanish. Im writing a piece that talks about marijuana, but in Spanish, right now, its done in the traditional form of the "Chilena," so its not going to be a pop or a pop-influenced piece. What else are we doing? Were doing some "huapangos" and also you know, lately Ive been interested in looking back to my Scottish side, and I want to investigate and see what it is that we do, I mean its been a while since we
Paul: Yeah, we wanted the band to wear kilts, but they got a little rebellious [Laughter]
Jamie: They should go to Scotland and have your brother Bill show them around.
Lila: Right! [Laughs] Right!
John: My brothers very big on Scotland. Our friends go over there, and he shows them around.
Lila: Id love to do that sometime.
John: What is the Scottish background in your family, again?
Lila: Well, my fathers name came thro from there "Allen," right and I dont know which side it came thro, the mothers or the fathers side and then theres Downs, and I remember seeing a book one time that dated back -- I dont know what happened to the book, but I really want to look into it.
John: I always thought of Downs as strictly Irish, but who knows, theres such a lot of travel back and forth from Scotland to Ireland and back.
Lila: Really? But that would be a good thing to really investigate.
John: Are there any festivals or recordings coming thro? After you get thro with this exploration into the Scots-Irish?
Lila: Definitely. Because Id like to come more to the US.
Jamie: I just think the uillean pipes would go well with the band.
John: Or the Northumbrian small-pipes. Not the great Highland bagpipes [Laughter] How would you feel about that, Paul playing the Northumbrian small-pipes?
Lila: [Laughing] Yeah, Paul how about that? [Giggling]
Paul: Yes, its just what I was thinking of! [Laughter] Well, we gotta be thinking of going. Weve gotta get the van and all that?
John: Well, thanks very much for your time.
Lila: Thank you.
John: Its been really pleasant for us. Will you be back up in the US soon, do you think?
Lila: were coming back in November, to Philadelphia actually playing at the Museum of Art.
Paul: The one where Rocky went up the steps?
John: Jamies first job when we were married was as an accountant, at the Museum of Art.
Jamie: They hire you if you have an art degree there I mean, I count on my fingers, but they hired me as the Museum Shop accountant! [Laughter]
Paul: Did you study art in Philadelphia?
Jamie: No, in Kutztown. And he was teaching at La Salle, which is why we moved to Philadelphia.
Lila: What were you teaching there?
John: I was a medievalist. So I was teaching mostly tech writing. [Laughter]
Jamie: Not at La Salle you werent. You were teaching a lot of good stuff at La Salle.
John: Good school. So will you be playing for La Casa de Mujeres next February?
Lila: Yeah. Yeah, we will.
John: So we might see you there again, I hope.
Paul: Its an annual thing that were going to be doing.
Jamie: Weve got a grandchild being born around February 9th, and we plan to go to Oaxaca for three months this year, but we wanna be here when the grandchild is born?
Lila: Aww !
John: But it would be nice to see you in Oaxaca. So well see .
[And the usual bustle of getting up from the table and all that. OK, we could trim a couple of things here. But are these sweet kids or what quite apart from the extraordinary talent and intelligence on display here? We really enjoyed talking with them, and hope you did too. I think thats pretty much the gist and general flavor of it all, and a good beginning to the "New Series" of interviews from The Digital Folk Life, to supplement the "Old Series" from the original magazine, The Folk Life. Thank you, Lila and Paul, for your courtesy and patience, and we hope you enjoyed it as much as we did.
For further information about Lila Downs and Paul Cohen, please go to their website, or check with Narada Records, for tour information, reviews of their recordings, and further background. (There is an excellent review of Tree of Life by Michael Stone on www.rootsworld.com.)]
Diane and Stan of RealOaxaca.Com
at their usual spot on the zocallo