Mexican songstress Lila Downs intrigues me. In fact, I can relate to her, in a sometimes eerie sort of way.
Downs left her home in the state of Oaxaca for the big city and schooling at a U.S. university, an experience that only boosted her appreciation of her Native American roots.
Likewise, I was born in Indian Country, USA, though I’m white. In fact, I was technically born on a reservation. And this corporate shithole called Seattle really makes me appreciate my dual roots – in rural, white South Dakota and in the Native American culture I can never truly be a part of. One of the few bright spots in this urban Hell is one of my favorite restaurants, La Carta de Oaxaca.
Downs, who describes herself as a melancholy person, is very focused on social issues – which doubtless explains her melancholiness. I know the feeling well.
Authentic Jewish Music
The amazing thing is she’s married to a Jew. When I first learned that shocking news, I wondered if she supports Israel or – God forbid – has even performed there. I haven’t yet learned the answers, though she did perform in the Latino Inaugural Ball for President Obama, one of history’s greatest monsters. (To understand my current obsession with Jews, please see Jews 101.)
This begs the question: Is Lila Downs genuine, or is she ultimately a fraud, similar to the voice of the 60’s, Bob Dylan?
Of course, there are good Jews – or at least Jews that aren’t complete Zionist assholes. I was shocked years ago when I discovered that the artist who introduced me to Latin music (albeit commercialized) is Jewish. I still love Herb Alpert’s music, even after discovering “authentic” Latin music.
Lila Downs’ songs, with their very obvious Jewish influence, can hardly be called authentic. Yet they sound amazingly genuine (and beautiful) compared to the commercialized crap that passes for music nowadays.
I was introduced to Downs in the movie Fados, though I never really discovered her music until 2015 – not long after I had learned the truth about Jews. And just weeks after discovering her awesome talent, I discovered her apparent obsession with death.
Actually, I noticed it earlier when I watched the video Zapata Se Queda (from the album Pescados and milagros), which features several characters representing Dia de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”).
But death really takes a holiday in Downs’ latest album, Balas y Chocolate (“Bullets and Chocolate”). In this video, a rattlesnake introduces viewers to scenes of political violence and environmental destruction, with plenty of dead people in the background. It’s downright apocalyptic.
The sad thing is that it’s also downright familiar. How many countries around the world are not struggling with political corruption and violence? The environmental catastrophe unfolding all around us is so mind-numbing, growing numbers of people are wondering when the final curtain is going to fall. Young people are being forced to confront their mortality at an ever younger age.
So what are we to make of such a frighteningly hopeless video? Is it about fighting back or giving up? Or does it represent some sort of compromise?
Death is very personal for Lila Downs; doctors recently said her husband doesn’t have long to live after diagnosing him with an enlarged heart. Of course, death is never far away in Mexico, a U.S. puppet mired in poverty and political violence. In that spirit, a holiday like Dia de los Muertos could actually serve as a distraction from the grim reality that has become the norm in so many countries.
One recent article quotes Downs, “That’s what Day of the Dead is all about. It’s about remembering loved ones, reflecting on them and how beautiful life is.”
On a more pessimistic note, she also opined, “When tragic things happen, of course, it takes its toll. But we’re so blessed to have music and be able to express our fears, anger, frustration and, in the end, our resignation.”
The last word is a very powerful one. Is resignation just a poetic way of saying “I give up,” or does it simply imply a calm acceptance of things we cannot change?
I’m certainly resigned to the fact that some of biggest heroes – including Che Guevara, Hugo Chavez, Libya’s king of kings, Gaddafi – will never rise from the dead. I’m similarly resigned to the fact that the passenger pigeon, the woolly mammoth and other extinct species will never again be seen among the living. And I know I’ll never see my students again.
But that doesn’t mean we have to resign ourselves to allowing the dark side to continue destroying everything that’s beautiful without a taste of accountability. The people who screwed my students can still be brought to justice, even if it takes a revolution or a band of vigilantes. Corporate headquarters can be blown up.
To paraphrase the best line from the movie 300, “Resignation – now that’s a bit of a problem.”
In summary, I love Lila Downs’ music and her words of social protest, though, in these confusing times it’s hard to know who (if anyone) is genuine. Between her Mixtec roots and my West Dakota roots, I think we have a lot in common, though I envy her for her deeper cultural roots. I’m descended from a bunch of European sodbusters who helped destroy the land; her roots are part of the land.
• Lila Downs sings of life, death and enduring hope (LA Times)
• Lila Downs Confronts Death And Celebrates Life For Dia de los Muertos (OC Weekly blog)