Exclusive: Lila Downs Talks ‘Balas y Chocolate’ & Being Socially Responsible

Exclusive: Lila Downs on New Album ‘Balas y Chocolate,’ Latino Pride & Being Socially Responsible

After a conversation with sociopolitical musician, Lila Downs, a few questions might roam in your mind: a) What am I doing with my life? b) Should I take a trip to my mother country and reconnect with my Latin roots? and c) Is her new album Balas y Chocolate a front runner for best Latin album of 2015? The first two queries are too life altering to attempt to answer but the last one is a quick, resounding “YES!”

Here, the proud Mexicana talks about the inspiration behind her new masterful piece of art and what it means to be Latino today. Read it all in our exclusive interview below:

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You’ve said that your new album, Balas y Chocolate, was inspired by Dia de los Muertos. How so?

Yeah, the Dia de los Muertos is such an important festivity both in Indian life and in Native American life in Mexico and also in Mestizo life. And I thought with what’s happening to us here and not only in Mexico, I think Honduras, El Salvador, you see the news about the difficult times that we’re going through. And in another sense the music is more personal than it has been in my previous albums, I believe, because I also had a little thing with death. My husband has a very serious disease and the doctor said, “Well, you can start saying goodbye.” So that was quite a shock and I think the music is mainly a response to telling myself, “Come on, lets get it together here and be happy and yet look at death in the face.”

Did you find it particularly important to do a Day of the Dead-influenced album, especially, how the ritual is slowly becoming commercialized?

I’m sure that that exists in any place. The human tendency is to make things accessible for all ages, for all ethnicities and genders [Laughs]. But I think it’s interesting because what you’re saying right now is actually kind of an area of analysis in anthropology about how true are we really about celebrating the Day of the Dead in Mexico over time and how authentic is it really. I think that’s a question in general that you can make about culture. In Mexico you can see the differences like on the coast they celebrate in different ways but also have different elements in them, in the Indian communities they have others. I found, in terms of the levels of purgatory and where the cross must go and the salt and these are the different levels that you will take on your way either to heaven or to hell. Each culture and each Mexican American and each group has its own version of it, which I find fascinating.

Listening to “La Patria Madrina” reminds us of Ruben Blades and Willie Colon’s classic, “Plastico.” Did Blades’ songwriting influence it in any way?

I mean he certainly is an influence in terms of his thinking. I know that that song did make a big imprint on me earlier and I remember thinking about it. Whenever I think about I want to write a song about plastic bottles, you know? But then he wrote that song, right [Laughs]? He wrote the song, I mean in another context but still it’s the same kind of song and it’s definitely, probably in my subconscious some place. I think I have been writing songs. The way I see it, people like Diego Rivera that did these amazing murals that narrate who we are. He has like an English person sitting next to a factory worker who has blue eyes and just the contrast of it is interesting to me. I try to evoke that in my songs and I hope that it provokes people to think about who they are and also who they want to be. And that’s my question, I think ultimately from this album. Who do we want to be as Latin Americans? Are we okay with this kind of half-ass legal system that we have and where are we going to in the future?

What compelled you to create such a truthful album?

I think that I looked for metaphors that give me strength and also make me face the truth. “Una Cruz de Madera” is a song about our vision of life and I think that Mexican nature is so beautiful. I will fight for my ideals. When I die all I want is just a wooden cross. That’s all I want. I don’t want people crying. I don’t want any fancy coffins. I just want people to have a party. I think it really describes beauty the way we think through and it’s also so close to mother nature.

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