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Esther J. Cepeda

Esther J. Cepeda

Posted: September 29, 2008 01:44 PM

Freedom From Frida: an Interview With Singer Lila Downs


Lila Downs burst into the big time after her star turn as the sultry singer who serenades Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in Salma Hayek's 2002 biopic Frida.

Her deep, sexy voice belted out many of the songs on the Academy Award nominated soundtrack and put her center stage with Caetano Veloso for a performance of the Original Song nominee "Burn It Blue" by Elliot Goldenthal and Julie Taymor at the 75th Oscars.

Like the haunting, primal sounds that accompanied the life story of the thickly-browed Kahlo, the thickly-browed Downs had been, until recently, haunted by her own resemblance to the famous artist.

Her peasant dresses, Mexican torch songs, and traditionally-braided hair were her signature for years, but if you've seen her lately, you probably didn't recognize her. With the release of her newest CD, Shake Away, the 40-year-old songstress has let her hair down, pulled her hemlines up, and is making a case for Mexicans 2.0.

Shocked by her phoenix-like rebirth, and fearing for the feelings of the bluehouse girls who'd show up for her September 30 performance in Chicago at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Millennium Park - wearing green ribbons in their hair and dainty shawls only to be disappointed - I talked to her about her new look and new outlook on life.


I was sorry to hear you fell into a drinking depression upon finding out you'd never have kids. It spurred you to reassess your life and reinvent yourself into a mini-skirt wearing hottie who's not so thickly-browed anymore. How have young women reacted to that, especially in light of living during a time when there is much pressure to Americanize because of the immigration debate in the United States?


First of all I still find it very important to adapt my traditional clothing on stage and I still wear my braids from time to time. I've always been into combining modern aesthetics with the traditional, but I did pluck my eyebrows - which was a big deal for me because [having natural eyebrows] meant protecting myself as a woman.

What has influenced me in the contemporary "look" is a sexier, "hip-hop" approach to being a woman. Generally we have had positive comments, but a few have criticized it.

But being always compared to Frida Kahlo has been difficult and even the braids are sometimes like a ball and chain.

I think we're stimulated by the renovation of ancient archetypes depending on cycles of our society. I believe we have the need to express our sexuality sometimes more explicitly and sometimes it may be more ambiguous. And I guess I tune into the times the way many artists do.

Setting aside the most outward signals of your rebirth - goodbye beautiful, iconic braids - your music is also screaming that much has changed. On Shake Away, the reggaeton motifs, the still-empowered but forward-looking lyrics, and your collaborations with new artists like Raul Midon - one of my very favorites - and Ruben Albarran of Café Tacuba, seem livelier, happier than your previous albums.

All that said, what I felt when I heard these songs was a great sense of honoring yesterday, today and tomorrow all at once. Tell me about being able to cherish the past while embracing the future.


I believe there are symbols - such as the snake - that can lead us to question our feelings about what they represent. In most cultures snakes are feared. But if we look into the reason we feel fear, maybe we can conquer it.

The future holds so many enriching, cross-cultural experiences! By nature we are curious about others - if we can lose our fear we can learn to appreciate each other in a more loving way.


So you see fear and change going hand in hand...you certainly must have felt fear about being forced to change your view of yourself as a mother when you found out you'd never have any kids. I know how it feels to lose out on the dream to have a child, be left wondering what the point of it all is, and emerge from the experience changed. How did coping with all that change your life as an artist? Does creating music and performance now hold a different emotional place for you?


Yes, I think everything I do is about the next step. You hold on to the lifeline, you celebrate as much as your body permits, and you sing to the river and the moon with every vibration in your bones, and you listen to your heart - trying to convey the strength that a loss gives you.


Regardless of your clothes or your choice of musical style, you are a role model; a wildly successful Mexican-American woman who has walked a fine line between two cultures, between two different generations, between two languages and, recently, between two Lilas.

Aside from the personal loss, I think most Latinos in the United States - and certainly beyond our borders, too - can really relate to those dualities. It's tough being immersed in American culture - and deeply desiring to be a full participant in it - while retaining our links to our parent's land, especially now that there's just so much simultaneous presidential vote pandering and immigrant hating swirling around.

We don't all have curanderas with special teas to help us find our way. What is your message to all the young Latinos out there who haven't yet figured out how to balance it all?


Do not be ashamed of who you are! If who you are is not clear, be honest and be humble about learning your story.

Once you know more about who you are, and why you look the way you look, and why you feel the way you feel, be patient - you will find pride which will make you strong.

Follow Esther J. Cepeda on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@ejc600words