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Live in the DN Studio: Mexican Singer Lila Downs Protests U.S. Immigration Policy & Covers Manu Chao

Web ExclusiveMay 03, 2019
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“If we don’t fight for the children, what will become of us?” That is the question posed by the acclaimed Mexican singer Lila Downs in her stirring new cover of Manu Chau’s classic song “Clandestino.” In the video for the song, Lila Downs features images of U.S. detention centers holding migrants who had crossed the border. The song is one of many highlights on Downs’s new album—her ninth—titled “Al Chile,” which she recorded in Mexico City, Brooklyn, Oaxaca (where she was born) and even on a farm in Juchitán. Lila Downs is a six-time Grammy Award-winning singer and she joins us to perform and talk about her new album.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from, well, today, our music studios. And we’re here with the acclaimed Mexican-American Mexican singer Lila Downs. And she has a new CD out, and it’s called Al Chile.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

LILA DOWNS: Yeah, thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us.

LILA DOWNS: Thank you so much.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we get into the meaning of the title of your CD, I wanted to ask you about “El Clandestino,” which certainly takes on new meaning every year.


AMY GOODMAN: Out in 1998, decades ago, Manu Chao’s song.


AMY GOODMAN: But talk about what it means.

LILA DOWNS: Well, I guess, I think it’s important to always remember what immigration means. And over 10,000 years ago, people came over the Bering Strait and populated this continent. And I think that those of us who have felt that we are connected to this kind of life, I guess we need to be reminded by wonderful songs such as “Clandestino,” Manu Chao piece.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does clandestino mean? I mean, “clandestine” translated into English—


AMY GOODMAN: —but more than that.

LILA DOWNS: Right. Well, it’s an “illegal,” basically. And “illegal,” I think, it’s a tough word. It’s a tough word to deal with.

AMY GOODMAN: To call a human being.

LILA DOWNS: A person, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: An “illegal.”

LILA DOWNS: Yeah. I think, for me, when I saw these videos about the children in the detention centers, that’s when I really broke down, and I thought, “I need to say something, once again, about this.” On every album, I devote a piece to immigration, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: As we’re doing this interview today, we got news that yet another child has died in immigration custody in this country. Once again, a Guatemalan, today, a teenager, we learned, a 16-year-old boy—so far his name has been withheld—died of an infection in his brain—

LILA DOWNS: Oh my goodness.

AMY GOODMAN: —as he was being held by immigration. Your thoughts?

LILA DOWNS: Such sad, inhumane situation. I think that, hopefully, we can write more songs, we can change legislation, and we can make people more aware of these difficult times towards immigrants.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you share the words of “Clandestino” in English?

LILA DOWNS: Yeah. Well, it says, ”Sola voy con mi pena,” “I am alone with my baggage, or my pain.” It can be interpreted as both. ”Sola va mi condena,” “This is my destiny.” ”Correr es mi destino,” “To run is constantly my destiny” in order to be illegal. It’s very simple, really. Very strong, very powerful song.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Lila Downs. Can you talk about the power of music to transform society? When you’re feeling utterly frustrated, as you cross the border from Mexico—you live in Oaxaca—to the United States and back again—


AMY GOODMAN: —so many are being detained.

LILA DOWNS: Yeah, it’s really difficult for me because it’s painful. It’s about being feeling towards the U.S. and feeling towards—empathy towards people who who come here and feel like this is their home, their adopted home. And I guess that I have always had such admiration for the U.S. I think the U.S. is a tremendously amazing place. And so it’s sad to see this other side, that has, you know, anger and a kind of a vengeance that I feel is not a civilized way of dealing with immigration.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to “Clandestino” by Manu Chao, sung by Lila Downs, right here in Democracy Now!’s studios.

LILA DOWNS: I’d like to introduce the band. So this is Ron Wilkins from San Antonio, Texas, on trombone; Josh Deutsch from Seattle on trumpet; Mr. Juancho Herrera on guitar, from Venezuela and New York City; Samuelito Torres on percussion, from Colombia and New York City; on bass, Mr. Rafa Gómez, from Venezuela and New York City; and Sinuhé Padilla on jaranas and voice, from México, Ciudad de México.

[singing] Sola voy con mi pena
Sola va mi condena
Correr es mi destino
Para burlar la ley

Perdida en el corazón
De la grande Babylon
Me dicen clandestino
Por no llevar papel

Pa’ una ciudad del norte
Yo me fui a trabajar
Mi vida la dejé
Entre Tijuana y Bagdad

Soy una raya en el mar
Fantasma en la ciudad
Mi vida va prohibida
Dice la autoridad

¿Que será de nosotros?
Si no besamo los niños

Sola voy con mi pena
Sola va mi condena
Correr es mi destino
Para burlar la ley

Perdida en el corazón
De la grande Babylon
Me dicen clandestina
Yᴏ sᴏy La Qᴜiebra Ley

Venezolano ¡Clandestinᴏ!
Colombiano ¡Clandestinᴏ!
Sonorense ¡Clandestinᴏ!
Borderiza ¡Ileɡal!

Sola voy con mi pena
Sola va mi condena
Correr es mi destino
Para burlar la ley

Perdida en el corazón
De la grande Babylon
Me dicen clandestino
Yo soy La Quiebra Ley

Peruano ¡Clandestino!
Hondureño ¡Clandestino!
Mexicana ¡Clandestina!
Marihuana ¡Ilegal!

Chiapaneca ¡Clandestina!
Guerrerense ¡Clandestino!
Nicaragüense ¡Clandestino!
Salvadoreño ¡Ilegal!

Boliviano ¡Clandestino!
Oaxaqueña ¡Clandestina!
Ecuatoriano ¡Clandestino!
Tapatía ¡Ilegal!

United States of America
Detention Centers
Remember the children

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Lila Downs singing “Clandestino” by Manu Chao, actually written back in 1998, referring to clandestine people, to people who are, quote, “illegal,” and what that means today. Talk about producing this CD and why you call it Al Chile.

LILA DOWNS: Well, I wanted to change the production, kind of go out there and record things in their natural state, and so I looked for Camilo Lara. He’s a producer who has done a number of recordings with both kind of pop and rock and also—what would you say?—the tropical movement from the '70s in Latin America. And I'm so in love with this era. You know, the '70s is something that I'm crazy about. So, it was a wonderful experience. We actually—he was telling me he had to pay over 200 musicians who collaborated on this album. And we recorded some of the tracks in Mexico City, and then we went off to Oaxaca and recorded a Zapotec indigenous band in Juchitán and also in Oaxaca City recorded another band. And together with some classic bands from the ’70s—Rigo Tovar band Costa Azul and also Sonora Tropicana—and with the Instituto Mexicano del Sonido, came up with this kind of mix of influences, both the rural influences of music, you know, brass bands, and also dance bands from the city.

AMY GOODMAN: And why Al Chile, the chili pepper?

LILA DOWNS: Yeah, well, I am in love with this subject right now. Of course, in Mexico, it has double meaning.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s the double meaning?

LILA DOWNS: Well, you know, I think that we’re always joking about chile and chile being a sexual receptacle. So, spice is definitely the center of our lives. And I think that it also explores our character and personality. And so, we love it. And the curious thing is, men have a very different reaction to the phrase, and women just start laughing.

AMY GOODMAN: Lila, can you talk about “Dear Someone,” which features Norah Jones?

LILA DOWNS: Yeah. Oh, it was so fun to meet Norah Jones. We came to New York to record with her in Brooklyn, and she played the piano. And she’s such a natural musical force. And she’s a lovely person, very introspective and sensitive. And she chose this song by Gillian Welch for us to sing. She had a Mexican singer friend who passed a while back, and I think it was kind of an ode or a homage to this friend of hers from Texas.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to “Dear Someone.”

LILA DOWNS: [singing] I want to go all over the world
And start living free
I know that there’s somebody who
Is waiting for me

I’ll build a boat, steady and true
As soon as it’s done
I’m going to sail along in a dream
Of my dear someone

One little star, smiling tonight
Knows where you are
Stay, little star, steady and bright
To guide me afar

Rush, little wind, over the deep
For now I’ve begun
Hurry and take me straight into the arms
Of my dear someone

Hurry and take me into the arms
Of my dear someone
Hurry and take me into the arms
Of my dear someone

AMY GOODMAN: “Dear Someone.” That’s Lila Downs, performing in our studio here at Democracy Now! The album actually features Norah Jones. What’s it like to do these collaborations and also to do this kind of cross-border collaboration? You did it in Brooklyn. You did it in Oaxaca, where you live.


AMY GOODMAN: You did it all over.

LILA DOWNS: Yeah, yeah. Well, I think that it’s so beautiful when you can somehow translate and bring different worlds together, because sometimes there’s a lot of things that are lost in translation. I think that’s an amazing thing, that music can do that, you know? And this album is actually—when people ask me, “Well, you know, how do you feel about it or…?” it’s not—it is a very intuitive album, I think. All the pieces are very, you know, dance-oriented, and I think it wasn’t as inspired by the mind or the heart, but more by the waist on down.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your tattoo, what it says?

LILA DOWNS: Yeah. This was an important tattoo, that I had done a few years back, called—and it says “Respeto,” which means “respect.” And I have realized, after therapy, why I needed to get this done. Yeah, I was feeling a little lost going back to Mexico after living many years outside of Mexico. So, going back to a very traditional community is a difficult thing. But, you know, I love challenges, so…

AMY GOODMAN: You also perform the song “Cariñito.”


AMY GOODMAN: Explain what that means and why this was your choice.

LILA DOWNS: Yeah. Well, “Cariñito” is this beautiful Peruvian cumbia that is written by Ángel Aníbal. And people know this piece from the '70s. And cumbia, you know, takes over all of Latin America. It's a genre, of course, mainly from Colombia and also the Andean—kind of Andean region. And, actually, this cumbia is called an Andean cumbia. And then there are several other pieces that are cumbia classics, like “Los Caminos de la Vida.” And there are also some other classic songs for dance on the album, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to “Cariñito.”

LILA DOWNS: [singing] Lloro por quererte
Por amarte y por desearte
Lloro por quererte
Por amarte y por desearte

Ay cariño
Ay mi vida
Nunca, pero nunca
Me abandones, cariñito
Nunca, pero nunca
Me abandones, cariñito

Lloro por quererte
Por amarte y por desearte
Lloro por quererte
Por amarte y por desearte

Ay cariño
Ay mi vida
Nunca, pero nunca
Me abandones, cariñito
Nunca, pero nunca
Me abandones, cariñito


AMY GOODMAN: That’s “Cariñito,” performed by the six-time Grammy Award-winning Lila Downs. Talk about winning Grammys, one after another after another after another, and what that means, what it does for your music and how—just what it means to popularize your music in two languages, on both sides of the border.

LILA DOWNS: Well, I think that I need to remind myself of it. And then it makes me take myself serious, because I think sometimes I just—I try to be a regular person. And so, in a creative sense, I think it does affect what you do the next time around. And so, it feels like you have a responsibility. In my case, I love to incorporate folk music and, you know, significance and meaning in the songs. And so, you know, it gives me the reason to come up with something more interesting the next time.

AMY GOODMAN: And you also are famous for singing about President Trump. Talk about this. We last spoke right when your album had come out. And now it’s a few years later into President Trump’s term.


AMY GOODMAN: A first term or final term, we’ll see. But talk about what he has meant for you.

LILA DOWNS: Well, I think there is darkness in the world, and I think if you spend too much time focusing on it constantly, that darkness does take over. So, I think that’s why it’s important to find, for myself, projects that make me feel positive about my life and about the future of the country that I’m living in. Right now it’s Mexico. So I feel like, you know, I need to stop focusing on Trump. But I do think that, you know, because of him, Latin Americans have come together. And that is something I’m grateful for.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve also seen the election of AMLO, of Andrés Manuel López Obrador—

LILA DOWNS: Yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —in Mexico. What about that? And do you feel that he is changing Mexico?

LILA DOWNS: I think it’s too soon to say. And things seem a little chaotic, because it’s quite a change. But I think we need to be on top of the change, you know? We need to be careful with how things will be changing, but also not lose faith so quickly.

AMY GOODMAN: “The Demagogue,” talk about writing that song.

LILA DOWNS: Yeah, well, I think when President Trump was elected, I just couldn’t believe what was happening, you know, I think, because in our music and in our lives we have worked so hard to try and kind of cover these gaps of or these bridges, that we were talking about, between people. And then, here comes somebody that just believes in dividing us even more. That was very depressing and difficult for me to deal with, so I had to write a song about it, about the demagogue.

AMY GOODMAN: You didn’t perform it here today, but the last time you were in our studio you performed it.

LILA DOWNS: I did, yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And I want to go to that right now. This is “The Demagogue.” It’s by Lila Downs.

LILA DOWNS: [singing] At the edge of the world
Where the factories are
There’s a burning of hatred
That’s crossing the lines

There’s a blue-eyed devil man,
Thinks he’s king of the world
He’s a bully, a salesman
Selling fear and hate

Who do you think you are?
He plays us with his hate
Turns man against man
But it’s really not a game

And I pray to the ancestors’ love
Do not be fooled by this man’s foolish talk
The serpent woke again
In different times and places
There’s a burning cross
Leading the mob
People in chains
He’s a quack circus act creeping from the past
He’s the symbol of the monster we no longer want to be (what we used to be…)
The earth trembles with these names
Mussolini, Adolp Hitler, Pinochet
No respect for woman, no respect for race
No respect for anything that lives, the human race
But he cannot buy our soul

Voy cortando el odio
Voy sembrando amor

De la explotación
Pero es mi casa
La luz de la mañana
El lugar de mis ancestros
Las flores del desierto

Gonna show that my love
Is much stronger than hate
I’m gonna call on the four winds
I’m gonna change my fate
Gonna rise up singing
Gonna stand for this place
It’s a long time, Mi Gente
And there’s no turning back
There’s no turning back
There’s no turning back

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Lila Downs singing her song “The Demagogue” about President Trump. How have audiences responded to it over these two years?

LILA DOWNS: I think a lot of people were surprised, and especially Latin people were like, “Oh my god, this is pretty direct.” So, yeah, thank you for playing that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, as you now release this album, it’s right around Cinco de Mayo. Talk about the significance of that day and how you hope people will respond, traveling here in the United States, in Europe, in Mexico.

LILA DOWNS: Yeah. Well, you know, I didn’t know about the significance of Cinco de Mayo until I went to a little indigenous community in Puebla Nahuatl. And they spoke Nahuatl and Totonac in this community. And they said to me that during Benito Juárez, when he was the president, he asked for support from the United States, because we were being invaded by the French. And that’s why that is such an important date between the U.S. and Mexico. And they helped, of course, to fight against the French. And so, I was just very surprised. I did not know this. And I am very—yeah, very happy to hear this. One more point that we can be united on some things.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, talk about the wall and what the wall means on both sides of the border, as you travel back and forth, President Trump’s wall, who said Mexico would pay for it. They haven’t. Republicans and Democrats both said no to the wall. And so he simply appropriated $8 billion of taxpayer money and said he’s going to build it anyway.

LILA DOWNS: Oh my goodness. Well, I think we should—we should create art along this area. And I think we should come together and really show that we have love for each other. And I know that I sound like a crazy hippie, but I really do think that that’s the way to deal with something like this. I think we need to show that the border area, everyone is brothers and sisters, and they’re families. And, you know, when you live in that area, you realize that there’s no way that a wall is going to function.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Lila Downs. Six-time Grammy Award-winning songwriter, singer Lila Downs, here in Democracy Now!'s studios. The new album that's just out, in this beginning of May, is called Al Chile. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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