Lila Downs is a Mexican-American singer-songwriter and actress. She has become known for creating music that weaves pop music with traditional Mexican song. These indigenous Mexican influences have led Downs to record songs in various native languages including Mixtec, Zapotec, Mayan, Nahuatl and Purépecha.
The musician is influenced by empowering female singers including Chavela Vargas, Mercedes Sosa, Lucha Villa and Amparo Ochoa, and she channels the power of these women through her flamboyant and diverse contributions to the music world. Regularly referencing indigenous styles, her culture and heritage in her work and visual aesthetic, Downs has often cited artist Frida Kahlo as a big inspiration. So much so that Downs performed and recorded several songs as part of the 2002 Academy Award-winning film, Frida starring Salma Hayek as the artist.
Here Downs explains the impact Kahlo has had on her career, the relationship between art and music and why it's important that she acknowledges her indigenous and Mexican roots in everything she does.
When did you discover Frida Kahlo, and what made you take an interest in her work?
When I went to university and studied the symbolism of textiles, I was surprised to discover that she had a Oaxacan Zapotec mother and a father from Germany.
Do you have a favorite painting of hers?
Mi vestido cuelga ahí (My Dress Hangs There), which shows an Oaxacan huipil blouse and skirt hanging in front of a typical New York landscape.
When you first encountered Frida, what was it that set her apart from other artists you knew at the time?
Her exploration of self-portraiture and exaltation of the ego, and her masculine, European features, which contrast with her indigenous huipil blouses; the ease with which she reinvents herself as a Mexican, and as a woman with firm beliefs about culture, as well as her androgynous appearance.
Lila Downs by Marcela Taboada (March 2017) by Marcela Taboada
What does Frida represent to you?
She inspired me to keep exploring my roots through art and music.
What influence has Kahlo had on your creative process?
She gave me the confidence to wear the clothing from my Mixtec and Oaxacan heritage with pride, showcasing the aesthetic my native people.
How would you describe your style of music?
It's the music of my roots combined with modern music.
You have sometimes been compared to Frida. Was any of your aesthetic inspired by her? What is it about Frida that you want to honor?
Obviously, her pride in wearing the braids, and her strength and independence as a woman. She brought the living presence of our indigenous roots to the non-indigenous world. Her art transcended social barriers and is etched into our history. It makes me grateful for the Zapotec woman that she was.
Lila Downs by Lila Downs
Do you think Kalho has influenced other musicians? If so, in what way?
Her work is loved so much because it's universal – everyone can relate to her.
What's the relationship between painting and music? How do they complement each other?
Visual arts can immediately express complex intellectual and emotional ideas, while music can take us to another place spiritually, and be cathartic.
How does your Mexican heritage influence your music and creative projects?
I grew up caught between three cultures: Mexican national, Indigenous Mixtec, and American. I choose to take pride in my indigenous and Mexican roots because I believe they are the ones our society discriminates against.
Lila Downs and horse by Marcela Taboada by Marcela Taboada
How was it being a part of the movie, Frida, and performing some of the songs most associated with her?
It was a great honor to be involved.
Why do you think it's important for artists to know and embrace their roots?
So they can be at peace as a living being.
Why do you think Frida still has an influence on art, music, fashion, and other things?
She saw the obsession with the ego that characterizes our times long ago. Her take on the androgyny is a very appealing aspect of her art. The indigenous huipil blouses that she wore, and the symbolism they carry, are now appreciated for their origins and their significance in our history.
Lila Downs (March 2017)
Lila Downs by Elena Pardo by Elena Pardo