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Lila Downs adds a political touch to the traditional bolero

Singer Lila Downs.
Singer Lila Downs.
Singer Lila Downs.
Recording artist Lila Downs performs onstage during the 2016 Latin American Music Awards at Dolby Theatre on October 6, 2016 in Hollywood, California.
Mike Windle/Getty Images

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Mexican-American singer Lila Downs became well-known after she appeared in Julie Taymor's “Frida” in 2002, and her performance of a song from that film on the Academy Awards. 

Over the course of her career, she has always engaged in political issues. Last September, during the U.S. presidential campaign, Downs wrote a song called “The Demagogue." It was her critique of then-Republican candidate Donald Trump. After the song was released as a single and "nothing came of it," Downs says she was both depressed and angry:

"Sometimes being explicit isn’t very useful. That’s what I felt when we wrote “The Demagogue.'"

Downs then wrote a song called “Envidia” — “Envy,” which she performs with Argentine rocker Andrés Calamaro on her new album, “Salón Lágrimas y Deseo (Salón, Tears and Desire”).

After getting angry because people hate us, because we’re racially inferior to them, well, you know what I think of you? I think you’re envious of me. That’s what you are. You may be white, but you know what! You don’t know how to dance! Hahahaha! And I’m being very confrontational about that in this song and I really do think it’s about envy.

It’s in the aftermath of the U.S. election that Downs decided to make an album focused on romantic songs called boleros. These are ballads that are considered standards and are very popular in every Spanish-speaking country. 

But Down's boleros are not love songs. She says her collection is related to the way people are feeling today in Mexico, where she lives. She says the messages in the songs are political and universal in a profound way. 

The bolero called "La Mentira" (The Lie) speaks about the relationship between a politician and a person who helped elect him:

At the end, it says, Well, no problem, you can just leave and pretend like we have no relationship here, because this promise that we have is based on a lie, right? And it says, You can just go, because God is not involved in this decision.

Downs says at the center of the violence in Mexico, is the loss of basic moral values:

People don’t have a conscience and have no sense of what’s right or wrong. Of course, not everyone. What I mean is that the violence has gotten stronger and stronger, the presence of the violence in this country. And it starts to make you wonder whether we’re going to be able to live our lives the way we have been living them. It’s really scary.

In the ballad called “Seguiré mi viaje" (I will continue my trip), Downs says it’s the voice of an immigrant who travels back-and-forth between Mexico and the United States:

The lyrics say, Oh, so now you think you’re superior, you’re above me and I’m beneath you? But you know what? I don’t care, I’m going to continue on my trip, which I love, because seguiré mi viaje is a very hippie kind of [term] — Your trip, you’re going to continue your trip. And what I feel is that it’s the paisanos you know, coming back and being strong and saying, I’m going to continue my trip, no matter what.

Despite the backlash against immigrants in the U.S., Downs is hopeful. Her new album opens with a song called “Urge.” The voice of the immigrant makes a plea:

“With my heartbreak, I’m just kind of rolling around like a rolling stone, I really just need somebody to listen to my failures and my successes.”

Downs says now is a great opportunity to show who the immigrants from Latin America are. After all, they’re just like others who came here before, in search of a better life.

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