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Lila Downs At Centennial Hall

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Lila Downs took to the stag
e like a chiltepin—a wild chili pepper known for producing intense heat despite its diminutive size—at Centennial Hall (Thursday, April 28) kicking off the annual Agave Heritage Festival.

Early in the set, horn section ablaze, Downs tore into “Son del Chile Frito”—a track imbued with fiery cumbia rhythms from Al Chile (2019), her latest release—setting the tone for evening. 

A gifted dancer, her body undulated across the stage.

When the body sings, the spirit dances with joy. 

Downs, bedecked in traditional Mexican attire, sang, “Sí que pica el chiltepín, pero sin chile no se vivir.” As the refrain from “Son del Chile Frito” illustrates, despite the chile’s bite, it’s futile to attempt to live without it. 

From there the level of heat, song after song, continued to rise on the Scoville scale. 

Downs’ remarkable voice, combining operatic training and jazz chops, shifted effortlessly from sultry lower registers to an airborne falsetto. As evidenced on “Naila” and “Mirror,” and in particular on “Paloma Negra”—a heartbreaking song filled with desperate longing—where she sustained notes, her impassioned voice dripping with pain, for over eight measures. 

Not a dry eye remained. 

Downs, who grew up in Oaxaca and Minnesota, has lent her voice to political activism and in songs depicting everyday struggles and the plight of working people on both sides of the border. During her performance she paused to dedicate songs to the doctors and nurses, and all of the workers, during the pandemic who’ve sacrificed to care for people “that they don’t even know.” 

“I write about what I see occurring in the world around me.” Downs wrote in a statement, “In this world there is a lot of love and pain, corruption and altruism, comedy and tragedy, exploitation and compassion.” 

Art functioning as a vehicle to reprocess a society’s toxins. 

Towards the end of the show, Downs held the audience spellbound with her rendition of Mexican classics: “Cucurrucucú Paloma” (a huapango-style song written by Tomás Méndez in 1954) and “La Llorona” (a song whose origins are as mysterious as the myth itself). 

A grito, “¡Viva México!” rang out from the crowd, as Downs graciously received flowers and gifts from her adoring audience. 

Y así fue. Like a paloma, perched upon un árbol de la esperanza, Lila Downs awed us with her majesty before once again spreading her wings and taking flight. 

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