Lila Downs celebrates Cinco de Mayo at Hylton Center for Performing Arts

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Entertainment,Music,Emily Cary

The dynamic Mexican-American artist Lila Downs and her band, La Misteriosa, visit the melodies and flavors from the past and present for an unforgettable evening at the Hylton Performing Arts Center. Many of the songs she has chosen to perform are from "Pecados y Milagros," her Grammy Award-winning album that is augmented on an accompanying DVD. Her dazzling interpretations of indigenous Mexican music and those she co-writes with her husband, Paul Cohen, blend classic Mexican songs with folk, jazz, blues and rock.

"Although some of the songs I'll present on this tour are from the CD, others are among those I've been working on for my next album," she said. "The focus of 'Pecados y Milagro' is the sins and miracles that people in Mexico experience. I started composing songs about the difficulties they are having, some that are still taboo to speak about. There is a great deal of violence in the country that affects people in both conscious and unconscious ways. One of the songs, 'Mezcalito' (Little drop of mezcal), was composed by my husband to expose one of the events that involves alcohol and leads to various sins. In contrast, many miracles are expressed in songs like 'Paloma del Comalito' (Dove of Comalito)."

Onstage, Downs is a whirlwind, singing and dancing nonstop with energy and passion, her long, black braids flying. She invests each song with personal drama that propels crowds to respond with boisterous approval. Most members of her band are based in New York City, but they hail initially from Mexico or South America. Their instruments include the guitar, trombone, trumpet, saxophone, harp, accordion and percussion. Downs plays the guitar, drums and guiro as she keeps time with her feet in the native dances. When she dons boots with heels, one hears an echo of Spanish gypsy and flamenco styles.

The DVD, filmed in a Mexico City venue that holds 10,000, is a giant version of her typical show.

Onstage
Lila Downs
» Where: Hylton Center for Performing Arts, Merchants Hall, 10960 George Mason Circle, Manassas
» When: 7 p.m. Sunday; pre-performance discussion by company members
» Info: $28 to $44, half-price tickets for youth through grade 12; 888-945-2468; hyltoncenter.org

To illustrate her concert visually, Downs commissioned a series of retablos, Mexican devotional paintings. Each makes a personal connection with one of her songs, be it a lesson of morality or an account of one of life's great tragedies. A video artist accompanies the tour to oversee the multimedia art display represented in song.

Color bathes the set as the revolving lights illuminate her stunning gowns. While a student of anthropology, Downs studied textiles. Her knowledge allows workers to re-create magnificent outfits to her specifications. Each is enhanced by a scarf, or rebozo, that has great significance. Whether the weaving is plain or complicated, the effect is to make every woman wearing one more graceful.

"The rebozo is hand-woven and is part of every Mexican woman's identity," she said. "It's a great companion through life from infancy, when you are cuddled by one, until death. There is a rebozo for special times in life, such as the one that represents your union in marriage. It's not only a symbol of womanhood, but also of being Mexican. The natives have been weaving them since the colonies were established to show who was Spanish and who was native."

Downs launched this tour at the University of Minnesota to celebrate the life of her late father, Allen Downs, a filmmaker and professor of art. During one of his trips to Mexico, he met her mother, a singer, and they fell immediately in love. Their daughter, born in a mountainous village in Oaxaca, was raised in Minneapolis. She owes her influences and talents to her mother's heritage and love of music and her father's quest for knowledge.

"His greatest gift to me was his constant yearning for freedom of the mind," she said. "In life, we set up rules, but he was anti-rules. He believed that if you go down one path and make a mistake, it is possible to then go down another path to success."

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Emily Cary

Special to The Washington Examiner
The Washington Examiner