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Lila Downs at BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn

Ernest Barteldes By

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Lila Downs
BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn at Prospect Park
Brooklyn, NY
June 29, 2017

Backed initially by an eight-piece band directed by saxophonist (and husband) Paul Cohen, singer, songwriter and activist Lila Downs began her set with an up-tempo rendition of "Mezcalito," a tune that talks about mezcal, Mexico's lesser-known cousin of tequila. She kept things up-tempo until she got to the classic ballad "Cucurrucu Paloma" written my Mexican songwriter Tomás Méndez in the 1950s that has since been covered by countless musicians, including Downs, Brazil's Caetano Veloso and Harry Belafonte.

Down's delivery was highly emotional, evoking the sadness of the lyrics, which spoke of the grief brought on by the end of a love affair. The current divisive political environment in America was also addressed without mentioning any particular names, and the set inevitably included a rendition of "The Demagogue," a bilingual ranchera that made reference to a politician who swindles unsuspecting voters into supporting him despite his obvious flaws. On the background footage of immigration raids were projected on the big screen as to make clear the lyric's points to those in attendance who didn't speak Spanish.

Downs seemed to go outside her usual comfort zone and played blues and rock-inflected tunes—the band, rounded out by Yayo Serka (drums), Marcos Lopez (percussion), Rafael Gomez (guitar), George Saenz Jr. (trombone), Luis Guzman (bass) , Sinuhe Padilla Isunza (Jarana, Chaquiste, Quijada de Burro), Leo Soqui (accordion, Keys, Jarana), Josh Deutsch (trumpet), Jerzair Vargas (trumpet) and later joined by New York-based Mariachi Flor de Toloache members Kiku Enomoto, Luisa Batista and Christiana Liberto (violins)—had great chemistry together: at one point Deutsch and Vargas started an intriguing improvised duel that drew much applause from the audience. As Downs smiled at them with admiration.

In between songs, Downs often made references of the Americas as a musical melting pot, mentioning the influence that traditional European rhythms like polka or klezmer have had on the music played on this side of the Atlantic, and demonstrated this mix with "Un Mundo Raro," a tune that went in many different directions. The set closed with "Cumbia del Mole," whose lyrics spell out the recipe for the Mexican chocolate-based sauce often served over chicken or beef.

Downs had great energy on stage, and communicated well with the audience, and did not shy from her beliefs on immigration and politics. The arrangements suited her voice perfectly, and it made for a wholly enjoyable experience.

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