The concert began with a crash; the band rushed on stage at 10:15 P.M. and immediately began playing, the drummer literally falling into his drums. When Lila Downs followed shortly thereafter, the crowd erupted with cheers and shot up from their chairs in anticipation of her signature blend of Mexican and American music.
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One of the foremost international female Latin performers, Lila’s beautiful and energetic interpretations of traditional Mexican music last brought her to Chile in 2006 for the inaugural ceremony of President Michelle Bachelet. This time around, Downs and her six-person band floored the almost packed Teatro Oriente on December 6, 2008.
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An auditorium full of comfortable seats, a classy balcony, and the signature red curtain made this the perfect venue… for a play.
With an auditorium better equipped for Shakespeare than the movement-inspiring Downs and ticket prices starting at a relatively expensive CP$15,000 (US$23), the average age of the crowd ended up hovering around 45. Also damning was that the entire venue was seated, thus leaving no room for dancing which, despite their aged bodies, the audience was clearly dying to do.
And, on top of all of this, THERE WAS NO BAR.
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Despite these setbacks, Downs was a hit. She was the personification of her music: her dark black hair and high cheekbones showed her Oaxacan heritage.
Along with flashes of shapely legs beneath a flowery skirt, a coquettish smile combined with visible strength gave her a femininity equal to her lyrics.
They tore through the first song, a fast-paced Mexican number, before launching into the second.
"I want to sing to you from my heart of politics, and love, and women; strong women, but first a Rancherita!” Downs told the crowd, prefacing the first song of the night: a fast-paced Mexican ballad.
Though beads of sweat showed on her neck after the song, Lila's energy never waned. She utilized the entire stage, dancing wildly, throwing her arms above her head during rhythmic Mexican tap dances, and falling on her knees when overcome by the emotion in sadder melodies.
The band kept up without a problem. The Chilean drummer, whose nationality made him a crowd favorite, switched from the drum set to a box drum on more traditional songs. The harpist played like a wild 1920's jazz musician, hammering and plucking at a frantic pace and, with one crazed yet lyrical solo, transformed the instrument's traditionally "refined" image forever. Congas and bass formed a solid backing for the group, while the guitarist and horn player led the melodies masterfully.
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At one point Lila was joined onstage by Chilean/Brazilian singer Joe Vasconcellos for a duet that, despite his famed reputation, was not greatly enhanced by his presence.
One of the most impressive songs she performed was "La Llorana," based on a Mexican folk story about a beautiful yet tragic woman whose ghost is forever weeping. A man in the front row, whose own singing almost drowned out a mic'd Downs, looked close to tears himself when she sang part of the song to him. The Chilean super-fan and his Mexican wife turned out to be celebrating their ten-year wedding anniversary, undoubtedly adding to the romance of the moment.
The concert filled the formal building, if only for a short time, with the vibrant emotions that surge through Lila's music.
Despite being the last stop on a tour supporting her new album “Shake Away”, the energy never faded throughout the two hours and two encores—both following standing ovations.
"I just want to say we love you,” Downs said just before leaving. “And we will always return to Chile."