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The sounds of Mexico, old and new

Lila Downs, shown in May, honors her Mexican heritage. Lila Downs, shown in May, honors her Mexican heritage. (Borja Suarez/reuters)

One of the joys of video-sharing websites like YouTube is that you can experience musicians you never got to see and never will. If you're under 30 and you like traditional Mexican music, chances are you never caught the late great Lola Beltrán, or the octogenarian firebrand Chavela Vargas in her prime.

But you don't need to when there's Lila Downs, who opened the Museum of Fine Arts' Concerts in the Courtyard series Wednesday night with a vibrant set steeped in the past with an eye toward the future of Mexican music. (So much for the courtyard: Brisk temperatures moved the show inside to the sold-out Remis Auditorium.)

Downs is a Mexican-American singer-songwriter who spellbinds with the ferocious sweep of her voice, which is informed both by formal operatic training and a keen knowledge of her Oaxacan musical heritage. One minute she's plumbing a deep baritone, the next she's pinching it into a nasally falsetto, and then she's hitting a piercing high note.

There's more to her than sheer force, though. Downs knows her history, but she's just as determined to put her own contemporary spin on it.

How else to explain the opening "El Relámpago"? With her crack seven-piece band warming up the audience, Downs bolted from the side door and danced and twirled herself onstage. A giant video screen projected color-dappled images of Mariachi musicians and later Downs dancing in the desert. It was a fitting accompaniment for a song whose title means "The Lightning Bolt."

On the searing protest song "Pastures of Plenty/This Land Is Your Land," Downs turned the Woody Guthrie classic into a forum on immigration, asking, "When did you come to America?" Her message was especially pointed as video images of migrant farm workers suddenly morphed into scenes of bountiful crops.

The show's pacing, however, could have used some fine-tuning. The segue from the folky "Never Turn My Back" to a souped-up, R&B version of "La Cucaracha" was particularly jarring.

The notion of past and present came full circle with the showstopping "Paloma Negra," a beloved Mexican standard made famous by both Beltrán and Vargas. As Downs's voice swelled into a great ranchera roar, all suspended notes thrust from her chest, the evening's build-up finally blossomed. If only it had been recorded for YouTube.


Lila Downs

At: Museum of Fine Arts, first set, Wednesday