Arturo O’Farrill’s ‘Fandango’ Spans Border To Unify Cultures, Musics

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Bandleader and pianist Arturo O’Farrill’s latest recording, Fandango At The Wall (Resilience Music Alliance), documents his participation in the 11th Fandango Fronterizo, an annual event that gathers musicians on both sides of the border wall between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego for a jam session that builds upon—very importantly—the son jarocho, a venerable 500-year-old Afro-Mexican musical tradition.

Born in colonial Mexico amid the forced collision of indigenous African and Spanish cultures, son jarocho always has been a rebellious music. Denounced by the Spanish Inquisition during the 18th century, its ballads later became a fundamental part of the Mexican Revolution’s song book. Fast-forward a few hundred years, and son jarocho crossed the border and was planted throughout the United States—“La Bamba,” the most popular exemplar of the genre, became familiar to U.S. listeners through versions of the song by California’s Ritchie Valens in the ’50s and Los Lobos in the ’90s. Today, son jarocho music frequently accompanies political protests everywhere from Oaxaca to Wisconsin.

O’Farrill’s renowned Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra along with son jarocho musicians organized by Fandango Fronterizo founder Jorge Castillo, as well as other musicians selected by O’Farrill, came together at the border for the 11th installment of the event in June 2018. The eclectic ensemble of 60 musicians from Mexico and the U.S. also included several from so-called “Muslim-ban” countries. Among the participants were jazz superstars like violinist Regina Carter; cellist Akua Dixon; drummer Antonio Sanchez; Mexican violin trio The Villalobos Brothers; son jarocho greats Patricio Hidalgo, Ramón Gutiérrez Hernández and Tacho Utréra; French-Chilean rapper-singer Ana Tijoux; Iraqi-American oud master Rahim AlHaj and his trio; Iranian sitar virtuoso Sahba Motallebi; and Gabriel García, of the Los Angeles band Changui Majadero, a young musician whose own father tried to cross the border twice before succeeding on the third attempt.

The ambitious Fandango At The Wall project includes two CDs of music and a book on historical and troubled U.S.-Mexico relations. There’s also a documentary focusing on the lives of the son jarocho musicians in the works.

O’Farrill shared his vision for the project, terming it “profoundly moving, deeply complex and probably the greatest project” in which he has been involved.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your vision for the Fandango At The Wall project?

I wanted to break the walls between geopolitical borders, and cultural high and low walls. I also wanted to wreak havoc on the idea that there’s a wall between highly digitized pristine recordings, field recordings and live recording. And so, it was really important to me to be able to have all three mediums at my disposal for the record.

How did the recording come about?

We didn’t record much at the actual Fandango Fronterizo, but we had some ability to record on both sides of the border; it was very difficult though because the customs—the Border Patrol—was only allowing people in for 20-, 25-minute segments. So, there was no real quality control. But we recreated the whole entire Fandango at the cultural center in Tijuana.

Can you talk more about the idea of breaking down walls between genres?

A lot of jazz has taken great pride in these troubled times by nationalizing itself, by demanding that jazz is an American invention and an American classical art form. And that seems to me antithetical to the idea of jazz being a gift, a legacy from a cataclysm called the slave trade. And the greatest, most beautiful lesson in grace and humanity is the fact that—despite the very bloody history, the brutal and violent history of enslavement—we inherited this incredible musical gift that was not born in the U.S., that is part of Africa and then is filtered through the entire New World.

The idea that this somehow pertains to one nation—this music that we call jazz, Latin jazz, Afro-Cuban jazz, Afro-Latin jazz, Afro-Mexican jazz—that any of these labels really pertain to any nation, I really, really feel that that’s one cultural wall I want to destroy. I don’t want to destroy—I just want to blur the borders, so that people don’t feel they have to encamp. So, that people don’t feel they have to declare their allegiance in order to be free to move between different genres in jazz.

When we see the horrifying effect that [the Trump] administration has had on people who insist on nationalizing, insist on segments ... this is a terrible time in our nation’s history and more than ever we need artists who don’t need to affirm themselves by declaring that this is better than the other.

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January 2019
Eric Dolphy
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