Building Community Across Centuries and Borders: Arturo O’Farrill Brings “Fandango at the Wall” to Frost Amphitheater
Arturo O'Farrill and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra bring O'Farrill's project Fandango at the Wall to Frost Amphitheater. Photo courtesy of Arturo O'Farrill
About three centuries ago, the son jarocho emerged in the part of the world that we now know as Mexico and the southwestern United States. Its vibrant, soaring melodies and driving rhythms were forged in the collision of African, Indigenous, and European cultures at a time when Stanford University’s campus lay upon a land that was a part of “New Spain.”
Now rooted on both sides of the Rio Grande, the son jarocho has survived the births of new nations, and today, on both sides of the United States’ southern border, informs tunes from the folkloric to the rock and rolling. One of its most iconic tunes, “La Bamba”—a title that clearly belies its Afro-Mexican origins—made its way to the hearts of new generations of listeners in the rock versions by California’s own Ritchie Valens in the 1950s and Los Lobos in the 1990’s. The music has accompanied the development of a Mexican and Latin American identity in states such as California, where the names of its streets and towns, its architecture, and its people also bear witness to the state’s history.
Fandango at the Wall shares pianist, composer, bandleader, educator, and activist Arturo O'Farrill’s re-envisioning of the son jarocho in synergy with his Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. The performance will also share the ongoing fruits and joyful spirit of O’Farrill’s participation in the 11th Fandango Fronterizo, a fandango—community jam and dance session—that gathers musicians every year on both sides of the border wall between Tijuana and San Diego.
This vital, participatory music is one of his favorite genres, says O’Farrill. As a Mexican-born, New York City-raised artist, he feels an “... immense sense of pride in the culture, and [in] being able to share this incredible beauty and the grace and the joy with which people live in the midst of a situation that is not easy for anyone.”
At the same time, O'Farrill’s musical vision creates new connections. The performance includes the luminaries of the Conga Patria Son Jarocho Collective led by Jorge Francisco Castillo, playing alone and weaving magic in interaction with the polished flair of O’Farrill’s Grammy Award-winning orchestra. Percussive beats and call-and-response patterns that bear witness to the legacy of enslaved persons combine with timbales. Son jarocho’s small European-influenced stringed instruments are strummed in dialogue with the orchestra’s lush horns. Luminous melodies that reflect flamenco’s Arab melismas and share the natural world of the daily life of Indigenous peoples are deployed against O’Farrill’s sophisticated, brilliant piano chords.
Along the way, a new synergy is created. The very orchestrated big band setting will not hamper son jarocho’s unstructured spirit, says O’Farrill, nor the spontaneity, energy and magnetism of the moment of creation. “We found quite the opposite. We find that the big band setting energizes the musicians somehow—they're listening to the horns and percussion around them and they're having fun. Then they return that energy and that enthusiasm [and] the Afro Latin jazz [is] amplified and magnified. And in the process, they create a third entity that is neither Latin jazz nor son jarocho.”
O’Farrill also notes that the Villalobos Brothers—a virtuoso, Juilliard-trained violinist trio originally from Mexico—will join the orchestra along with invited son jarocho luminaries on stage. So, in these performances, he is also proud of erasing another wall, the one that separates folk art from so-called “higher art.”
Alberto Villalobos, Humberto Flores, Luis Villalobos, and Ernesto Villalobos of the Villalobos Brothers will join O'Farrill and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra on the Frost stage. Photo by Mariana Osorio
“This questioning [of] the canon is not necessarily denigrating the canon,” O’Farrill says. “You're talking about dethroning what we've held up as the highest values and musicality, and that's important to do because you can choose to be a Bach specialist. But you may not declare Bach the center of musical excellence.”
And so, in rich iterations and evolving across time, the son jarocho continues to be a faithful musical companion to artists and revelers, holding space for communities where borders disappear in the creation of art. It has even made it to the stars—the famed Golden Record compiled by Carl Sagan with humankind’s finest tunes sent into space on Voyager carries a recording of a son jarocho classic called “El Cascabel.”
The music’s journey, however, is not ending. New frontiers remain to be traversed by O’Farrill, sharing the message of synergy, resilience, unity, and creating community through the music—he’s already considering how to bring the fandango project to connect peoples around different sets of walls, perhaps such as those along the Israeli-Palestinian border or the demilitarized zone at Guantanamo.
O’Farrill muses with anticipation about these possibilities. “We get to preach this beautiful inclusion. That’s the central tenet of my life, to destroy these walls, and this privilege. There's so much beauty in so many cultures and so many sounds and sights and smells and colors and flavors. It’s divine. And for me that's a little bit of what I think would constitute heaven—to be available to all of it and be open to all of it.”
Catalina Maria Johnson is a Chicago-based music journalist. She hosts and produces the radio program Beat Latino and has written for NPR Music, NPR's Arts & Culture Desk, Billboard, Downbeat, Bandcamp, and The Chicago Reader.
Fandango at the Wall
Arturo O'Farrill and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra
with special guests the Villalobos Brothers
Wed, October 13