In 2008, inspired by the son jarocho music from Veracruz, Mexico, Jorge Castillo, a retired librarian living in Chula Vista, Calif., organized a concert on the Mexico-American border between San Diego and Tijuana.
This gathering of musicians, a cross-border jam session known as the Fandango Fronterizo Festival, has been going strong ever since. Taking place annually on or around Memorial Day, hundreds of people on both sides of the border wall eat, sing and partake in the fandango festivities, the regional folk music strummed on jarana jarocha guitars a joyous celebration of Mexico and its myriad cultures and people.
“We call the fandangos the ride of peace, the route of peace, because every time we come together we are always in friendship, we are always celebrating,” says Castillo, who was born in El Paso, Texas, and raised in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. “Musically, it brings people together at the border. Even the wall brings people together through music. We forget about politics and we celebrate being together. We celebrate unity.
“The fandango brings together people from two countries that have a lot of tension — Mexico and the United States — and we come together in peace and through music.”
A few years back, Arturo O’Farrill, the Mexican-born, New York-reared pianist, composer and founder of the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, read about the fandango in a New York Times article and knew instantly that it could form the basis for a project that “would tear down the human walls made between people.”
“I think I actually cried when I read about it, it just seemed like such powerful and elegant activism,” says O’Farrill, who’s won multiple Grammy awards. “I remember thinking that the power really rests in human beings in unity. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that no matter what governments you live in, it will be run by wicked people or people who are designing the proceedings to benefit the few.
“Democracy, capitalism, socialism — someone is always taking advantage of someone else. And walls will be built and human beings will separate themselves for the purposes of bigotry and hatred and greed. This is the history of the United States. We have lived through [former FBI head J. Edgar] Hoover, we have lived through [President] Nixon, we have lived through McCarthyism. So for me, it’s always been a personal choice for human beings to choose not to hate, and to celebrate life.”
“We are going through weird political times. there’s nativism on the land and xenophobia but there is also … love.”
Thus began “Fandango at the Wall,” a three-tier project — album, book and documentary (in progress) — that responds to the current immigration crisis at the border in a way that’s educational and elucidating, and paints a riveting, nuanced picture of the complex and long-standing relationship between Mexico and the United States.
Four-time Grammy-winner Kabir Sehgal, Rafa Sardina and Doug Davis produced the album “Fandango at the Wall: A Soundtrack for the United States, Mexico and Beyond,” which features O’Farrill and the Latin Jazz Orchestra along with 50 guest musicians recording fandango-inspired songs played live at the U.S.-Mexico border, at the Casa De La Cultura in Tijuana and Power Studios in New York.
“In terms of culture, there are many Mexicos within Mexico. Our project happens to focus on son jarocho,” says Sehgal, who also penned the book “Fandango at the Wall: Creating Harmony Between the United States and Mexico,” which includes a foreword by CNN presidential historian and Rice University history professor Douglas Brinkley and an afterword by ambassador Andrew Young.
“If you read the book, I think people will become more knowledgeable about their local communities,” Sehgal says. “There are tens of millions of Hipanics who live across America in every state, and knowing more about their culture means you’re less afraid of their culture. Mexico is not going anywhere, America is not going anywhere.
“We’ve been friends and foes over many decades and it’s this pendulum that swings back and forth. There’ve been terrible times in which both countries have invaded each other. There’ve been beautiful times of robust trade and tourism. Not only are people going from Mexico to America, but 1 million Americans are going to Mexico. Our economies are interlinked, our faiths are interlinked, so we have to succeed together. And I hope when people read the book they learn that we shouldn’t be demonizing our neighbors; we should be building bridges to act together.”
For Brinkley, who has experienced a “hunger to protest” ever since President Trump was elected, the “Fandango at the Wall” project is a way to dispel bigotry and dissipate the rampant xenophobia trampling over the United States.
“The national conversation is so warped,” says Brinkley, who was also a co-producer on the album. “But you use your tools of your trade. I’m an historian and a musician and those are my two great loves, so when we worked on the ‘Fandango’ project it was an idea of elevating a musical culture and the multiculturalism of the border zone as well as reminding people of the environmental beauty of the area and the complex history of the border and also of Texas history. ”
Brinkley urges Americans to “read the real history of the border, to go and see it for yourself, and don’t follow bombastic rhetoric,” and considers the project another means through which we, as thoughtful American citizens, can defy the poison of hatred and bigotry and express our collective admiration for Mexico and its people.
“I wanted people that are of Mexican-American heritage or people in Mexico or all of Latin America to know that most Americans love them,” says Brinkley. “We are going through weird political times. There’s nativism on the land and xenophobia, but there is also all sorts of love for Mexican people and culture. Our countries have histories that are so intertwined and it saddens me to think that somebody who is a recent arrival here or a dreamer might think that our country is kind of touting white supremacy or echoing Donald Trump or Charlottesville when he refused to fully denounce the neo-Nazis.
“Educationally, we hope the project introduces people to different types of music, teaches them what the fandango is and the music out of Veracruz, Mexico. And in a larger sense, we hope this gets them to think about the border in a different way. When you hear about the Mexican-U.S. border don’t immediately picture a fence, but picture a beautiful ecosystem of the Rio Grande and its environs.
“It’s a small contribution, but I think it might encourage other people to do up the friendly protest, not out of hate or anger but out of love and healing.”
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