Guest DJ Arturo O'Farrill: Making Music And A Statement At The Border : Alt.Latino The latest album from O'Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra is a collaboration with Mexican son jarocho musicians.

Guest DJ Arturo O'Farrill: Making Music And A Statement At The Border

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From NPR Music, this is ALT.LATINO. I'm Felix Contreras. As I speak to you in this mid-November podcast, parts of the so-called caravan of immigrants from Central America is arriving to the U.S.-Mexico border. Now, during the runup to the most recent midterm elections, immigration became a key topic for many of those running for office. The president of the United States made reference to the caravan often in his own campaign speeches. And he has also made reference to the wall, a campaign promise to build a wall along the border to control immigration, which, of course, was and continues to be highly controversial.

What's not at issue, though, is the fact that there is already a wall along parts of the border. And last spring, the section of the wall that separates Tijuana and San Diego was the site of an annual gathering of musicians who make music from both sides of the wall. And this year, they were joined by pianist and bandleader Arturo O'Farrill, who took the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, the band that he directs, to the wall for performances and collaborations. And the result is an album called "Fandango At The Wall: A Soundtrack For Mexico, The United States And Beyond." It's a cross-cultural expression of social and political observations told through music.

Arturo O'Farrill, welcome to ALT.LATINO.

ARTURO O'FARRILL: Very thrilled to be here. As you know, I love ALT.LATINO, and big fan of Felix (laughter).


CONTRERAS: The album is a mix of jazz, Afro-Caribbean music and folkloric music from Mexico performed with lots of passion by the orchestra and a host of guest musicians. We're listening to a track called "El Malquech" (ph), and it features the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, along with drummer Antonio Sánchez and American jazz musician Regina Carter on violin.


CONTRERAS: The album is called "Fandango At The Wall: A Soundtrack For The United States, Mexico And Beyond." Let's start with the fandango part. What exactly does that mean? And what are we talking about here?

O'FARRILL: Well, fandango is a very funny word. It's kind of a catchall word for many things. But the thing that it really means is celebration. It's a descarga, jam. And people come and get together at fandangos to celebrate culture, community and music - dancing, singing, playing son jarocho music, which is a very specific kind of Afro-Mexican music from Veracruz.

And the Fandango at the Wall is exactly what it sounds like. Once a year, thanks to Jorge Francisco Castillo, there are son jarocho musicians that gather on either side of the wall in San Diego and Tijuana. And some of them are obviously unable to cross that border. But the wall - the mesh itself - the border is inches thick. You can barely get your fingertip through it. And yet they come together because it's a mesh. They can hear each other and see each other. And they come together to jam, to dance zapateado, to enjoy community. And, in fact, it's really interesting. What Jorge Francisco Castillo has done is deny the very physical properties of mesh and wire and chicken wire and stone. And that wall that was supposed to keep people apart has actually united people for over a decade now.

CONTRERAS: And what have these fandangos in the past looked like? What exactly happens? And how is it different this time?

O'FARRILL: Every single fandango must begin with a very specific piece of music called "El Siquisiri," and that piece of music just kind of asks for permission from the earth, from the sun, from the sky, from the waters to play music and enjoy and have companionship with one another.


TACHO UTRERA: (Singing) Divino cielo, te ruego permiso para empezar, permiso para empezar. Divino cielo, te ruego.

O'FARRILL: And then they get together, and they kind of do this beautiful thing that's related somewhat to trovadores and that tradition, where there are songs they sing, but there's extemporaneous improvisation, too, declamatory improvisation. There's a fair amount of crazy dancing and a lot of seriously beautiful, soulful guitar playing. And some examples of that music are very well known. "La Bamba" is one of the pieces that is very well known. It's actually muy son jarocho music. And it's just a celebration, really. I just found it very, very touching that people would celebrate, in the midst of great separation, community. It seems like, you know, a dichotomy, but it's not. It's actually a really, really important lesson that the circumstances, the geopolitical circumstances, the trying and actually ludicrous times that we live in are an opportunity to join together, not to be divided.


CONTRERAS: What we're seeing since we started doing the show here, and this - we've been doing this about 8 1/2 years, is we've seen son jarocho become a vehicle for protest. It's become a vehicle for self-expression, for self-identity. Even for folks who don't come from that particular part of Mexico, which is in Veracruz, which is in the Gulf area, it seems like it's sort of spread all over the country and, in particular, here in the United States and Southern California, Texas, throughout the Southwest - I saw a son jarocho band in Chicago - that music has become a voice of identity, of expression.

O'FARRILL: Yeah, it has a tendency to do that. Again, the trovadores, the trovador tradition in Puerto Rico and Cuba is not apolitical (laughter). It's very pointed. There's a very strong message of identifying - self-identifying as both Mexican and American. I think that's one of the interesting facets of it, is that a lot of the son jarocho I've heard is about saying, we are Mexican, but we're also American. And to kind of divide the two seems like a ludicrous direction to go in.

And so I think that that music, and all music, and my music, certainly, has always been political. It's always been social. And the older I get, man, the more that matters to me, the more I think that art - I know there's a lot of credible reasons to - arguments against this, but the more I - the older I get, the more I realize that art has to be connected to you, to your community, to the world you see and to the comments you want to make about the world that you're in.

CONTRERAS: And that's reflected, as you say, in so much of the music that you make and on the albums that you've put out. And, you know, like so many of us, you have a really beautifully complex cultural history. Your father was Chico O'Farrill, a well-known figure in Afro Cuban music who was, in fact, from Cuba. And your mother was Mexican. So, you know, you're well known for the Afro Cuban exploration and expression, but it's really fascinating to me to listen to you delve into a bit of the Mexican side of your history and the side of your culture.

O'FARRILL: Well, it's funny. I think that at one point we were recording "El Pijul" with the Villalobos Brothers, and it's very Mexican. You can hear in the album. You'll hear this very, very traditional-sounding music. These folks are from Veracruz - the Villalobos Brothers - and it's very traditional-sounding. And at some point, I'm, like, ripping on the piano in what can only be described as a Mexican Jerry Lee Lewis.

CONTRERAS: (Laughter).

O'FARRILL: And I felt so in touch with my roots and, at some level, so in touch with the recent departure of my mother, who is Mexican. I was born in Mexico. So in point of fact, I've always kind of said that I am more - I'm musically more known for Cuban music, but culturally, on some levels, I respond to life as a Mexican. And I think, in some ways, what I've really tried to do with my life is broaden the conversation so that Latin jazz is not just jazz played over Latin or Afro Cuban or Afro Puerto Rican or Afro Caribbean rhythms, but that it's an integrated package, a collaboration between all of the Americas and the music that is really a direct legacy of our African musical package, you know? And that, of course, came from a cataclysm created throughout the world but, I think, very perfected in the United States called the slave trade, horrifying circumstances that produced some of the most freedom-inducing music. And I think that that's what I try to teach and play and learn.


HERMANOS VILLALOBOS: (Singing) El norte y el sur cantando tornan la atmósfera azul, que cruzando la frontera, que cruzando la frontera ya nos íbamos quedando, ay, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, ay, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, ay, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, ay, la, la, la, la, la, la, la. Preso me llevan a mi, preso por ningún delito, si todos somos iguales, si todos somos iguales, dime cómo te lo explico, ay, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, ay, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, ay, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, ay, la, la, la, la, la, la, la. Soy de tierra donde se ama y donde se ve la luz. Soy del cantón del Ozuluama, estado de Veracruz, República Mexicana. Ay, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, ay, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, ay, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, ay, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, ay, ay, ay.

CONTRERAS: OK, we'll get back to the music in the interview. But first, I want to tell you about another NPR podcast that you should know about.

We're talking to Arturo O'Farrill about the new album "Fandango On The Wall: A Soundtrack For The United States, Mexico And Beyond" (ph). And let's get into the beyond part, OK? You have a number of guests on the album. Let's talk a little bit about that 'cause I see Ana Tijoux. Who else is on the album?

O'FARRILL: Well, we have an incredible cast of characters, including the Young People's Chorus of New York City, great son jarocho musicians - Ramon Gutiérrez Hernández, Tacho Utrera, Jorge Francisco Castillo, Patricio Hidalgo. We have a representation - I wanted to get musicians from the seven banned countries, so I did OK. I only got three, but there - we have Rahim AlHaj, Sahba Motallebi from Iran and Iraq. We have Regina Carter, Mandy Gonzalez and Antonio Sánchez, the Villalobos Brothers and one of my personal favorites - I, like - I was dying to work with her forever and ever and ever and ever - Ana Tijoux. And of course, you mentioned Akua Dixon. But these are people who really come from all the corners, including, by the way, the mighty Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, which we were able to bring right up to the border to record.

I just kind of look at this as an international cast of people who are borderless, who can sit in the midst of an Iranian oud pattern and somehow create jazz out of it and son jarocho music. I mean, we're really borderless in that sense. None of us are experts in particularly feeling that we have the definition of what this music is, but we're all students. And so we sat at the border, played at the border and learned from one another in ways that I found very inspiring. These are all people that I really love and admire, and it's just incredible to see them gathered together at what, again, should be a terminal point but, in fact, was a pathway. In fact, the border became a conduit for destroying borders. And I don't know how anyone can miss that lesson.


ANA TIJOUX: (Singing) Tú nos dices que debemos sentarnos.

O'FARRILL: "Somos Sur," the Ana Tijoux piece, is about conditions that occur throughout the planet and how they are directly related to Southern, darker-skinned people.


TIJOUX: (Singing) Todos para nosotros, soñamos en grande que se caiga el imperio. Lo gritamos alto. No queda más remedio. Esto no es utopía. Es alegre rebeldía del baile de los que sobran, de la danza tuya y mía. Ya levantarnos para decir, ya basta. Ni África ni América Latina se subasta. Con barro, con casco, con lápiz, zapatear el fiasco. Provocar un social terremoto en este charco. Come on. Come on. Come on. Come, come, come on. Come on. Come on. Come, come, come, come, come, come, come on. Come on. Come on. Come on. Come, come, come on. Come on. Come on. Oh, todos los callados, todos los invisibles, todos los omitidos, todos, todos, todos, todos. Todos los callados, todos los omitidos, todos los invisibles, todos, todos, todos, todos. Nigeria, Bolivia, Chile, Angola, Puerto Rico y Tunisia, Argelia, Venezuela, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mozambique y Costa Rica, Camerún, Congo, Cuba, Somalia, México, República Dominicana, Tanzania, fuera yanquis de América Latina, franceses, ingleses y holandeses, yo te quiero que libre Palestina. Latin Jazz Orquesta. Come on. Come on. Come on. Come, come, come on. Come on. Come on. Come on. Come on. Come on. Come, come, come on. Come on. Come on. Come on. Todos los callados, todos los omitidos, todos los invisibles, todos, todos, todos, todos. Todos los callados, todos los omitidos, todos los invisibles, todos, todos. Saqueo, pisoteo, colonización, Matías Catrileo, Wallmapu, Mil veces venceremos del cielo al suelo, y del suelo al cielo, vamos saltando.

CONTRERAS: We're talking to Arturo O'Farrill about his new album "Fandango At The Wall: A Soundtrack For The United States, Mexico And Beyond." OK, Arturo, let's talk about the politics of the wall. Now, a wall actually already exists in some parts along the border. Our current president has promised more wall. And some say that the wall is a real-life metaphor for policy and politics of exclusion that's coming from this administration. What are your thoughts?

O'FARRILL: The wall is an ancient and silly solution to a much bigger problem. You know, statistically, it's been shown that most illegal immigration takes place from people overstaying their visas, and they get here by airports. So unless you're going to start building walls around airports, it is ludicrous to think that a wall will be able to stem the tide of illegal immigration. And the politics of wall-building are deeper than just the physical borders between Mexico and the United States or Mexico and Canada. The walls that we've already had built for us, metaphorically, come from the directly divisive, racist policies of this administration - the walls that are also there because of socioeconomic division and, quite frankly, cultural walls.

We still define ourselves as a nation by high and low culture. We tend to separate the work of Mozart from the work of Ana Tijoux, and we identify along socioeconomic lines because of the music we listen to, because of the associations we have. And all of those things are false constructs. And of course, people, like the president and his handlers, are always game to take advantage of these false divisions and amplifying them to their profit and to their particular manipulations.

CONTRERAS: Tell me about some of the tracks on the album and the themes behind the music and how they relate to some of the things you were just talking about. We'll play a tiny bit of each song, and we'll also include a Spotify list on our webpage in which you can hear all the songs that you're talking about right now. So let's get right into that music.


O'FARRILL: "Xalapa Bang!" deals with violence in Mexico by the Mexican government against university students.


ANTONIO SÁNCHEZ: (Singing) Oye, el país huele muy mal a poder que oprime la libertad. Hoy, mi gente, me recuerda una vez más a Salvador Allende y al asesino, Díaz Ordaz. Pues, han llegado con tanques, garrotes y aviones para dialogar. Y al que ponga resistencia lo desaparece el halcón judicial. Y al mostrar bandera de paz, nos han lanzado bombas de gas. Ay, quieren aplastar a su gente, bang, bang, bang.


O'FARRILL: "Amor Sin Fronteras" is a piece that has to do with a love that exists and still exists between the United States and Mexico that really should not be divided.


REGINA CARTER: (Singing) En buscarme un sueño, dejé mi pueblito. Yo era muy joven. Quería triunfar. Todos me decían, alla en otro lado la cosa es más fácil; lo puedes lograr. Y me fui para el norte. Conocí a su gente. En esta nueva tierra, formé yo mi hogar. Nacieron mis hijos. Amé dos banderas, y siguen luchando para progresar. Amor sin fronteras, sin miedo, sin odios, somos gente buena. No me quieras mal. Dios nos hizo iguales, y nos dio derechos que nadie en la tierra nos puede quitar.

O'FARRILL: "Free Falling Borderless" (ph) is about the things that really unite us, like the very basic sounds that our mouths make that develop into languages.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) I dream of a world (inaudible). My language is music, as everyone can see. (Inaudible) into a song. (Inaudible) so beautiful to me, so beautiful to me, so beautiful to me.

CONTRERAS: We're talking with Arturo O'Farrill about the new album from the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra called "Fandango At The Wall."

O'FARRILL: I got to tell you a story.


O'FARRILL: One day I was driving through Arizona somewhere near Kingman, and I had - we got stopped at a checkpoint. And the truck I was driving was pulled over, and the Border Patrol asked me for my papers. And I produced a green card, a legitimate green card that had been prepared pretty badly, by the way, by the New York City immigration - the Federal Plaza - and so the lines didn't match up on the card. And they asked me - they looked up the number and it came up somebody else's name. So this is a clerical error, by the way. This is a legitimate green card. And these guys are, like, about to take me away. These guys are about to imprison me and send me back to Mexico.

And at some point I said, wait a second, wait a second. You have to check the number before or afterwards 'cause my sister got her green card the same minute that I did - the same day, same process. And they looked up her green card number, and it came out her name. And so they got this judge up in the middle of the morning, and he looked at this and said, yeah, of course, this is obviously a clerical mistake. But for about - you know, for about half an hour, it looked like I was going to be deported to Mexico.

You know, these are the kinds of things that I think are horrifying - separated from my wife, from my family, from my parents, from everything I knew and understood and loved because of a clerical error. This is madness. And of course, we can talk about undocumented children being warehoused in subhuman conditions. It just - this is not the United States. I'm sorry. This is not the America that I was taught in grade school. This is not where I want to be. This is not where we want to be as a people.

CONTRERAS: I can't imagine what it's like for these small kids, man, in these immigration courtrooms.

O'FARRILL: It's really - it is - one of the things that really motivated me in particular to be so vocal about this moment in our history, amongst many things, but certainly ascending the staircase in Trump Tower and declaring that my people are all drug dealers and rapists started this. But seeing little children ripped from their parents' side has got to be one of the saddest moments in American history. And I think anyone who has a child, as we both do, can relate to the incredible, incredible, incredible irony of this being the place where we're practicing this kind of behavior.

CONTRERAS: Arturo O'Farrill, thank you so much for stopping by ALT.LATINO once again.

O'FARRILL: Thank you, Felix. It's my pleasure, man. Thank you for letting us be a part of your lives.

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