The crystal-clear notes of an acoustic version of La Bamba are performed by a single guitarist, Don Andres Vega, singing and accompanied by Martha Vega. This is likely not the version of La Bamba familiar most-- those sung by 1950’s teen singer, Richie Valens, or later, Los Lobos. This folk version of the love song is being performed by the Vegas from the yard of their rural home in the southern Mexican state of Vera Cruz. Located on the Gulf Coast, one of the only places in Mexico where African Slaves were brought centuries ago, the Vega’s humble patio is framed by tropical greenery.
The next scene transports us to a concert in NYC with the Vegas and other Son Jaracho musicians and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra playing to hundreds. How did Don Andres Vega, in his 90’s, come to share his music with New York?
The idea for this film came from a newspaper article about San Diego Librarian, Jorge Francisco Castillo, and the Fandangos he has organized for several years. Going through some personal difficulties, Castillo found a kind of salvation and community in the music of Son Jaracho, a 300-year-old tradition of folk music from Vera Cruz, Mexico. It combines the music of Indigenous, African and Spanish traditions.
One day, at the US/Mexico border near San Diego he wondered if the border fence and the division between the two countries could be surmounted by the same Son Jaracho music—sharing culture and a sense of community in the same way it had helped him. So, Castillo decided to organize a fandango, a gathering of Son Jaracho song and dance, at the border wall. He called it, Fandango Fronterizo. We watch as Castillo, talks of overcoming the separation created by the wall through music as we trace the wall’s iron bars along the border until they disappear into the crashing surf of the Pacific Ocean.
Each of the two principal organizers of the film, multi-award-winning Grammy musicians, Kabir Sehgal and Arturo O’Farrill, accompany Castillo on a tour of Vera Cruz, to meet Son Jaracho musicians, including dancers and poets in their communities. As they drive and meet local people, we learn more about their lives, their multicultural experiences and their growing sense of community with the roots of the music.
We are also treated to exceptional performances by this array of musicians in their homes. This intimate portrayal takes us into the workshops of some of the musicians making their own instruments, a tradition passed down from father to son. Usually women dancing, spinning full, brightly colored skirts and stomping heels on raised wooden platforms provides the percussion for the songs. One mother played a cow jaw bone. Similar to jazz, this music is improvisational, alive and subject to interpretation. Whole families are involved including mothers, fathers and their children.
FANDANGO AT THE WALL Shares Songs of Love and Social Justice
We hear love songs like La Bamba, and we also hear themes of social justice about freedom from oppression. Contemporary concerns about pollution and immigration are discussed. Poignant and sometimes tearful stories about parents’ fears of kidnappings, drug cartel violence and warnings to not drive at night when their car might be stopped occur. We learn about The Beast, the train taking would be Central American immigrants to the border as they try to find work. Kabir Sehgal discusses the irony of the border wall in light of statistics showing that the majority of illegal immigrants overstay legal visas and that most illegal drugs pass into the US at legal check points. Conversely, the guns and money flowing back into Mexico to the cartels responsible for the violence also travel through those same check points. Son Jaracho soothes, expresses and communicates these issues clearly from southern Mexico to the borderlands near San Diego and concert goers in NYC.
The Wall Doesn’t Divide Us—It Unites Us
FANDANGO AT THE WALL shows the event organized with O’Farrill and, Sehgel joining Castillo and musicians on both sides of the border playing together, reciting poetry and dancing into nightfall. We are treated to musicians from Vera Cruz, Tijuana, San Diego, the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra and including performances by an Iraqi and a Syrian refugee. The musicians played, amid a cultural exchange that expresses a longing to gather and rejoice. Here, the Wall, to paraphrase History Professor Douglas Brinkley, “..doesn’t divide, it unites us…”
(Note: This writer, very familiar with the San Diego/Tijuana Border, noticed that the northern most fence on the San Diego side was opened, allowing people from the United States to walk across what is called NO MAN’S LAND, to actually touch the Wall. Usually this is expressly forbidden by US Border Patrol
Cut to New York City. There is perhaps no greater contrast than scenes of rural Vera Cruz and then shots of the musicians walking amid the bright lights and digital billboards of New York City. The culminating performance is held at Symphony Space. On stage, the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra and the Son Jaracho musicians have rejoined. Traditional Son Jaracho costumed men in white shirts and hats are playing and singing. Women dressed in oranges, corals, and reds are dancing. The scene is full of movement, music and expression. In response, the full seated audience rises to their feet to dance and join the fandango!
This film, directed by Varda Bar-Kar, is recommended for folk music fans, Flamenco, Latin and Afro music aficionados, and Latin history lovers. Steer clear if you are looking for glitzy, contemporary pop. During the time of Covid, this writer found the film especially hopeful, uplifting, and joyful. You might find yourself hungry for more Son Jaracho, as this writer did.
Written by: Varda Bar-Kav & Kabir Sehgel
Produced by: Kabir Sehgal & Doug Davis
Exec Producers: Quincy Jones, Andrew Young & Carlos Santana
Directed by: Varda Bar-Kar
Cinematography: Matt Porwall
Masters of Son Jaracho: Don Andres Vega, Martha Vega, Fernando Guadarrama, Patricio Hidalgo, Ramon Gutierrez, Tacho Utrera, & Wendy Cao Romero
Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra
Special Guests include: Regina Carter, Los Lobos Brothers, and more
For more information visit the FANDANGO AT THE WALL website.
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Images courtesy of FANDANGO AT THE WALL film.
About the Author: Caryn Hoffman
Ms. Hoffman has a degree in art and her life’s work has been environmentally and politically focused. After community organizing on both coasts, she had a career as an educator in Southern California. Now, semi-retired, Ms. Hoffman leads an active, outdoor lifestyle, continues to advocate for the environment and travels. She is especially fond of art, film, cultural events and is an ardent, live music fan. She loves adventure travel including camping, hiking, kayaking, rafting and road biking.