The Mexican folk of son jarocho meets Afro Latin Jazz master Arturo O'Farrill in documentary “Fandango at the Wall”
Varda Bar-Kar, Director of musical documentary “Fandango at the Wall”, at the US-Mexico border wall. “Fandango at the Wall”, is now available to watch on HBO. Photo Credit: Courtesy of “Fandango at the Wall”

Arturo Hilario
El Observador

Son jarocho is a traditional folk music from the tropical area of the Mexican state of Veracruz. A 300-year-old fusion of indigenous, African, and Spanish traditions into a diverse and unique sound which is still going strong in the region.

The music documentary “Fandango at the Wall” focuses on this music and was initially supposed to have its world premiere at Cinequest Film Festival in downtown San Jose in March of this year. Mere days before its first screening to the world, (which would be complete with actual son jarocho musicians at the theater) the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread into the US and across the world.

If there is any good to report since then, it’s that “Fandango at the Wall” was acquired by HBO, and now has a home on the channel and its streaming platform, “HBO Max”.

I had the opportunity to speak to the filmmakers behind the film in March, and what follows in this write up is the conversation about the wonderful and diverse story of music and human spirit overcoming physical borders, and how this adventure helped the filmmakers and their subjects create a community that extends globally.

Director Varda Bar-Kar and Grammy-winning producer Kabir Sehgal originally had the idea to travel to the music festival “Fandango Fronterizo”, a yearly event since 2008, and film the musicians and audiences who gather on both sides of the border wall to perform son jarocho music.

After talking to the founder of the event, Jorge Francisco Castillo, they were led down to film a project with a greater purpose: Going into the rural Veracruz jungles and communities and meeting the masters of san jarocho, and recruiting them to collaborate not only at the border wall that meets the Pacific Ocean, but also to New York City to play alongside an Afro Latin Jazz orchestra led by the founder and Grammy-winning conductor Arturo O’Farrill.

Thank you Kabir and Varda for taking the time to talk about your film. To start off I wanted to know a bit about your background and how this led to working on “Fandango at the Wall”?

Varda: Well, prior to this, I had directed and written several scripted screenplays that have not yet been produced. I also wrote, directed, and produced a feature documentary called “Big Voice” that was picked up by Netflix, which is a music documentary about a high school choir director.

That was my first experience making a music documentary. Prior to that, I’d done short documentaries and I had directed a feature documentary called “A Million Spokes”, about the longest, largest bike tour in the world that takes place in Iowa, that crosses the whole state of Iowa.

So, I do have a bunch of experience and it all kind of converged. In this film I felt much more confident in my understanding of structure and also my approach to documentary filmmaking, which I think is unique in that I really like to create a story and to see each of the people in the film as a character in that story and how we get to know them.

My goal with “Big Voice” and also “Fandango at the Wall” [was] to create an immersive experience for the audience so they don’t feel separate. They feel like they’re in it and they’re going through it with everybody. Truly that to me is the ultimate – is when you’re actually inside the film, basically, as an audience member.

Kabir: I’ve been a musician and a producer for a long time now, some fifteen years and Arturo (O’Farrill) and I actually met when I was in university, and he was a guest, leading our jazz ensemble. And we’ve worked on probably four or five albums together, producing five albums, and so in 2016 he and I were having dinner and we were trying to think of ideas for our next project. And he had come across this article about Jorge Francisco Castillo and his border festival. Well, we should definitely make a project out of it.

So, our immediate go-to was to create a jazz album around it. This is a great story. This seems like a very visual experience and there’s a lot of shared heritage in the United States and Mexico. And at the same time, remember what was happening. We had an election going on in 2016 where Mexico was invoked.

So then Arturo would make an album. And I was like, well, let me write a book on the history of Mexico and America, which I did.

In 2018, just a few weeks before we were going to go to the border wall, we felt like we should probably turn this into a film. So, we reached out and luckily found Varda and everything kind of came together within weeks and we started filming at the wall. So, this is sort of a continuation of the work Arturo and I’ve been doing using music to serve as music advocacy. And realizing that it’s not just politicians and diplomats that create foreign policy.

It’s artist and activist. And we can’t sit around, wait for our governments to create policies. We as people should do individual to individual exchanges, person to person exchanges to sort of create the world we want to see. So, this project is all about creating a multimedia experience through film, through the music, through the literature. The people of the Americas are families and friends and cousins, relatives.

So that was the vision we set out to achieve. And hopefully we do that with this project.

 Why did you feel that it was important not only to tell the story of the connection between music, migrations, and community, but specifically for the son jarocho musicians?

Kabir: Historically, you think about [how] jazz music was really a vision of the future where black and white people played together in the 1930s and 40s. In fact, that music was ahead of our times, America was not even integrated, and we had an integrated bandstand. Same thing here. We were using jazz music to integrate Mexico into sort of American music.

And again, music is sort of ahead of our times. Our government is saying one thing that, we should build the walls, but we’re using music as this integrating force.

Everything was very organic, and we decided that, if we’re gonna do this. We want to bring together son jarocho music and a big band jazz band. And those traditions usually don’t go together, but we decided to put them together.

You see throughout the film there’s all these shots throughout the movie that cut to the symphony space portrayal. Those are arrangements made specifically for this project that amplify a particular song. So that was the vision was, to sort of tear down walls between musical traditions.

Varda: Jorge was very instrumental. Kabir connected me with Jorge and Jorge talked about who would be in the film and Kabir and Jorge talked about it as well. Jorge wanted to make sure that the people he picked were, highly accomplished in son jarocho, well respected and also were very accomplished in the different instruments that they played.

And so, he selected these artists who he felt would see the big vision of it, the possibility of sharing the philosophy and the way of being and the life, the culture of son jarocho with the world.

And then when he and I spoke specifically about the characters, we wanted people to be very different from each other. I wanted the characters to be distinct and for each of them to have very distinct ways and points of view so that they would stand out. And I wanted to have some women in there.

Then also this involved travel. And some of these people live in very remote areas, so we also had to make sure that we could get to all of them, even though it was very long distances, as you saw in the film. We literally sometimes would have to go like six hours on a dirt road to get to someone and then another nine hours to get to someone else, because it was always a road trip. So those are the ways that he selected the people.

And then also, it was kind of inter interesting and nice to see [the] relationships. As I mentioned before, it has had this immersive experience where we get to meet people and learn about them and have them opening up their homes to us.

Everyone we went, it was really like that. They literally were so open and so welcoming because that’s sort of in their tradition, that’s one of the distinctions between our cultures – here we’re more suspicious. There they make you feel like you’re part of the family. You literally feel loved.

And I was wondering how that affected you guys personally, traveling around and meeting all these people from different parts of the world and seeing that there is that unity through music. 

Kabir: Well, this for me is a very personal story for me because I’m the son of Indian immigrants. My parents came with very little money many, many moons ago from India to America. So, I’m very close to the American immigrant experience, having grown up in a household where everyone was welcome to stay and be with us.

So, to me, borders have always been sort of imaginary lines usually. And they’re man made decisions on who belongs where. Really, you can’t contain the human spirit. That’s what music does so well. It’s like once you connect through music, there are no borders. And particularly in this case, we have Son jarocho, we have a Broadway singer. We have musicians from the Middle East on this project.

We’re all from different places, but we’re all going in the same direction on this project. And so, it was a very emotional time performing at the wall, especially because it sort of struck us that power music is sort of erasing borders [and] bringing us together.

So that’s my story and how I relate to the immigrant experience, why I really wanted to make this project happen. And I’ve been blessed with other collaborators. I mean Arturo was born in Mexico, he’s an immigrant. And Varda, this story of immigration is close to her.

Varda: Yeah, I was I was born in England and my mother is South African. My father is Romanian. And very soon after I was born, our family moved to Israel. And then I lived in England and I lived in the United States. So, when someone asks me where I’m from, I don’t even have an answer, actually.

I’m truly a person of the globe. I feel this has given me a gift, it’s a true gift because I really do love diversity. I love all the different types of people and all. I understand that no matter where you go, there’s a shared humanity. And it’s also really elevated my appreciation for culture and art. I think I’ve always found my belonging through art, through expressions through making things is how I find my place in the world. I always did that from a very, very young age.

So, I very much relate to this story, to the story of the immigrant and of migration and of the role of it as an enrichment rather than something to shut out. It’s actually something to embrace, and to figure out how can we live together. What can we provide to people who are fleeing drug violence and oppressive regimes and war, rather than saying, “keep out.”

What do you hope that people take from “Fandango at the Wall”?

Varda: I think in the most fundamental way I would like audiences to feel joy watching the film. And to love the experience of watching the film and being part of this journey.

Either people will be reinforced in their feeling of their love for our neighbor Mexico and for the people of Mexico and for the idea of meeting and experiencing other cultures and learning about new cultures and having that sense of wonder and adventure, of our world through music and culture.

Ideally if we can even have one audience member who has a deep fear of Mexico and Mexicans and a deep fear of the migrants and “others” and want to support the idea of isolating this country and building walls, if we have one audience member who comes into the audience with that perspective, sees this and the heart softens and opens a bit,  , they become a little bit more open, little bit more receptive to others and different cultures, that would be a dream come true in terms of the film, softening and opening hearts and minds, basically.

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