Arturo  O’Farrill and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra with guests recording at the Casa de la Cultura at Playas de Tijuana, Mexico, in May 2018. Courtesy Arturo O’Farrill.

There is a rich tradition of political and social activism in jazz, and in recent months it has taken on a distinct accent. Confronted by an administration that has attempted to sabotage the recently restored relations with Cuba; implemented brutal border enforcement tactics, and offered a callous response to the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, several Latin artists have taken it upon themselves to push back, speaking out from the stage, but also through their recorded work.
None perhaps has been longer at it or has been more outspoken and ambitious in his proposals than pianist, composer, bandleader, and educator Arturo O’Farrill.

Recorded in Tijuana, San Diego, and New York City, O’Farrill’s latest work, the two-CD set Fandango at the Wall (Resilience Music) brings together musicians representing several countries and music traditions and is a moving and powerful statement on border walls — both the physical as well as the ideological.

“The irony of the situation is that the wall actually brought us together,” says O’Farrill who was actually born in Mexico of a Mexican mother, Guadalupe Valero, and a Cuban father, the Cuban arranger, composer, and bandleader Chico O’Farrill. He was five when the family relocated to New York City, where he has been living since. “So in point of fact, through his hatred and stupidity, this president is uniting the very people that he wants to divide.”

Masterminded by O’Farrill and producer Kabir Sehgal, Fandango at the Wall builds on the Fandango Fronterizo, an annual event founded in 2008 by musician and retired librarian Jorge Francisco Castillo that brings together musicians and fans of son jarocho from both sides of the Tijuana-San Diego border. O’Farrill’s project called on jazz and son jarocho musicians — including The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, violinist Regina Carter, and drummer and composer Antonio Sánchez; and standout jaraneros such as Patricio Hidalgo, Ramón Gutiérrez Hernández, and Tacho Utréra. But in a nod to the countries in the travel ban list, it also included artists such as Iraqi-American oud master Rahim AlHaj and Iranian sitar virtuoso Sahba Motallebi.

The recordings are part of a project that will eventually also include a book on the history of U.S.-Mexico relations and a documentary.

Fandango Fronterizo Festival in 2018

Fandango Fronterizo 2018. Jaraneros sharing their music, literally, through the wall.

“The original idea was to have a recording truck on the U.S. side and a recording truck on the Mexican side, gather at both sides of the border and record in real-time,” says O’Farrill. “But that was only marginally possible because of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection people. So we had some of that [original idea], but we also recreated that moment in a courtyard in a cultural center in Tijuana and then we re-recorded everything we did in Tijuana and San Diego in New York at Power Station. “

“Jorge was very protective at first […] and it took a minute for me to tell them that contrary to trying to take away attention from the great and beautiful music they play, we wanted to pay tribute to them, “explains O’Farrill. “That’s my whole thing with cultural diplomacy. We don’t we don’t go to Mexico or Cuba to show off how good we swing or how jazz is America’s classical music. We go to Cuba and Mexico and places throughout the world to listen, to learn, to give thanks. We’re grateful to these incredible musicians for letting us share their celebration and then the musicians themselves, of course, Regina, Antonio, the Villalobos brothers, they were absolutely in awe of this beautiful soulful music and they just fit right in. There was never an awkward musical moment. “

George Orwell once wrote that “In our age, there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’.” and O’Farrill, whose work includes albums such as Cuba: The Conversation Continues, not only is not staying out of politics but embracing it as part of his role as an artist.

“When I was 10 years old, my school P.S. 166 had a field trip to the Museum of Modern Art, and lucky for me, one of the pieces that were on loan there at the time was Picasso’s ‘Guernica,’ and I stood in front of that painting and wept,” he recalls. “Of course I didn’t understand the meaning of everything that was there. I was just a little boy. But as time wore on I, understood: Charles Mingus wrote “Fables of Faubus” about [then Arkansas] Governor Faubus; I heard Billie Holiday sing ‘Strange Fruit’ about the lynching of black men, and I’m sorry but, for me, art without conscience is not art. Art can be abstract. Art can be not narrative. I don’t have a problem with that. But if your art is not connected to the truth as you see it, in the society that we live in, then it doesn’t mean anything. “


An edited version of this story appears on