The crazy idea of bringing Fandango and Obon together began in 2012, when Quetzal Flores invited me to a Fandango class that he and his partner, Martha Gonzalez were teaching at Plaza de la Raza in Lincoln Heights. Quetzal is the founder and musical director of the Grammy winning Chicano rock band, QUETZAL. Quetzal is also a lover of Fandango, a community celebration of participatory music and dance from Veracruz, Mexico, which draws from Mexican, Indigenous, and African roots. He along with Gonzalez have been instrumental in spreading the practice of Fandango throughout Mexicano/Latino communities in the US.
When I entered the class at Plaza de la Raza, a group of about 20 people of all ages were standing in a circle playing small guitars, called jaranas. Quetzal immediately put a jarana in my hands and said, “play!” I shook my head, but he ignored my protest and led me into the circle. My fingers stumbled but I sort of began to get the chords. I sounded lousy, but with everyone playing, who could tell? The criteria for success was based on how deeply one participated! This later became the foundation for what was built.
There was a wooden platform, or tarima, in the middle of the circle where participants stomped out percussive rhythms. The circle around the platform reminded me of Obon, except in Obon, the musicians are on the platform or yagura and people dance around it. Once class was over I asked Quetzal, “What if we combined Fandango with Obon? He said, “Yes!”
Fandango is a participatory music and dance practice from Veracruz, Mexico that uses “convivencia” (intentionally being in community), as its guiding principle. It’s a transgenerational ritual celebration that takes place around a wooden platform called a “tarima”. The music of the Fandango is Son Jarocho, which draws its roots from Indigenous, African and Spanish cultures. Typically, a Fandango will go from dusk till dawn as musicians form a circle with layers around the tarima and dancers cycle on and off. The more experienced musicians stand closest and less experienced participants follow behind.
In 2002 a group of Chican@ musicians from East Los Angeles, initiated a transnational dialogue with fandango communities in Veracruz through which the form was transplanted to the Los Angeles area where it continues to thrive through weekly workshops in Chican@/Mexican@ cultural spaces such as cafes, cultural centers, churches and other venues. In addition to resident master musician, Cesar Castro, many touring musicians from Veracruz are join in and share information that help to sustain and grow this community. On average there is one Fandango a month in the region, traditionally at weddings, funerals, baptisms, birthdays or religious celebrations. In SoCal, they have taken on an intentional role of maintaining and building community especially around social justice issues.
Obon is an annual Japanese Buddhist festival that commemorates the dead. It is based on a Buddhist text, which describes how a devout monk dances with joy upon successfully releasing his deceased mother’s spirit from the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. Today, participants dance to express their joy and to honor loved ones who have passed away. Obon is held outdoors during the summer months—in the street or in temple parking lots and courtyards. Central to its celebration among Japanese Americans are the folk dances (Bon Odori) performed to live and recorded music. The musicians perform on a raised platform, or yagura, as dancers form various rungs and dance in circles around them. The guiding purpose of Bon Odori is to set aside the ego through unselfconscious dancing. Participation is customarily diverse—with young and old, formally trained and informally trained dancers, Japanese Americans and non-Japanese Americans. Each year a regional committee selects the pieces that will be danced. Dance instructors from each temple and prepare the community for participation through a series of dance workshops. Annual Obon celebrations take place at Buddhist Temples throughout California between July and mid-August.
Fandango and Obon are traditions both firmly planted in their communities. When the FO project began, Fandango had a 10-year history in Southern California and continues to grow as an essential component to many Chican@/Mexican@ cultural spaces. Obon has been practiced in the region since the 1930’s and is significant to the spiritual and cultural vitality of the Japanese Americans.