The Seattle Fandango Project

by Shannon Dudley & Martha Gonzalez

photo: Matt Hilger

Fandango is a fun word to say—you may have heard it in reference to a Spanish dance or on-line theater tickets—but it’s even more fun to experience, as people in Seattle are finding out. Since April of 2009, participants in the Seattle Fandango Project (SFP) have been practicing the music called son jarocho from Veracruz, Mexico, strumming jaranas, singing verses, and beating out rhythms with their feet on a raised stomp box called a tarima. In community centers and University of Washington classrooms they are learning not just the music and dance, but also the principles of convivencia (living/being together) that are embodied in the fandango celebration.

This practice of musical convivencia was introduced in Seattle by singer, dancer, and percussionist Martha Gonzalez, who enrolled at UW in 2008 to pursue a graduate degree in Women Studies. Her husband Quetzal Flores, a guitarist, producer, and community organizer, is the primary organizer of the Seattle Fandango Project. Both Gonzalez and Flores are members of the East Los Angeles band Quetzal. Both also have been engaged for more than a decade in exchanges with members of a community-music movement in Veracruz called Nuevo Movimiento Jaranero (the “new jaranero movement,” referring to someone who plays the jarana guitar).

Since the late 1970s this movement has sought to revive the son jarocho as a community practice, and to resist its commercial media and stage representations. Founders of the Nuevo Movimiento Jaranero were tired of dressing up in white suits and hats with red bandanas to get work at hotels, festivals, and television. They also were tired of hearing son jarocho played at fast tempos to impress people who didn’t know how to dance to the music. The “new jaraneros” set out to revive the swing, poetry, improvisation, and elegant cadence of son jarocho; but most importantly they revived the practice of community participation in the fandango.

photo: Matt Hilger

Rubí Oseguera on the tarima - photo: Matt Hilger

The Nuevo Movimiento Jaranero took shape through a process of research and reclamation. Young people learned from older musicians who had experienced the fandango as a participatory community event. Gilberto Gutierrez and his group Mono Blanco, for example, sought out and performed with Arcadio Hidalgo, a gifted versador (composer of verses) who in his youth had fought in the Mexican revolution. The younger musicians learned from Arcadio about music, about the revolution, and about convivencia in fandango. They organized music and dance workshops in their community for people of all ages to participate, and began to seed this practice in other communities, building ties between different towns and regions. Before long new groups began to make recordings and created a vibrant scene that offered professional opportunities for workshops and stage performances. To avoid creating a new orthodoxy of their own, professional groups in the movement, including Mono Blanco, Son de Madera, Chuchumbé, Los Utrera, Los Cojolites, Estansuela, Relicario, and Los Negritos continued to organize and participate in community fandangos, where they took part in a collective dialogue about the future of the tradition. This practice continues today, and many musicians in the movement contribute part of their earnings to the community centers that host free workshops and fandangos.

photo: Matt Hilger

Sharing a laugh. - photo: Matt Hilger

This vibrant scene caught the attention of a new generation of community-oriented Chicano artists in Los Angeles who began making trips to Veracruz in the early 2000s. Chicanos shared their own experiences and techniques of community building through art. Back in Los Angeles they shared what they had learned about the fandango and brought up musicians from Veracruz. This created a new interest in the living tradition of son jarocho, which most Chicanos had previously known mainly through commercial recordings (or through Ritchie Valens’ 1957 rock and roll remake of a traditional son jarocho called “La Bamba”). In 2002 Fandango Sin Fronteras (fandango without borders) was established as an informal musical dialogue between Chicanos and Jarochos. In 2004 members of Quetzal traveled to Mexico to help record and produce Son de Madera’s CD, “Las Orquestas del Dia.” In 2005, Son de Madera, one of the premier son jarocho ensembles from Veracruz, came to Los Angeles to perform with Quetzal at a fundraiser for the South Central Farm, an inner-city farm that the community had reclaimed from industrial wasteland, and from which the authorities were then trying to remove them. Through these and many other exchanges, Fandango Sin Fronteras has taken shape as a transnational musical dialogue rooted in the spirit of convivencia.

The Seattle Fandango Project (SFP) connects Seattle to Fandango Sin Fronteras and its community-building practices. SFP activities began in April 2009 with weekly workshops conducted by Gonzalez and Flores, and kicked into high gear during October with a residency by Son de Madera. Comprised of Ramón Gutierrez on requinto (a small melody guitar), Tereso Vega on jarana (a strumming guitar), Rubí Oseguera on the tarima, and Los Angeles native Juan Pérez on bass and leona (the lowest-pitched guitar of the jarana family), Son de Madera taught five workshops a week at Youngstown Cultural Arts Center in West Seattle, Centro de la Raza in Beacon Hill, and the University of Washington.

photo: Matt Hilger

Juan Perez playing leona. - photo: Matt Hilger

Modeling the practice of the fandango, Son de Madera’s workshops welcomed people of different ages and skill levels. Those who hadn’t already experienced this kind of community learned to smile and embrace other participants as they arrived or departed—and, when their time came to dance on the tarima or sing a verse, to give it their all. More experienced participants helped to teach songs, chords, and steps to the less experienced ones. Whole families came to some of the workshops, and the collective participation incorporated squeals of children, gossip among distracted teenagers, and furrowed brows of self-conscious adults struggling with a new verse or dance step. What might have seemed like a room full of chaos was, in fact, an effective method of teaching and learning across disciplines, skill levels, and generations. For many participants, it was an eye-opening exposure to a different kind of music education.

Son de Madera’s residency culminated in a fandango at the Vera Project on October 30th. In the Fandango Sin Fronteras tradition of linking with distant communities, members of the Centro Cultural de Mexico in Santa Ana, California, flew in to participate in the fandango and associated activities, along with a few others from out of town. Before the fandango got started, there were stage performances by members of the Youngstown hip hop collective, the Santa Ana visitors, and other local groups. At about 10:00 pm, Son de Madera took the stage and riveted the audience’s attention with their soul and brilliant musicianship. On their last song, they drifted one by one from the stage down to the tarima on the floor, where the audience flowed in to join them in playing, singing, and dancing. The Fandango was on, and everyone engaged in happy, sweaty, exuberant communion until 1:30 am!

The power of this experience was rooted in the process that led up to it. The learning and bonding in the workshops moved us closer together to interact as community, and that process is the enduring meaning and joy of the fandango. That process is convivencia, the most valuable tool that human beings possess.

photo: Matt Hilger

photo: Matt Hilger

As the Seattle Fandango Project moves forward, we seek to honor this tool and use it well. Monday evening workshops continue (currently at the UW School of Music, but likely to shift to other sites), with new people stepping into leadership roles. Further support will come from Laura Rebolloso, a founding member of Son de Madera and a lecturer in dance at the University of Veracruz, who will serve as visiting artist at the University of Washington during Winter and Spring Quarters of 2010. The Seattle Fandango Project has also enjoyed support from AMPS (American Music Partnership of Seattle, a collaboration between UW, Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum, and KEXP radio, funded by the Paul Allen Family Foundation), and from the City of Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture. Its greatest support comes from the community of people who continue to share and work with one another through this art form.

(For more information and updates on the Seattle Fandango Project, please visit the Seattle Fandango Project Facebook page at www.facebook.com/pages/Seattle-Fandango-Project/158069722064)

video at: http://www.vimeo.com/8035621 by Scott Macklin

story and audio at http://blog.kexp.org/blog/2009/11/05/kexp-documentaries-–-fandango/

photos: Matt Hilger