A Thousand Things Connected: FandangObon at the Festival

August 2016
Fandangobon performance

Fandangobon performance, 2016 Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural History

by Michelle Mehrtens
This post originally appeared on the Smithsonian Folklife Festival Blog
2016 Folklife Festival, Sounds of California


It was the Fourth of July, and it was raining. Martha González, lead singer and songwriter of GRAMMY-winning band Quetzal, had just finished performing in a lively FandangObon performance at the 2016 Folklife Festival. During our interview, she said that she recognized us as audience members from the last show. It was true. We had attempted—attempted—to mimic the graceful movements of the dancers onstage. Some of us were more successful than others.

Based in Los Angeles, California, FandangObon is a music program created by Japanese and Mexican American artists. Their participatory performances celebrate the musical traditions of both cultures, incorporating the primary sounds of son jarocho music and all-night fandango dances in Veracruz with obon, a Japanese Buddhist memorial service and festival. FandangObon specifically focuses on the relationship between music and dance, integrating the melodies of the eight-stringed jarana with the forceful rhythm of zapateado dancing, as well as the bright sounds of the shakuhachi flute with the bon odori dance.

A crucial facet of the project includes working together with the broader public. In this way, the group’s political motivations mainly involve diversifying the conversation about different cultural histories and creating an open space for civic engagement. During FandangObon, spectators are encouraged to participate in the performances—or simply sit and listen.

“Everyone learns differently,” Martha explained. With a quick grin she added, “Not everyone is a motor-mouth like me.”

As a result, the program is not only a collaboration between artists of different cultural backgrounds, but also a partnership with those eager to learn more about their global community. Their art is of the neighborhood, of the people, of the land—rather than outside of it.

Interview: Michelle Mehrtens
Editing: Michelle Mehrtens, Lillian Schneyer
Videography: David Barnes, Paul Weiss, Kamila Young, Ryan Shank, Michelle Mehrtens, Joshua Davis, Don Whitely, Sojin Kim, Albert Tong

Michelle Mehrtens is a documentary production intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a student at Brown University, where she studies English and history.  Her work at the Center is part of the Katzenberger Foundation Art History Internship program.

The 2016 Sounds of California Smithsonian Folklife Festival program was co-produced with the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, Radio Bilingüe, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, and the Smithsonian Latino Center.