Even by the standards set by pianist, composer, bandleader, and social activist Arturo O’Farrill, Fandango at the Wall, a double-CD with the 18-piece Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, qualifies as personal. A New York City resident, the 58-year-old O’Farrill was born in Mexico City, and he’s been openly critical of President Trump’s attempts to build a wall along the United States’ southern border. Inspired by retired Mexican librarian Jorge Francisco Castillo’s annual Fandango Fronterizo Festiva—a burgeoning event that’s brought musicians to play through the meshed wall separating Tijuana from San Diego for a decade—O’Farrill upped the global ante for this recording by performing with his orchestra at several locations along the border, aided by various special guests, many of whom are from countries targeted by Trump’s travel ban.
O’Farrill’s verbal introduction includes thanks to Castillo and the people of the participating cities before the orchestra explodes into the spirited “Xalapa Bang!” with the help of Mexican-American drummer Antonio Sánchez. Mexican son jarocho musicians, Sánchez, and guest violinist Regina Carter then fuel the sashaying traditional Yucatan folksong “El Maquech.”
Horns, stringed instruments, and guest French-Chilean vocalist Ana Tijoux singing and rapping in Spanish on “Somos Sur” tear down perceived walls between jazz, classical, hip-hop and traditional Mexican music, while Mexican stars like the singing, violin-playing Villalobos Brothers (on the dramatic “El Pijul”) and vocalist/jarana player Patricio Hidalgo (a romping “Conga Patria”) also get spotlight time. Disc one’s centerpiece is O’Farrill’s three-part “Invisible Suite,” defying categorization and featuring a banner Carter solo, the New Haven String Quartet, and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City.
Castillo verbally introduces disc two, leading to numerous highlights that include the popular Mexican folk song “La Bamba” with Hidalgo and fellow singing stringed instrumentalists Ramón Gutiérrez Hernández, Fernando Guadarrama Olivera, and Tacho Utrera; Sánchez returning to guide the ensemble through his complex composition “Minotauro”; and the closing “Line in the Sand.” Featuring only O’Farrill and vocalist/Hamilton cast member Mandy Gonzalez, its refrain of “There is hope/We must try/If we don’t, we’ll regret it the rest of our lives” literally rings home.