When I first met Nobuko Miyamoto, I was 19 years old and working as tech at the Japan American Theater. She was mounting a one-time performance, the production A Slice of Rice. I was completely taken by her presence and posture. Twenty years later, I invited her to be part of a panel discussion for the release of Quetzal’s Imaginaries album, along with Robin DG Kelly, Russell Rodriguez, Sonali Kolhatkar, and George Lipsitz. This would mark the beginning of our collaborative relationship as she immediately invited Quetzal to collaborate on an ecovideo project about cycling in Los Angeles called Cycles of Change.
Shortly thereafter, I invited Nobuko to a Fandango Son Jarocho workshop at Plaza de La Raza in Lincoln Heights. Master Musician Cesar Castro was facilitating this class that is precipitated upon the broad participation of community in dance, music, and verse. After several hours of witnessing and playing a jarana (8-stringed guitar in the son jarocho tradition), Nobuko began talking to me about the stark similarities between Fandango practice and Bon Odori (Obon). She asked me if I thought a collaboration between the two would be possible. I responded with an emphatic, “YES!” For me, the thought of two cultural convening methods in conversation was not only exciting, but ground-breaking. Having witnessed Obon several decades earlier, I had an idea of the protocol and function this had in the Japanese American community and could draw the parallels where instant bonding could happen. As a young musician/performer, I’d always felt there was something missing in my practice—that there needed to be a relationship more profound than the performer/audience. In 1997, on a historic trip to Chiapas, Mexico, over 100 artists from the Chican@ community travelled to the Zapatista community of Oventic to dialogue and create. This would be the foundation for the next twenty years of my life. It validated the feelings I had and articulated just what I’d been looking for. The most magnificent aspect of this was that it came in part from our own embodied experience and collective memory. This experience would be invaluable to building a translocal/transnational dialogue between Chican@s from California and Fandango practitioners in Veracruz, Mexico. Many of these strategies continue to be implemented in the relationships being built in FandangObon.
A defining trait of FandangObon is its goal of engendering dialogue between communities, while resourcing our respective participatory cultural convening methods. Both Nobuko and I began assembling our teams to begin interacting and interrelating. A key blessing was required on her end from Buddhist Reverend Mas Kodani, whose main concern was that this collaboration not be about “fusion,” and that each culture would be able to maintain the integrity of its practice and protocol. I interpreted this concern as not wanting this to be some sort of hokey voyeurism, but instead a deep and respectful look into the essence that traditional arts and culture have in building and maintaining community.
Over the course of a year, a series of workshops are programmed around Southern California to expose communities to other cultural spaces and to exercise traditional ways of expressing ourselves. These activities culminate in mid-October, with a large celebration at the Japanese American Cultural Community Center’s Noguchi Plaza. During the first year of FandangObon, practitioners from both communities did some “deep hanging out.” In addition to the workshops, we created a song called Bambutsu (All Things Connected). This song included traditional rhythms found in both the Fandango and Obon practices. It also included English, Spanish, and Japanese lyrics. The choreography created by Elaine Fukumoto, Martha Gonzalez, and Nobuko drew from traditional dances and was designed to create broad participation. Bambutsu would later be adopted into the Southern California Obon circuit and would be danced to by approximately 10,000 people from San Diego to Oxnard, including several live performances of the song by the FandangObon ensemble.
Now in our fourth year, FandangObon has grown to include a one day “Encuentro” at the Japanese American Cultural Community Center. This year’s theme is “Urban and Community Gardening,” and will include gardeners, educators and artists from all over Los Angeles. In addition, FandangObon has been invited to participate in the Sounds of California program at the 2016 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, co-produced by the Alliance for California Traditional Arts. Between June 28th and July 4th, we will be facilitating workshops, demonstrations, and intimate conversations on Fandango, Obon, and the collective participation of FandangObon. This will be particularly important as it amplifies to a national level the alliances that communities are making via cultural convening methods. Our hope is that this practice will ignite and inspire a broad dialogue where communities lift up their convening methods and resource the very codes that lie within of how a community organizes itself, innovates, and sustains its health and vitality.