Q&A: Arturo O’Farrill & Antonio Sanchez
On making music and being Mexican in troubled times.
Arturo O’Farrill was born in Mexico City, in 1960. By then his father, Chico, was well known in his native Cuba and in the United States, having written a hit for Benny Goodman, worked with Stan Kenton and Dizzy Gillespie, and composed the innovative “Afro Cuban Jazz Suite,” which blended Cuban, jazz, and classical influences. Arturo’s mother, Lupe, was born in Detroit, but the family referred to her “puro Mexico” (pure Mexican), so shaped was she by her upbringing in Mexico City.
When Arturo was five, the family resettled to Riverside Drive at West 88th Street in Manhattan, where a sign now reads “Chico O’Farrill Place.” At first, Arturo shunned his father’s legacy. (“I didn’t want to play no clavé,” he once told me, referring to the elemental five-beat pattern of Afro-Cuban music.) Later he embraced this music, at first helping to enshrine the works of his father and other Afro Latin masters within jazz’s canon. His more recent ambitions, realized largely through his jazz orchestra, have expanded the possibilities for Afro Latin music in general and redefined jazz as “pan-American” while embracing many traditions, including those of his birthplace, Mexico. The nonprofit organization he founded more than a decade ago, the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, is, for him, less a cultural gatekeeper than “a pueblo for all.”
Antonio Sanchez was born in 1971, also in Mexico City, where his grandfather, Ignacio López Tarso, was a celebrated actor and, for a time, a congressman. Antonio started playing drums at age five, eventually settling into local jazz, rock, and Latin scenes. He attended the National Conservatory before moving to Boston, where he studied at Berklee College of Music and New England Conservatory. In 1999, he moved to New York City, where he still lives, and where he quickly became an in-demand drummer for many stars, most notably in guitarist Pat Metheny’s band. As a composer and bandleader, Sanchez’s music has ranged from large-scale through-composed ensemble pieces to the improvised solo drum score of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning film “Birdman,” for which he earned a Grammy Award.
O’Farrill and Sanchez share a commitment to bridging borders (between musical genres and between nations) and removing walls (both conceptual and physical) that divide us. On and off the bandstand, through music, public statements, social media, and nonprofit work, they have grown outspoken about connections between their music and the politics that color their lives. O’Farrill has been a forceful critic of the U.S. embargo of Cuba and the vicissitudes of policy that often strangle cross-cultural exchange. Sanchez, who calls his band “Migration,” has considered the crises of displaced people around the world, and the inequities those situations reveal.
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and electoral victory—especially the ugly spectacle of family separations and virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric—have intensified their desire to speak out. Sanchez’s 2017 release, Bad Hombre, lifted a campaign-trail phrase of derision from Trump aimed at Mexicans for its title. O’Farrill’s 2018 album, Fandango at the Wall: A Soundtrack for The United States, Mexico and Beyond—recorded on both sides of the border wall between San Diego and Tijuana, and featuring American and Mexican musicians, including Sanchez—was meant to stimulate “music’s revolutionary power.” That experience inspired Sanchez’s own recent Lines in the Sand, intended as “a protest against injustice, and a tribute to every immigrant’s journey.”
Sanchez became an American citizen in 2016—“specifically to vote in that election,” he told me. O’Farrill lived and worked with a Mexican passport and a series of green cards until his thirties, when he discovered through bureaucratic confusion that he’d technically been a U.S. citizen all along.
I sat with O’Farrill recently in his Brooklyn apartment, near the piano on which he’s composing “Lucero,” an opera about an Ecuadoran immigrant killed in 2008 by a group of Long Island high schoolers bent on intimidating foreigners. Two weeks later, I visited “the bunker,” the basement studio in Sanchez’s house, in Queens, where he created the music for “Bad Hombre” and is now working on a follow-up release. These two conversations, condensed and combined here, address Mexican identity, jazz expression, immigration, and the nature of artistic response.
Coming of age as a musician in the U.S., did you feel like your family’s heritage could be part of your culture here?
O’Farrill: Growing up, I saw what my father did as ghettoized jazz, which I now know was completely wrong. But when you’re a kid coming into a country that has very defined cultural boundaries, that’s a natural thing. There’s an element of self-hatred that develops in the presence of the denial of our culture by the dominant culture.
Sanchez: When I got here I was 21, and I was so in love with the idea of being here and learning jazz, that I was probably oblivious to any of those considerations. And Berklee, when I went there, had a very high population of international students. So right off the bat, I felt as if the jazz community was diverse. No one really identified me as Mexican, partly because I’m tall. They confused me with Puerto Rican or Middle Eastern or even Indian, depending on how my beard was growing at the moment. But as time went on, I began to understand that I was often the “other.”
Arturo, you are so strongly identified with Cuba that I don’t think many people identified you as Mexican either.
O’Farrill: I am clearly driven by Cuban culture, but emotionally and mentally I’m quite Mexican. Those were my first years. I remember being a four-year-old in Chapultepec Park with my aunts. The sights and sounds and colors I first experienced as a sentient being were there, in Mexico, including the rhythms of my grandmother talking. Even today, when I look at myself I see a little Mexican kid.
Sanchez: Not too long ago, when I started to bring my Mexican identity to the forefront of my music, it was almost like I was coming out. Even so, a lot of people thought I was Mexican American, born here. But I am a proud immigrant, a proud Mexican. My music now has to somehow reflect that.
How did it feel to hear Donald Trump demonize your native country in 2016?
Sanchez: It felt like what it was, a personal insult. That was his very first utterance as a candidate. And for a presidential candidate to start his campaign that way, for him to get elected not in spite of that but because of that, was alarming.
O’Farrill: Trump had been race baiting all along. Since I grew up in New York City, I understand this guy. There is a part of New York that is multi-cultural and other parts that are racist. He’s from that other part. And what he’s putting forth is isolationism at its worst. It’s everything I rail against. Of course, for all Trump’s talk of Mexicans, the issue at our border is not Mexicans. It’s Guatemalans and others whose lives are marked by stunning suffering and violence. It’s largely people trying to get through Mexico.
Sanchez: I’m very vocal on social media and onstage about all this stuff. And people ask me, “Are you for illegal immigration?” It’s not that I’m for illegal immigration. You have to understand why these people are coming here. What are the causes of those conditions in those countries? A lot of it is American policy. They say that we are welcoming country, and that the only thing we ask is for them to enter legally—to go back and enter legally. But if you go back to your country there is little or no chance for you to come back. They will deny your visa. The people who are denied are poor people, people with few resources. I wish everyone could come here legally, but that isn’t really possible.
How have these issues—in both personal and political terms—translated into music?
Sanchez: After I did “Birdman,” I wanted to make an album where drums were the leading instrument. Everything was based on improvisations. When you improvise, your subconscious takes over. Also, the drums are the perfect instrument to let everything out. When it was done, it was obvious to me that the motivation behind “Bad Hombre” was anger and frustration—me being worried about what was happening, and me trying to make some sense out of this picture. The title was supposed to refer to me, playing solo, being a “bad hombre,” as one musician might say to another. But Trump gave it new and harsh meaning. And so that’s why the album begins with a recording of my grandfather reciting lyrics to a corrido, with a mariachi band in there. That’s the baddest hombre I know, and it’s meant as a declaration of Mexican identity.
O’Farrill: I can’t separate music from politics. It’s all part of life. My latest revelation was finding out about the Fandango Fronterizo Festival, which is an incredible event founded by Jorge Francisco Castillo a dozen years ago at the border wall between San Diego and Tijuana, in which musicians play and sing and dance and eat together on both sides of a forbidding mesh wall. A friend and colleague, Karen Brooks Hopkins, forwarded an article about it. I found the story moving. I may have even cried, just from the idea of it. This is humanity at its best, using the tools of culture and music and community to literally destroy physical matter. This is what the revolutionary power of song is capable of doing: The mesh wall stops being something that divides us, and instead unites us.
I didn’t want to come in and just do a concert. I wanted to be there with Jorge and his community, to bring people and celebrate this elegant act of revolutionary force, which is maybe something we in jazz have forgotten about. I brought an army of musicians, a stellar cast. We recorded on both sides of the wall, in two countries at the same time. My mother had died just months before we did this so, in a way, I felt like I was reconnecting to a profound spiritual sense of being Mexican.
Sanchez: After the election, I had to start writing for a new record. But a darkness had come over me. And then I went to the border with Arturo, and that blew me away. It inspired me to think that, in fact, we have constructive things to do and say. The title of the record—Lines in the Sand—came from that experience, because the fence comes from the mountain into the sand and disappears into the water. I wanted to be more literal this time. I wanted to be kind of shocking. I started looking up instances where people were being stopped and frisked and separated from families. You could hear voices of police and of bystanders who were reacting. I put a collage together from a bunch of instances. I used my music to serve their story.
When I play this music, I tell audiences that this is about the immigrant experience. And that I am an immigrant. But I’ve been incredibly lucky to come here legally, and to do what I love to do, and to have a family that supported me. This album is not about me. It’s about another kind of person who is now demonized and ostracized in the name of nationalism and populism. And that situation is eroding a basic human function—to feel empathy for other people. If you saw those people how would you feel? These are the first voices you hear on my album.
O’Farrill: Where all this has led me is to an opera that considers the unjust and senseless death of an immigrant, Marcelo Lucero. But it’s really about human beings seeing themselves in the faces of their enemies. It’s about learning to disengage from the language and rhetoric of hatred that is so pervasive here.
Have you experienced backlash to your political expressions?
O’Farrill: Ten years ago, I started realizing that there are a lot of beautiful reasons to be a jazz musician and a lot of colors in that palette—and they’re not all red, white, and blue. I get resentment over this. Yet it makes me feel more vindicated than ever, like not only am I on the right path but that clearly, it’s the only path I can be on.
Sanchez: A lot of my fans are drummers. I get a lot of, “Man, love your drumming but hate your politics.” Or “I wish you would just shut up and play drums.” And those are the people I engage. I tell them, “Especially because we are artists, we have to speak up. It’s fine if you disagree with my politics. If I were just an American I would still speak up, but as a Mexican and as an immigrant, I must speak up.” I’m in the middle of something I know is unfair and inhumane and undignified. You can argue over policy, you can talk laws, but in terms of depriving people their humanity there is no excuse.
Have the past couple of years changed your feelings about your adopted country?
Sanchez: I feel like this country has a dual personality. We are seeing one ugly aspect more clearly than ever. But one silver lining is that people are more engaged and aware than ever. And it’s my job to promote that awareness, to heighten it.
O’Farrill: The constitution is a holy document. Even if written by slaveholding white men, the ideals behind this country and, furthermore, the nation as it has been realized by immigrants and former slaves, is one of the great experiments of humankind. Not long ago, before playing one of my father’s pieces at Birdland, I told the story of Chico O’Farrill, whose family is from a little rural town in the middle of nowhere in Cuba, who followed his muse all the way to New York and never lost his love for his native land, which he never saw again. My father was a classic immigrant. He came to this nation. He fell in love with it. He made life better for all of us.