Arts & Cultural Vitality / 2013

Fandango Obon Project / Proyecto Fandango Obon

Idea submitted in the My LA2050 Maker Challenge by Great Leap, Inc.

Overview: Los Angeles is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, but cross-cultural interaction is often hindered by injustice, misconceptions, fear and competition for resources. Can a musical dialogue open cultural borders between diverse Angeleno communities? Can ritual circle dance help us imagine a new vision for Los Angeles? The LA2050 study indicates that Arts and Cultural Vitality significantly enhance the quality of life in Los Angeles. GREAT LEAP is creating the Fandango-Obon Project as a fresh way to boost this potential. This collaboration between the Grammy-winning artists of QUETZAL, and Nobuko Miyamoto will co-create an original composition that brings together two thriving Latin and Asian music and dance traditions – Fandango son Jarocho and Obon. A series of cross-cultural workshops throughout Los Angeles will teach the song and communal dance, and guide a creative process to share traditions and personal stories to deepen understanding between participants. On November 2nd, Day of the Dead, a culminating Fandango-Obon celebration will bring together diverse community members, musicians and dancers in a ritual piece at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center Plaza. A documentary short video will be created from the process and spread through social media to engage the widest audience. We hope to secure a broadcast television outlet for the video as well. Our goal with this project is to inspire other communities to replicate this model, with meaningful, in-depth cultural exchanges that we believe will create a more harmonious, sustainable Los Angeles of the future. A Dialogue Between Cultures: Fandango Son Jarocho is a popular folk form of music and dance rooted in Indigenous, African, and Spanish cultures from Veracruz, Mexico. Musicians playing ‘jaranas’ (small 8-string guitars) in a circle, others singing and dancing percussively upon the wooden platform, generate a spirit of “convivencia” - living/being together, building communication and trust. Quetzal Flores and Martha Gonzalez of “Quetzal” brought what they learned from Veracruz and are strengthening a network of Fandango Groups spreading throughout L. A. and the nation. Obon is an ancient folk music and dance from the Japanese Buddhist tradition, brought here over 100 years ago. The music commonly uses shamisen, a stringed instrument, taiko and voices also performed on a raised platform. Japanese communities dance the circle at summertime Obon festivals to remember their ancestors. Nobuko has been instrumental in translating this traditional form into a vibrant contemporary practice by creating new songs in English. Over 10,000 people danced her popular environmental-themed piece, “Mottainai (Don’t Waste Nature)” at 16 temples during 2011-12. This new collaboration between Nobuko and Quetzal will spark a groundbreaking “musical dialogue” between cultures. The new piece themed, “All Things Connected,” will give space to each form to express its traditional uniqueness, while exploring new improvisational and harmonic possibilities. Choreography from both traditions will be taught by seasoned dancers, however will be fundamental and familiar enough that people of all ages and abilities can learn, enjoy and interpret freely. The Community Workshops: Fandango Son Jarocho and Obon are proven models for community building. In the neighborhoods of Boyle Heights, Little Tokyo and South L.A., Great Leap will offer a series of workshops to teach the music and dance in community centers, temples, and schools to gather participants for the culminating performance/celebration. Hands-on experience with instruments like the Jarana and taiko, and improvisational exchanges with musicians will bridge the public’s connection to these folk forms. Most importantly, we will provide a space and process for sharing personal stories and cultural traditions that will deepen knowledge of each other. The Performance/Celebration: The finale premieres the new Quetzal/Nobuko piece that will engage at least 500 people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds at the plaza of the JACCC. In a ritual of connectedness there will be performances of Son Jarocho, Obon and Taiko communities, and stories about their cultural significance. Documentation and Replication: Videomaking and distribution through social media will extend our journey of creative exchange and engage the general public. Our documentary will dramatize how participants reflect on and are changed by their experiences, and how the knowledge of our interdisciplinary practices can be continued by a new group of artist leaders. As L. A. lags behind comparable metropolitan cities in per capita expenditures on arts and culture, a project like Fandango-Obon, developed at the grassroots and made inclusive and accessible to underserved communities, is vitally important. Our hope is to inspire many bold, innovative cross-cultural collaborations L.A.’s future.


What are some of your organization’s most important achievements to date?

2013 is the 35th anniversary of Great Leap. We have consistently created productions, workshops and art programs that have grown from our engagement with diverse communities. Our longevity reflects our ability to change, innovate and respond to the needs of the times.

In 1978, Founder/Artistic Director, Nobuko Miyamoto established Great Leap as a non-profit arts organization creating concerts and musical theater works reflecting the Asian American experience, successfully mounting and touring musicals “Chop Suey” and “Talk Story” on the West Coast and Hawaii.

In response to the racial conflicts of Los Angeles Uprising in 1992, Great Leap became a multicultural arts organization, presenting the first-voice stories of Asian, Latino and African American artists in “A Slice of Rice, Frijoles and Greens.” To this day the performance tours colleges including a yearly show at UCLA’s Medical School as cultural awareness training for new interns. Our youth version toured schools for 10 years, reaching 50,000 youth yearly with the Music Center on Tour program.

In 2001, the events of 9/11 pushed us to create workshops and that brought together people from the Muslim, Buddhist, Christian and Jewish communities. We created a sacred space where people could share their stories and traditions, and experienced the power of the bonding that resulted. From this we developed the theater piece “Leaps of Faith,” performed at the 2009 World Parliament of Religions in Australia.

Great Leap has also designed Arts and Yoga for Youth, a program for USC’s Upward Bound program, training and creating performances with young people. In 2005 we created our artist mentorship program, Collaboratory to pass on our creative practices to the next generation. We are now doing the tenth cycle of Collaboratory in Long Beach, with Cambodian, Samoan and Tongan artists and community members who will learn Great Leap’s creative and collaborative methodology in theater making and community building.

Now we are using our environmental music video series, “Eco-Vids” as an innovative way to engage communities of color with the critical issue of Climate Change and highlight the sustainable practices passed down the generations. The first, “B.Y.O. Chopstix,” promotes conservation by using disposable chopsticks; “Mottainai” tells the story of the Japanese tradition of “No Waste,” and “Cycles of Change,” a collaboration between Quetzal and Nobuko, encourages urban families to bicycle for their health and the environment. Since 2010 the Ecovids have received over 45,000 views on YouTube.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

Lead Artists: Nobuko Miyamoto, Great Leap – songwriter/choreographer Quetzal Flores and Martha Gonzalez of “Quetzal” - composers/arrangers/lyricists Partners: Leslie Ito, Japanese American Cultural and Community Center Joel Perez, Building Healthy Communities-Boyle Heights Evelyn Yoshimura, Mike Murase, Little Tokyo Service Center Rev. Briones, Nishihongwanji Buddhist Temple Digital History Project, Visual Communications Tarabu Betserai Kirkland, A Place Called Home Workshop locations (tentative): Nishi Hongwanji Temple, Little Tokyo Senshin Buddhist Temple, South Los Angeles A Place Called Home, South Los Angeles Building Healthy Communities, Boyle Heights Breed St. Shul, Boyle Heights Mendez Learning Center, Boyle Heights East LA College

Please explain how you will evaluate your project. How will you measure success?

By participating in “Fandango-Obon,” Angelenos will find support in mapping and sharing common experiences. They will have transformative experiences and a sense of pride and ownership in the culminating performance and video. This is a rare opportunity for these two communities to experience a deeper understanding of their significance within “the American story.” We expect our program to effect the following changes:

  • Authentic, thought-provoking works of performing art will be created and preserved
  • Participants will gain confidence in their creativity and inherent dignity of their unique stories
  • Participants and audiences gain a deeper understanding of the power of culture to build community
  • Increased interaction and communication between two diverse communities in Los Angeles
  • Increased respect and communication between elders and youth within communities We will measure our impact in the following ways:
  • Written and verbal evaluations from workshop participants and program partners
  • Post-performance Q&A and letters from audiences
  • The degree of diversity in workshop participants and audiences
  • At least 30 people will participate in each workshop
  • At least 500 audience members will view the culminating performance
  • Our goal for the documentary short is to generate 10,000 YouTube hits per year. We hope to increase this number exponentially by securing television broadcasts time.

How will your project benefit Los Angeles?

While our neighborhoods in many ways provide comfortable, safe havens, and especially for immigrant populations, there should exist friendly avenues to enter and exit, and meaningful opportunities to engage across them. Great Leap continues its commitment to use the arts to bridge cultural boundaries. Over our 35 years we have developed methodologies to provide people of diverse ethnicities, religions and other self-identifications with opportunities for deep and meaningful encounters.

Important elements of Fandango-Obon are providing a compelling purpose for people to come together, and the creation of an affirming space for exploration and expression without judgment. It is an entrance to a place in time where music, dance, and connection with one’s ancestral traditions can be lived with pride. Our theater techniques, games and other facilitation frameworks help participants bond with people of other backgrounds, often for the first time. Once such a “barrier” is unlocked, it can be more easily be opened in future encounters across the city. We practice assertive outreach to ensure that our gatherings are not only cross-cultural, but also intergenerational, so that young people can learn from elders who may have deeper understanding from direct experience with their cultural heritage.

Geographical dimensions of L. A. will be utilized in unique ways. The L.A. River separates Boyle Heights and Little Tokyo. Though only a short walk across a bridge, residents of the respective neighborhoods generally do not interact, other than in passing. Fandango-Obon will give impetus to cross the “bridge” – on foot, bicycle or via the metro. A workshop at the Nishi Hongwanji Temple just west of the 1st St. Bridge, will welcome a mainly Latino community into a Japanese American setting. Conversely, residents of Little Tokyo will travel the short distance to Boyle Heights to be welcomed by our workshop partner Building Healthy Communities.

Additional cross-cultural engagements include a workshop at A Place Called Home (APCH) in South Los Angeles, bringing Japanese Americans to a center with mainly African American and Latino youth. APCH is located only 3 miles south of Little Tokyo down Central Avenue, an historic cultural Mecca of its own.

Fandango-Obon will elevate awareness of Angelenos’ common histories within geographic proximity. For example, how many of us knew that Boyle Heights has had established Japanese and Jewish communities in the recent past? Mutual understanding can lower cultural barriers and help us “create a circle dance” that respects our uniqueness while building trust and stronger community relations. We see the potential for this project to change stereotypical perceptions that separate us. As our city and nation continues moving toward people of color being the majority, we want L.A. to stand out as a place where arts and culture are robust and accessible to all and are used in innovative ways to meet our challenges.

What would success look like in the year 2050 regarding your indicator?

One measure of success would be that the “Arts and Cultural Vitality indicator” would remain at its present level of significantly enhancing human development in Los Angeles - made possible through continued and increased philanthropic and government support to match the resourceful ways art continues to be empowered in grassroots communities, whether funds are available or not.

However Los Angeles’ communities of color and other underserved communities have had a long history of dedicated creative artists leaving their footprints the 1960’s and before. Regardless of funding, we have found ways to voice our stories and build a sense of connection. If our cultural indicator decreases because of lack of public funding, we will not be leaving for greener pastures. We are here less for the art jobs, and more to express, reflect and create a sustainable way of life for our communities, one person at a time. Some of our elders from the generation of artists that emerged from the Civil Rights struggles are passing on, but not without leaving their creative knowledge with younger generations. Smaller community arts organizations are looking at new ways of sharing resources and partnering. Great Leap has begun to do art workshops with environmental organizations to help voice concerns about the environment, which will become a larger concern as we move into the future.

In the year 2050 we envision that artists and arts organizations will continue to give and receive vitality, finding new ways to flourish and be relevant for our communities and Great Leap remains committed to this journey.