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In San Francisco, art is everywhere

[su_label type=”info”]COLUMN: DEVIL’S ADVOCATE[/su_label]

The Teatro Campesino performance of “Popol Vuh.” Photo David McSpadden
The Teatro Campesino performance of “Popol Vuh.” Photo David McSpadden
Carlos Barón
Carlos Barón

Every time I leave the San Francisco Bay Area, besides missing my family and others close to me, what I miss most of all is the spectacular multicultural diversity of this place, especially its arts scene.

Between May 19 and 21, I was lucky enough to be able to witness and hear three magnificent performances, two of them as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival (SFIAF) under the tireless leadership of Executive Director Andrew Wood.

The first of these SFIAF performances was a concert by the dazzling Colombian musical group Cimarrón, which opened the festival.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better cuatro player or a better player of the Colombian Andean bandola, a kind of 12-string guitar that is plucked. The fingers of the two young players—24 or 25 years old—seemed to fly over their instruments, crafting melodies of absolute classics (“Caballo Viejo” and “Gavilán”) or exuberant compositions mixing jazz and folk. Besides the strings, the percussionists staged a musical juggling act with drums, cajones and maracas, along with the great voice of Ana Veydó, who sang in the “recio canto” style of the Colombian plains.

Behind the youth, the group’s director, harpist Carlos Rojas, was like everyone’s uncle with a constant smile on his face.

“Of course, besides being the leader, I’m the oldest in the group,” he told me after the show. “Just think of it, I heard the cuatro player for the first time when he was barely 4 years old. Now, even being so young, they’re all old hands, too, after almost 20 years of performing at a high level.”

He continued proudly: “The idea is to not grow old. I played with the cuatro player’s father and now I play with his son … and I hope to be around to play with his grandson.”

The second SFIAF event, presented on Saturday, May 21 in Fort Mason’s Cowell Theater, was Fandango-Pandanggo, a real musical gem. It was the result of a collaboration between several musicians, dancers and visual artists of different backgrounds, including Filipinos, Spaniards, Cubans and Mexicans. The main collaborators were Chus Alonso, a Spaniard, and Florante Aguilar, a Filipino. Alonso and Aguilar joined together to shed light on how the musical and dance forms of those four countries have influenced each other historically. That night, the jotas and fandangos/pandanggos came from all of them. The flamenco danced “a la Filipino” was also very Spanish. And the Cuban footwork was reflected precisely in the guajiro flamenco of the Filipina dancer.

The Teatro Campesino performance of “Popol Vuh.” Photo David McSpadden
The Teatro Campesino performance of “Popol Vuh.” Photo David McSpadden

The third event was a theatrical production of Popol Vuh: Heart of Heaven by El Teatro Campesino from San Juan Bautista. On Saturday afternoon, May 21, the Cesar Chavez Elementary School in the beleaguered Mission District was decked out for this “Popol Vuh.” Based on the creation myth of the Quiche Mayan people, and brought to life by El Teatro Campesino under the direction of Kinán Valdéz, it was a treat to behold for eye and ear. It was staged in the main schoolyard under a colorful mural presided over by a smiling figure of Cesar Chávez. Spectacular giant paper mâché puppets and other puppets of various sizes filled the stage with graceful and beautiful choreography. There was a large, multigenerational cast including children and young people… and some not so young. The work was narrated and set to music in several languages, including Spanish, English and Quiche, clearly achieving what the program said about El Teatro Campesino’s original vision: “performance that addresses the Chicano experience in America in a context meaningful to all Americans.”

While watching the three events, I was overcome by a familiar sensation, a strange kind of sadness, because many people who surely would have loved it—friends, students, family and community members—were not there with me. A lot of my life has revolved around the theater and I’m happy for that.  Perhaps that’s why, having enjoyed so much being on the stage, or in front of it, that I think it’s something the whole world would like.

And I believe, like Concha Saucedo of the Instituto Familiar de la Raza said, that “culture heals,” and these days, we need plenty of healing.

Carlos Barón is recently retired professor of theatre arts, whose teaching career at San Francisco State University spanned 38 years.

—Translation Steven Merritt

Story by: Carlos Barón