For nearly 40 years Poncho Sanchez has been keeping the flame of soulful Latin Jazz alive. On Sunday, April 13 the master conguero will bring his Latin Jazz band to Indy for a performance at the Jazz Kitchen.
NUVO: You're one of the few Mexican-American musicians that has been successful in the Latin Jazz scene. Was it difficult for you to get your foot in the door of the Afro-Cuban music world?
Poncho Sanchez: It was rough. The Cubans and the Puerto Ricans didn't believe that Chicanos could play congas.There was a park in Los Angeles called Griffith Park and I heard that every Sunday a bunch of conga players would get together there. So one day when I was a young guy starting out I went over there and I saw these guys playing rumba. They were rally good, so I tapped a guy on the shoulder that was playing the quinto [the lead drum] and I asked, "Can I sit in and play?"
The guy turned and said "Are you Cuban?" I said no. He said, "Are you Puerto Rican?" I said no. So he said "What are you?" I said "I'm a Mexican-American, a Chicano." He said "Chicanos can't play conga" and then he turned his head and kept on playing.
A little later he got up from the drum to go get a beer, so I jumped in and started soloing on the quinto. He came back and watched me for five minutes and when I finished he came up and said, "Wow, you sound great. Your mother or father must be from Cuba or Puerto Rico." He couldn't believe it. He said, "Man, I've never heard a Chicano play like that in my life."
That happened again the first time my band went to New York City. We played at the Village Gate and it was completely sold out. Tito Puente, Kako, and Patato were there. A lot of my heroes were there.
But they weren't there as my friends. They were there to see if these Mexicans from Los Angeles could really play Latin jazz and by the end of the night they were all cool with us.
NUVO: I've heard that you taught yourself conga by listening to classic Latin Jazz records from guys like Mongo Santamaria. I wanted to get your opinion on a quote Mongo gave in an old issue of Downbeat. He said "you can't learn to play things like guaguancó in the United States. You have to have been where it came from. You can't listen to records and get those feelings." So how did you defy Mongo's wisdom and teach yourself conga from listening to records?
Sanchez: Mongo Santamaria is my hero. I named my son after Mongo and we were good friends for years.
In a sense he's right. But It's not my thing to play rumba and guaguancó. I got into Latin Jazz with the mambo and the funky cha-cha rhythms. I come from a different side of things.
In the barrios of Havana I know they play the guaguancó and rumba in many different styles. If you went to Cuba and hung out there for a while you'd pick up all that stuff up.
But you can learn to be a great conga drummer without growing up in Cuba and playing guaguancó your whole life. As a matter fact sometimes I see cats that are great rumberos and play all these complex bata rhythms from Cuba and Africa, but when it comes time to sit down and jam with a Latin jazz band they ain't got no swing.
For me as long as you know enough about the drum and respect it you don't have to know every detail of all that to be a great conga drummer.
NUVO: One thing I really appreciate about your music is that you've kept that late 1960s New York Latin soul and boogaloo sound of artists like Pucho and the Latin Soul Brothers, Joe Cuba, Pete Rodriguez and Willie Bobo alive. Why have you continued to champion that sound when other Latin Jazz bandleaders have let it die out?
Sanchez: I grew up in that era. You're talking about the Latin Boogaloo from New York City. Here in California during that era what we called boogaloo was all the soul stuff like James Brown and the music coming out from Memphis, Tennessee on Stax Records and Atlantic.
For instance there's a song called "Boogaloo Down Broadway" by the fantastic Johnny C out of Philadelphia. To me, that is boogaloo music. It's just soul music, which they now call funk. So when I was in high school and I heard somebody say boogaloo, it just meant soul music to me.
I love it because I grew up with that sound. I like to cross the Joe Cuba boogaloo stuff with James Brown, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding. Put all that together and that's where you come up with my Poncho Sanchez sound and groove.
NUVO: You've been playing Latin music for several decades. What are your thoughts on the current state of the scene?
Sanchez: First of all I'm proud and happy that Latin music has grown as much as it has. I joined the Cal Tjader band and became a professional musician in 1975 and I was playing in local bands around Los Angeles seven years before that.
I've been doing this a long time playing different types of Latin music. In the early years I was even in a Tex-Mex band playing polkas and cumbias. So I am proud to see Latin music grow so much and spread all over the world.
The only thing I'm afraid of is that it's getting too watered down with all these pretty boy pop bands and half-naked girls shaking everything they got. It's all right, but to me that isn't really music. It's all show.
I'm old school, I'd rather listen to Tito Puente and Ray Barretto or Sam and Dave and Otis Redding. I always tell people as long as Poncho Sanchez is alive you will get your proper dosage of real Latin jazz, salsa and Latin soul music.
This week's Cultural Manifesto podcast features audio clips from my interview with Poncho Sanchez.
1. Poncho Sanchez - Rumba De Po-Tiz
2. Poncho Sanchez interview "Chicanos can't play congas"
3. Mongo Santamaria - Virtue
4. Poncho Sanchez interview "you got to prove yourself"
5. Tito Puente - Ran Kan Kan
6. Poncho Sanchez interview "learning from records"
7. Poncho Sanchez - Peruchin
8. Poncho Sanchez interview "Latin Soul and boogaloo"
9. Fantastic Johnny C - Boogaloo Down Broadway
10. Mongo Santamaria - Cold Sweat
11. Willie Bobo - Fried Neck Bones and Some Home Fries
12. Poncho Sanchez interview "my sound and groove"
13. Joe Cuba - El Pito
14. Poncho Sanchez - Chile Con Soul
15. Ray Barretto - Acid
16. Poncho Sanchez - Nueva Charanga
17. Poncho Sanchez interview "state of Latin music"
18. Poncho Sanchez - Yumbambe
19. Poncho Sanchez interview "the real sound of Latin Jazz"
20. Poncho Sanchez & Terence Blanchard - Chano Pozo Medley
21. Poncho Sanchez interview "Jazz Kitchen"
22. Poncho Sanchez - Alafia