Everything we do has our flavor, everything I do has sabor! And as soon as I hang up the phone, I’m gonna make and I’m gonna eat some picadillo, arroz y frijoles”, says Poncho Sanchez, the legendary Mexican American conga player and singer. Speaking from his home in California, Sanchez is describing his music as bursting with as much flavor as a spicy ground meat dish (think Sloppy Joes, but way better). And in fact, conversing with Sanchez is an equally tasty treat. He’s warm and down to earth, and also a marvelous story-teller who speaks as rhythmically as his famous conga playing, peppering his phrases with occasional Spanish.
Born in Laredo, Texas to Mexican parents, he was the youngest of eleven children. When he was 4 years old, the family moved to Los Angeles. He speaks fondly of his parents, who were married for sixty years: “I learned a lot from my parents and my older brothers and sisters. We were very traditional. My father came from a pueblito called Matanzas, Jalisco, and my mother from a pueblito called Vallecillo, Nuevo Leon. We had big family dinners, went to church, all that beautiful family stuff.”
It was his older brothers who introduced him to music, classic Latin beats like Tito Puente, Machito, Cal Tjader. “We heard mambo, cha-cha-cha every day at home”, says Sanchez, who claimed those sounds from the beginning: “I thought it was music from Texas!
However, the musical skills that have brought him world-wide acclaim today were not his first choice. When he was in fifth grade, Sanchez began playing the guitar with other friends in the barrio, on an instrument he describes as a “cheap little Spanish guitar my Dad bought me in Tijuana for seven bucks, which held a tune for about a minute.” Shortly thereafter, the family moved back to Laredo, but only for a year. Sanchez returned to Los Angeles to find out in his absence, his friends in the hood had moved way ahead, he says: “All my home boys had a band! They sounded good, and they were playing electric guitars with amplifiers, and microphones!” And, the group already had three guitarists.
Fortunately, they still needed a singer. So Sanchez, whose other love besides Latin music was Motown and soul, decided to give it a try, as he describes: “ I was skinny then, and I could dance. I did my very best imitation of James Brown, and my friends said, ‘Poncho, you sing good!’ So I became a singer right on the spot”. That innate talent for vocals plus two congas he bought in high school put him on the musical path he is still walking to this day.
Twenty-four recordings, seven Grammy nominations and one Grammy later, Sanchez also has developed a line of congas with the largest drum company in the world, and in addition created a series of teaching DVDs (despite being entirely self-taught). He came to work with his childhood musical heroes, such as Cal Tjader, and has had the greatest soul and jazz musicians, including Ray Charles and James Brown’s musicians, as guests on his recordings.
At the heart of it all, is that special sabor of his culture, he affirms: “I am Latino and very proud of that. I was raised the old traditional way, very Mexicano, church-going way. I was taught the old school – love of family, loving our heritage. But I’m also a proud American, I’m a Mexican American”. He continues to explain that his music, Latin jazz, is above all American music, born when Dizzy Gillespie and the great Cuban composer, dancer and conga player Chano Pozo got together, and exclaims: “Latin jazz is American music born right here in the USA… look at all these wonderful cultures we have we can blend– it´s all ours! Let’s make good use of it!”
Sanchez added one final message: “Tell the folks that when we get there in Chicago we gonna mix it all up! We’re there to have a good time, we’re going to play some great Latin jazz, some great dance salsa music and some good Latin soul. All right?
To which I can only answer, “All right, Poncho, all right!”
Poncho Sanchez will perform two shows March 13 at the Mayne Stage.