A Conversation with Percussionist/Bandleader Poncho Sanchez

Speaking with someone you have idolized for years is never an easy task. So it was with some trepidation that I dialed Poncho Sanchez’s telephone number and held my breath. When he answered the telephone we exchanged pleasantries and he quickly informed that he could only give me 15 minutes of his time. Somewhat disappointed, I pressed on and lo and behold, an hour and a half later we were still on the telephone!

In my career as a music journalist I have interviewed over 100 artists in the worlds of jazz and Latin music. Read on as Poncho speaks candidly about his life, career, music and the artists he has worked with during his long and illustrious career. Particularly interesting are his insights on the lives and careers of Cal Tjader and Willie Bobo. Suffice it to say, Poncho ranks high on my list of favorite interviewee’s.

Interview conducted by: Tomas Peña

Tomas Peña: Hola Poncho! It’s an honor and a pleasure to speak with you. I have been a fan of your music for more years than I care to mention.

Poncho Sanchez: Thank you. I have been making music for a long, long time! (Laughs)

TP: You grew up in Norwalk, a suburb of Los Angeles during the 1950s. At the time Cuban music was rarely heard and recordings were difficult to come by, yet somehow your sisters got swept up in the Mambo craze. How did that happen?

PS: My family moved from Laredo, Texas to Norwalk in 1954. There were eleven of us, five brother and six sisters. My sisters used to listen to the radio a lot. They were big fans of DJ Chico Sesma, who had a one hour show on KOWL in Santa Monica. Chico was a trombone player, radio show host, and the promoter who organized the Latin dances at the Hollywood Palladium. He booked Tito Puente, Machito and Tito Rodriguez from New York, Cal Tjader from the West Coast and a lot of other big names.

(Interviewer’s notes: From 1949 to 1957, Lionel Sesma, better known as Chico Sesma featured an innovative, bilingual broadcast on KWOL in Santa Monica, California).

TP: So Chico was the culprit! Whatever became of him?

PS: Radio show host Jose Rizo and I paid Chico a visit about three years ago. I think he is about 80 years old now. He’s moving a little slow but he perked right up during our visit. During lunch Chico pulled out about 300 professional black & white photos that were taken at the Hollywood Palladium during the 1950s and 60s. When Jose and I saw the photos we flipped! At one point Chico handed them to me and asked me to look for my sisters. So there we were, going through the photos and looking for my sisters in the crowd. It was really great to hang with Chico.

TP: As I understand it there is a connection between Chico Sesma and the tune “Con Sabor Latino.”

PS: “Con Sabor Latino” was Chico‘s theme song. The tune, which dates back to 1961 or 1962 was composed by pianist Rene Touzet. It hasn’t been touched since then.

(Interviewer’s notes: “Con Sabor Latino” appears on Rene Touzet’s recording, titled “Too Much – Mr. Cha Cha Cha – Rene Touzet” on Capitol Records).

PS: It was through Chico’s show that my sister’s first heard the Mambo and the Pachanga.

TP: The Pachanga took New York by storm during the late 50s and early 60s.

PS: Over here too. My sisters used to dance the Pachanga every night. During that time they didn’t call Latin music “Salsa.” It was called Mambo, Cha Cha, etc. It wasn’t until later that the word “Salsa” became popular.

TP: If you think about it, what are the odds that a group of Chicana’s would become enamored with Cuban music and it would have such a tremendous impact on you?

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PS: Pretty slim. We are Mexican American. Chicanos from Texas. We are not Cuban or Puerto Rican. When I grew up Acid Rock and groups like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and Cream were popular. Personally, I didn’t care much for rock music. My preference was rhythm and blues and black music. I listened to rock because my friends liked it but when they visited my garage, which is where we hung out, I played Horace Silver, Joe Cuba and Tito Rodriguez. My friends used to say, “Hey man that’s old people’s music, take that shit off!”

TP: Obviously you were ahead of your time.

PS: Many of them are still my best friends and that’s exactly what they tell me.

TP: Was there something, or someone that influenced you to start playing the drums?

PS: I started playing the congas in my garage.

TP: And you have never taken a formal lesson?

PS: No, I have never taken a formal lesson.

TP: You came up the old fashioned way. Playing with records, jamming on street corners, parks and rumbas.

PS: Ramon Banda and I used to hang out a lot and someone told us that the best drummers jammed at Griffith Park in Santa Monica on Sunday afternoons. So we went on a Sunday and saw a bunch of “Americanos” sitting underneath a big oak tree drinking, smoking pot and playing some weird stuff. We jammed with them for awhile and got tired of it. Then someone told us that the best drummers played at the top of a hill so we went there and there were a bunch of Cubans and Puerto Ricans chanting and playing rumba. When I asked if I could sit in they said “No!” Then one of the guys asked me if I was Cuban or Puerto Rican. When I told him I was a Chicano the first thing that came out of his mouth was, “You can’t play!” Ramon and I stood under the hot sun watching them play for about an hour, then the guy who was playing the quinto (lead drum) jumped up … I think he went to get a beer or something … and I took the opportunity to jump behind the drum and started playing (imitates the sound of the lead drum with his voice). Anyway, they let me sit in for about five or ten minutes. Finally one of them said, “Oye suena bien!” (Hey, you sound good). Then he asked me if my mother was Puerto Rican or my father was Cuban! They just couldn’t accept the fact that a Mexican-American could play the drums.

TP: I have been to quite a few rumbas in my day. One of the things that I have observed is that there is a strict hierarchy amongst Rumberos. They take their drumming very seriously and don’t appreciate “outsiders.” What happened after that?

PS: After about three years I started playing with local bands in my area. At the time none of the local bands were playing Salsa. Eventually I hooked up with a band called “Sabor,” who played mostly Top 40 stuff – music by Chicago, Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago. In addition to playing the congas I was also singing. Eventually I started bringing in tunes by Mongo Santamaria, Ray Barretto and Joe Bataan. Tunes like “Para Puerto Rico Voy,“ “I Wish You Love,” “Come Candela” and “Besame Mama.”

TP: When did you play with “Sabor?”

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PS: Let’s see, I started playing with Cal Tjader in 1975, so it must have been around 1972. What happened is I was playing with a local band, going to Griffith Park on Sundays and playing with “Sabor.” We were playing at the International Press Club and this guy walked in who stuck out like a sore thumb. Between sets I walked over to the bar to get a beer and he shook my hand and said, “Hey man, you sound really good. “ Then he offered to buy me a drink and told me that he was a personal friend of Cal Tjader and I thought to myself, “Yeah right, this guy is full of shit.” As I was leaving I said to the guy, his name is Ernie, he is still alive today, “Don’t forget to tell your friend Cal Tjader about me.” When I went back to the bandstand I said to the guys, “See that guy over there? He’s a personal friend of  Cal Tjader” and they all laughed. Two weeks later Cal Tjader came to town and played at Howard Rumsey’s Concerts by the Sea. I used to go there to see everybody that came into town – Mongo, Willie Bobo, Ray Barretto. When we got there I was walking down the stairs and that very same guy was talking to Cal Tjader. When he saw me he said, “Hey Cal, there he is, Poncho Sanchez” and he introduced me to Cal. So Cal says, “My good friend Ernie tells me that you are a good conga player, would you like to sit in with my band?”

TP: You must have been a nervous wreck. Do you remember the name of the tune?

PS: I think it was “Manteca.” When I got on stage Cal asked me to lay out during the breaks and come in with the rhythm section. So the band started up and I came in on the breaks and took a solo and the crowd reacted. Later Cal said, “Man, you sound great, how did you know the breaks? We haven’t recorded that tune yet.” I told him that I had seen his band play six months earlier and that I remembered the breaks. He was amazed by the fact that I remembered everything after seeing him perform once. Anyway, Cal let me sit in for the rest of the set and afterwards he asked me for my name and phone number and told me that he might be able to use me the next time he comes to L.A. Afterwards, I had a few drinks to celebrate the occasion and calm down.

Two weeks later Cal called me and asked me to play with his band for five nights at the Coconut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel, opposite Carmen Mc Rae. So New Years Eve came and we get there and I am lugging my congas through the lobby like an idiot. I wore my best shirt and my best slacks (Laughs). After the first set, Cal gave me big hug and said, “You know man, you sound great, the gig is yours.” At first I thought he was talking about playing with him every once in awhile but then he said, “No man, the gig is yours.” Meaning, he wanted me to be a permanent member of his band. At the time I was working at an aluminum foundry during the day. To make matters worse I had just been laid off and my unemployment was about to run out. So Cal asked me, “Is $300.00 a week okay?” and I said, “300 bucks a week?” I was lucky if I made $150.00 a week and that was working forty long hours. From that day I was with Cal’s band for 7 ½ years. I toured the world with him, made 14 recordings, won a Grammy for “La Onda Va Bien” and I was with him in Manila when he died of a heart attack 27 years ago.

TP: You were there when Cal passed away?

PS: I was in the same room.

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TP: His death must have come as a terrible shock to you.

PS: Cal Tjader was my musical father. Most people don’t know that Cal had a previous heart attack one year earlier. After that he laid us for six months. When he was well enough he returned to the music scene and went on tour. Cal wanted to go to the Philippines (Manila) more than any of us because he was a medic in the Navy during World War 2. He told me that he wanted to go back to visit a particular beach where a battle had taken place. Interestingly enough, Cal Tjader’s wife and daughter rarely traveled with us, but thank God they decided to join us on this trip.

The minute we got to Manila Cal told his wife that he wanted to go to a beach where they have a statue of General Douglas Mac Arthur. He and his wife went there and when he arrived he cried like a baby. We hung out that night at the hotel and his wife told me that Cal got very little sleep and was very nervous. The next day Cal was examined by a woman doctor who was President Ferdinand Marcos’s personal physician. She examined him for five minutes and had him admitted. As I was pushing Cal through the lobby on the way to the hospital he was cracking jokes. He was saying stuff like, “I would rather be playing “Guachi Guara” than be in this wheel chair.” He hated “Guachi Guara” because he was tired of playing it. When we arrived at the hospital he had yet another heart attack. The doctors were able to revive him briefly but eventually he went into a coma. The next day, which was Cinco de Mayo, he had a series of heart attacks and died. He was 56 years old.

TP: I understand that you went into a deep depression after he died.

PS: Yeah man, that was a long, sad trip. I was crying all the way home from Manila. I went into a deep depression for about two years. What pulled me out of it was the fact that Cal got me a contract with Concord Picante, which was a branch of Concord Jazz. The first album we recorded on the Concord label was “La Onda Va Bien,” which won a Grammy in 1980. About 8 months after Cal died I recorded “Sonando.” Since that time I have made 24 recordings with Concord Picante.

TP: That’s quite an accomplishment. It’s not often that an artist stays with a record label for that length of time. Unfortunately many of the artists that recorded for Concord Picante (Cal, Mongo, Tito Puente) are no longer with us, which puts the onus of keeping Latin Jazz alive squarely on your shoulders.

PS: Many people call me the “Keeper of the Flame.” I honestly never dreamed that I would be that.

TP: I can only think of a handful of musicians who are doing what you do at such a consistently high level.

PS: And I am going to keep doin’ it until I can’t do it no more! I grew up listening to jazz, Latin jazz and authentic salsa, rumba and black music. It’s what I love.

TP: Speaking of black music, I was in New Mexico a few years ago, where I saw an exhibit titled “The African Presence in Mexico – From Yanga to the Present.” The exhibit focused on the little known history of enslaved Africans brought to Mexico in the 1500s and their contributions to Mexican culture. I wonder if you have seen the exhibit? And if so, would you consider incorporating Afro-Mexican rhythms into your music?

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PS: I haven’t seen the exhibit but I know that black (African) music is a big part of the music in Venezuela, Brazil and many other Latin American countries. That’s a subject that I am definitely going to look into.

TP: Conversely, soul comes in all shapes and sizes.

PS: Look at Cal, he was a Swedish blue-eyed baby. Not only was he a vibe player, but before that he was a jazz drummer, and before that he was a tap dancer. Cal’s family was a vaudeville family and he and his brother and sisters were tap dancer’s. One day I was playing a gig and Buddy Ebsen (AKA Jed Clampett from the TV show, The Beverly Hill Billie’s) walked into the club and waved to Cal and I thought to myself, “What the hell is this?” Long story short he and Cal were friends. Buddy walked over to Cal and said, “Hey man, let’s do our old routine” and they started tap dancing in the back room. They tapped danced for a couple of minutes and laughed and had a few drinks. Cal was kind of rusty by then but you could tell that he knew how to tap dance.

TP: It has been said that Cal never hit a bad note.

PS: Cal had a lot of soul.

TP: Before we close, I wanted to ask you about Willie Bobo. I know that you knew one another, however I was wondering if you ever made any recordings together?

PS: Actually Willie appears on the Cal Tjader album, “Huracan.” After that I performed with Willie’s group on three separate occasions. Willie and I also recorded “Tribute to Cal Tjader” together.

TP: Willie was yet another great musician who left us all too soon.

PS: I was playing at a little club called “The Baked Potato” with (pianist) “Claire Fischer and Salsa Picante.” Willie came by one night to see us play and he had a big patch behind his ear. When I asked him about it he told me that he had just come from the doctor and had a malignant cyst removed. You know what? He died 6 months later. The last time I saw Willie was when me and a bunch of other musicians got together to raise money for his medical expenses. He was in a wheel chair and didn’t want anyone to see him in that condition so he came to the back door of the venue and asked me to thank everyone for what they were doing. Then he got into a van and drove off. That was the last time I saw him.

TP: “Psychedelic Blues” was inspired by Willie, correct?

PS: Correct. For the recording we brought in Andrew Synowiec, a young, local guitar player here in Los Angeles. I gave him a bunch of my CD’s so that he could start getting the idea of what the Willie Bobo sound and the music was all about. He listened to them and one month later we went into the studio and recorded. All for Willie Bobo man.

TP: On “Psychedelic Blues” you return to your Latin Jazz roots and pay tribute to Willie Bobo, Herbie Hancock, Horace Silver, Rene Touzet, Freddie Hubbard, John Hicks and others. How did you choose the material for this recording?

PS: The Vice President of Concord Records and my musical director’s David Torres and Francisco Torres and I got together. One of the reasons I am still with Concord is because they ask me, “Poncho, what would you like to do next?”

TP: I don’t know of too many record companies that do that!

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PS: (Laughs) The Vice President of Concord Picante came to my house and suggested that I go back to my roots, my Latin Jazz stuff. He asked if we would record “Cantaloupe Island” and suggested that we include more songs like that. Basically, I went through my collection of CD’s, records and films and selected some of my favorite tunes – “Silver’s Serenade,” “Slowly But Surely,” “Crisis” and others. With respect to the tune, “Con Sabor Latino” nobody has recorded that except Rene Touzet and me. I like to draw from my childhood and listen to the music I grew up with. Stuff that Machito, Mongo, Tito Rodriguez, Joe Cuba and Cal Tjader did. We also write our own material but we always pay tribute to the masters.

TP: The album has been well received. It was on “Jazz Week’s” top ten list for weeks. What’s next for Poncho Sanchez?

PS: A couple of things that I am thinking about for my next project. We have been doing symphonies. Right before Tito Puente passed he called me and was all excited about the idea of our bands working together (on the same stage) with a symphony orchestra.

TP: Wow! That would have been amazing!

PS: He suggested that I get symphony charts of my music. It was a little expensive but now I have 8 or 9 charts. Thanks to Tito, my band has been performing with symphony orchestras for about five years.

TP: What kind of material do you perform?

PS: “Insight,” “Oyelo,” “Shiny Stockings,” “Afro Cuban Fantasy,” “Watermelon Man,” “Batiri Cha Cha” and “Cosas del Alma.” Someday I hope to film and record our band in performance with a symphony orchestra.

TP: Tito’s last concert (in Puerto Rico) was with a symphony orchestra.

PS: I haven’t seen that. Another thing I hope to do … I recently performed with bassist Christian Mc Bride in a jazz setting and it was a great experience. Afterwards, I told my manager that I want to make a recording with a jazz trio.

TP: I look forward to seeing those projects come to fruition. Poncho, thanks for speaking with me and more importantly, thank you for being part of the soundtrack of my life. As I said at the beginning of this interview, I have been listening to your music for more years than I care to mention.

PS: It was a pleasure speaking with you Tomas. It’s good to speak with someone who knows what’s up!

TP: Gracias!

Poncho Sanchez on the web: www.ponchosanchez.com

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