By Enrique Lopetegui
Here’s the complete Poncho Sánchez Q&A. Catch him and his band live this Saturday at 9:30 at Travis Park, for JazzSAlive.
Not only you are not from Cuba or Puerto Rico…
…but you are from Texas! Was it extra hard for you to earn credibility as a conguero?
Oh, yeah… Maybe today it would be a little easier for a Tejano, or Chicano, or Mexican American to break into the circle, probably because of me… (laughs) But when I was coming up, early ’70s, there were very few Mexican American conga drummers around. And everybody knows that Puerto Rican or Cuban conga drummers were much better, and they really were, in those days. There were only a handful or Chicano conga drummers in Los Angeles, working with El Chicano, or Tierra, those kind of bands. And they really didn’t know the real way to play congas, half of the time. Some of those guys were just guessing. And for me it was hard. I practiced with my brothers’ and sisters’ records. I had the early records of Machito, and Tito Puente, and Orquesta Aragón, Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaría… I learned from listening to records. Nobody showed me nothing. And at times I would turn the record over and look in the back to see the conga drummer, the way he held his hand. I had no videos and I was too young to go to a nightclub and see a guy play congas. I didn’t even know how to hit it, pero de todos modos I would listen to the music and I would hear the conga go PA! Tu-tu PA! I’d go “Man, how do they get that sound?!” El sonido! And I would look at the pictures and I would see how they would cup their hand, and I would go “Oh, maybe they slap it, and they open it…” Well, that’s how I learned, by myself. And I loved it so much. If felt natural to me. This October I’ll be 58 years old. I’ve been playing congas for 40 years, and I’m not the kind of guy who hits the congas soft. And I’m a pretty big guy. With me it’s PA!! I really want to hit the thing. Other guys use other techniques, lighter and fast. Like Giovanni [Hidalgo, for many the world’s best conguero], he plays so fast, rrrrrrrr, lightning-fast. Giovanni is a good friend of mine…
Do you agree he’s the best conguero in the world?
He’s one of the best, yes. To me there is no best anything, because there is always someone who does something a little better than you. As far as el sonido, I think I have a better sound than him. But for speed and ideas, Giovanni is incredible. I can’t even think as fast as he plays. But that’s not everything, to be fast or creative. Sometimes you have to have good sound and good soul, you know what I mean? Good feeling, to make the music feel good. Giovanni is a great soloist also, but he has a certain style, and I have a certain style. In my style, I’m better than him, but in his style he’s better than me. So, to me, there is no best at anything. Same with sax, trumpet or whatever.
So who are your heroes? Name me two or three congueros you look up to.
Oh, Giovanni is one of them, a very good friend of mine and I love him. But Mongo Santamaría (1917-2003) was my hero of all time. And I got to know him very well, he was a very good friend of mine for many, many years. As a matter of fact, I named my oldest son after him. He’s named Mongo, 37 years old.
That’s love, man…
I named my oldest son Mongo and my youngest son, 27, Tito, for Tito Puente. I got to play with both many times. My story is incredible, it’s like a fairy tale. Don’t forget I’m just a Chicano, a Tejano from Laredo, a Mexican that moved to Los Angeles in the barrio, the youngest of 11, and I taught myself how to play the congas in a garage. And now I have a book that teaches you how to play the congas…
What’s the name of the book?
(Poncho struggles to give me the book’s correct name, but I looked it up: Poncho Sanchez' Conga Cookbook: Develop Your Conga Playing by Learning Afro-Cuban Rhythms from the Master)
That’s the name of the book?
That’s a catchy name… NOT!
From a guy who doesn’t know how to play the congas to a guy with books and DVD’s, and now, they make Poncho Sanchez congas. The largest drum company in the world is Remo drums, and they make four different types of Poncho Sánchez congas. I came a long way.
You do salsa, soul, funk, R&B, but your thing is Latin jazz, isn’t it?
The band is called the Poncho Sánchez Latin Jazz Band, because originally it started as a Latin jazz band. But little by little through the years, and I’ve had the band for 30 years, people started telling me ‘”Poncho, can you do a little salsa too?” So I started to sing and I’m still the lead singer. And because I grew up in the ’60s in Los Angeles, I love soul music, so I started singing some soul music, Latin soul. So we do all of that: Latin jazz, salsa, and Latin soul music.
How do you rate yourself as a sonero?
Oh…(laughs) Not too good. I don’t think I’m that good. But I do it well enough to cover that base. I just can’t afford another member of the band. If I had to hire a sonero… It’s expensive, man! I travel with 10 people already. To put another one on the payroll… I can’t afford it. I can cover that base, but I don’t see myself as a very good sonero. I’m just ok. I’m more like a conguero.
Tell me about the new album.
It’s called Psychedelic Blues. It was a song that Willie Bobo recorded many years ago, so we did a new arrangement and it ended up being the title track.
But if somebody is looking from a good blues album, they should stay away from that one, right?
(laughs) Of course, it’s the Poncho Sánchez sound. We have a little bit of soul music, and a couple of salsa numbers. I did one original with Francisco Torres [the band’s trombone player], ‘Delifonse’, which is my nickname. It’s a mambito. Francisco Torres wrote a number, David Torres [piano, musical director] a couple of numbers, and we revisited older classics that I like. There’s also a new arrangement of [Herbie] Hancock’s ‘Cantaloupe Island.’
Will you play any of it here?
Not too many great bands come through San Antonio. Does this show have any special flavor for you?
We’re excited to go back to SA, we always have a good time there. A lot of my cousins come from Laredo to see me play, and also friends from Brownsville… So in that whole area I have a lot of people coming to see me, so we’re really excited.
You’ve done it all, except, perhaps., an album with more of a Tejano flavor…
I thought about that. As a matter of fact, Little Joe [Hernández] and I have spoken about putting a polka pattern with a mambo beat, and I told Little Joe and he got really excited. I said “Joe, we gotta do a record together and mix those two ideas.” He’s ready to do it with me, but I had to do [Psychedelic Blues] first. Maybe for my next album.
But you’d do a whole album or just a few tracks?
Maybe not the whole album, but three or four songs… Something different.
At this point, what do you feel like? A Chicano, a Mexican, Angeleno, Latino…?
I feel like Poncho Sánchez. (laughs) I feel very proud. I am a Latino that is from America, because I was born in the United States of America. I’m proud to say that. And many great things happened in the United States of America. Latin jazz was born here, when Dizzy Gillespie met the great Cuban conga drummer Chano Pozo in the 40s. That, to me, is American music, you know?