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Interview with Poncho Sanchez
By Jose Reyes and Iris Castanon-Reyes

Question: What inspired you to go take up the congas?

Poncho: I'm the youngest of 11 kids, 6 sisters and 4 brothers. We were born in Laredo, Texas. And we moved to Los Angeles, California when I was 4 years old. And then, I don't know how, my brothers and sisters got into the Mambo and Cha Cha Cha music that they use to play in the radio. Actually, there was only one station that would play it in LA way back when. There was a disc jockey by the name of Chico Cesno. Chico use to come on every night and play "musica Cubana" or "musica Latina" with the Mambo and Cha Cha Cha, now they call it Salsa. Anyway, I use to hear that every night and hear the congas of Tito Puente, Machito, Tito Rodriguez, Orchesta Aragon. So for me those were in my heart I would also hear the traditional music from Mexico. My mother was from the north of Mexico, Vallecillo, Nuevo Leon and she would like "musica Nortena". My father was from Matalsas, Jalisco and so he liked Mariachi. So I use to hear that music too. But I really like the music my sisters would play like the Machito tunes. That was the first time I heard the sounds of the congas, the maracas and los bongos.

Question: When did you play your first percussion?

Poncho: Actually, I think I was in high school, about 10th grade. I had a friend who had a little Latin Jazz band. The first thing I played was the timbales and his father made the timbales for us, so I learned to play on them. A couple years later, my dad bought a conga and I bought another conga. I put on the records that my brothers and sisters had and I would listen to them and would then try to get the same sound. So I'm self-taught.

Question: So did you study with anyone afterwards formally?

Poncho: Not really, I only had one lesson on the conga.

Question: How has it been for you as a Chicano to break through the cultural barriers as a musician?

Poncho: Of course, like all Latinos, its been an uphill battle. And then for me in the early years, it was even harder because I wanted to play a conga that comes from Africa by way of Cuba and Puerto Rico and my ancestors are from Mexico. And I was raised as a Chicano or Tejano. When I finally started playing a little better, I would go to the park, Griffith Park in Los Angeles. Every Sunday they had drummers playing out there. There would be a big circle of about 30 guys playing under this big tree. And they played horrible, all 30 of them. Some would even play on trash cans. Then there was another circle that played pretty good. And then there was the best circle of them all, where the guys played real good, and they were all Cubans and Puertoricans. And of course, I would go watch them. One day I asked them if I could play, and they asked me. "Are you Cuban or Puertorican?" and I said. "No I'm Chicano", "So you can't play, Chicano's can't play Congas", they said. I was very young and I thought: "I don't know about that." So one day, one guy did let me play cause he had seen me play with one of the other guys, and he said to the others, "this guy plays pretty good". So they let me play with them after that. The same thing happened in New York City many years later when I traveled there with my band. We played at the Village Gate. Every musician I could think of was there, Manny Oquendo, Tito Puente, Patato, Caco 'cause they were checking out our band. They wanted to see if we were going to make it or not. This was serious stuff. We played and we've been back to New York many, many times.

Question: Are there any members of your band that are from the Caribbean?

Poncho: Just Jose "Papo" Rodriguez. We was born in the Bronx and raised in Phadelphia. His mother and father are from Puerto Rico. Most of them are Chicanos. One is italiano, Sal Cracchiolo. Francisco, the newest member of our band is from Sonora, Mexico.

Question: You have some members in your group that have been with you for a while.

Poncho: Ramon and Tony Banda, and Sal Cracchiolo. They have been with the band from day one, nineteen years now. Most of the guys have been in the band for about ten years.

Question: You have such an extensive concert schedule. I was seeing in your website, July was booked all the way through and your just about booked throughout the end of the year, how do you manage to keep up the momentum and how do you recover, how do you recharge?

Poncho: We try to rest on the days off, but usually a lot of days off are really not down days, they are travel days. We're on the road most of the time. What I like to do now is have my agency book me Thursday through Sunday out on the road and go home on Monday. That's what we've been doing for the last several months. Last week, we were in Houston. We did the Houston Jazz Festival and the Jazz Festival in Hartford, Connecticut. Next week we go to New Hampshire.

Question: What are your upcoming projects? I saw that you are going to do something with the music of Tito Rodriguez.

Poncho: Well, I would like to. That's in the making. We want to do that because I'm a big Tito Rodriguez' fan for many, many years. And also, I would like to make a tribute to Willie Bobo. But what is going to be up next in late October is our live CD. Actually, we did the first one of live recordings in Oakland, California about a, month and a half ago, and then we did another live recording about three weeks ago at the Congo Room. We used both recordings and hand picked what we wanted.

Question: Do you already have a name picked out for it?

Poncho: I think they wanted to call it The Latin Soul of Poncho Sanchez. We're just kicking that all around right now. We are working on a cover and the final mix right now.

Question: If you were to pass on a message to the youth today, what would be that message, especially to those who are venturing out into their music career?

Poncho: To the young musicians, I would say first of all, be very serious about your music, study and practice, a lot of practice. I practiced every day for many, many years. We all did, and still do. I play so much now I don't practice as much as I did. Now days, young musicians are very lucky. They have many more things than what we had. There were no videos of Latin music. I was lucky I got those albums from my sisters. My sisters had a hard time finding those albums in the area I grew up in. Los Angeles. Nowadays, the young kids have so many things available to them. So I would say, take advantage of all the play along CD's where they have the actual jazz recording without your instrument so you can play that part and then you have your music in front of you. So there you are, it's all right in front of you. There are a lot of videotapes now on How to Play Congas. As a matter of fact, Fm working on an instructional video right now. Stay focused on what you feel in your heart and what you want to do in life. Because there are so many different avenues and different roads that can come and change your mind. And there are a lot of bad things that can change your mind too, there are a lot of drugs out there, we all know that, there is violence. For a young child, focus in on a goal, so you won't get distracted.

Question: What has been your inspiration to keep you focused and inspired to create music?

Poncho: I have to, first of all, give thanks to my mother and father, and to my background, my roots. They were great parents that I had. They sang in a choir church. In fact, they were not super musically inclined, but I owe a lot to my parents and my brothers and sisters. I grew up in a house where they played music every day and danced to the Mambo and Cha Cha Cha, so I learned a lot from them. The other thing I would say is I have a fire burning in my heart to play this music. I've worked for a long time to get to where I'm at, and I think just the love and the respect for the music is what has kept me going. Then there are always people, like my music director, David Torres, who comes up with ideas for new tunes. Dave will call me and say: "Remember this old number, let s do it like this or like that." And I'll get excited about another tune we can do. So those kinds of things inspire you and keep you going. You'll see right now when we play, we feed off each other, it's a unit, we work together. I mean, I direct a lot of the traffic, but we all listen to each other, and play off of each other.

Poncho Sanchez and his band gave an outstanding performance. He made an of us get up and dance. He played the best of Mambo, Cha Cha Cha, Rhumba, Bolero and Salsa. Those who were not there missed a great concert!

Jose Reyes and Iris Castanon-Reyes are both journalists and photographers, and are the Denver Editors for justSalsa.com

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