Growing up poor in Los Angeles, Poncho Sanchez thought he might have found his calling after he bought a three-string Spanish guitar for $.50 from a neighbor. “The guy across the street had a band doing a lot of Motown stuff,” recalls the Grammy award-winning Latin jazz bandleader. “He had a Fender and he’d let me touch it but not too much because I was just the kid across the street. I bought this little Spanish guitar and started plucking on it. I got to playing four or five songs and thought I was pretty good.”
It wasn’t until the young Sanchez went to join a neighborhood band that his true province emerged, or at least part of it. With the three-string in tow, Sanchez immediately saw that the band already had a guitar player that put him to shame. But they informed him that what they really needed was a singer.
“I didn’t think I was a singer,” Sanchez says. “But I got up there and sang a James Brown song. I started dancing around like James Brown. When the song was over, they said, “wow. You can sing and you can really move.”
The youngest of 11 children, Sanchez can thank his seven sisters for the dance moves. He and his siblings listened to late 50s mamba and cha cha cha records incessantly as children but while his sisters danced around the house, Sanchez would stare at the album covers and hone in on the deep rhythms of the songs.
“What attracted me to the Latin percussion is the sound of the drum itself,” he says. “It was the flavor of them, or, as we say in Spanish, el sabor. I felt it, the rhythm, the flavor, the ‘unk-cha, chik-ah, chi-ka.” My sisters would dance and I would hear their feet shuffling on the floor. I’ve loved it as far back as I can remember.”
Needless to say, Sanchez was a born bandleader. And in high school, he bought his first conga drum. “I learned the trade of how to be a front man in a band. But all this time, I always liked the conga and the timbales,” he says. “Nobody in my neighborhood knew nothing about Latin percussion stuff. I bought a conga – my father bought one in a cheap pawnshop. I went home, put Cal Tjader’s records on and started to play.
Just the sound of the instrument, when I laid my hand down and learned how to slap it, there’s an open sound – ‘oon-go, oon-go.’ It felt right to me. It felt good on my hands.”
Sanchez and his congas were front and center, leading several local bands for years of his youth in Los Angeles. Then in 1975, the drummer’s hero Cal Tjader invited him on stage to perform with his band. The famous vibraphonist was so taken with Sanchez that he made him the official conguero in his band until the older musician passed away in 1982.
Sanchez’s time with Tjader provided him a fantastic dose of full circle magic in his career and he embraces that time period as the most memorable and poignant in his 35 years of professional music.
“I never dreamed I would play with him, especially for seven years,” Sanchez says. “I was with him when he died – we were on tour. It was a heavy, heavy experience, a big learning experience. The first time I played with Dizzy Gillespie was also one of the special moments. You don’t forget the great legends.”
Without even trying, Sanchez is poised to become a legend himself. In Lima, Peru, a couple of weeks ago, Sanchez found himself on the country’s most popular TV programs – hosted by “a gentleman who is like the Larry King of Peru.” Sanchez was interviewed in Spanish, which does not come easily to him as English has always been his more comfortable language. Sanchez’s entire family saw it a couple of days later on YouTube. “My sister called me and was crying. She said it was beautiful. She said, ‘You did a great job,’” Sanchez says. “She said, ‘the part that really got me is you were telling this guy there were 11 of us and we’re all alive and well.’ I’m the youngest. I’m going to be 62 My brother is 80. It’s really nice that I get along with all my brothers and sisters. They’re very proud of me. I’m the baby brother that did well.”