Poncho Sanchez played with greats

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Like many musicians, Latin bandleader Poncho Sanchez discovered his favorite sounds at home.

In his case, it was from a small army of siblings taken by the Latin music craze of the late 1950s, which brought the mambo, cha-cha-cha and other rhythms to Los Angeles by way of New York City, Puerto Rico and even Mexico.

“I’m the youngest of 11,” said Sanchez, who performs tonight at the Ordway in St. Paul. “I have six sisters and four brothers and so they’re the ones that had the first Latin records that I heard. I grew up with the music in my house every day.”

Those vibrant sounds came from big bands led by Cal Tjader, Machito, Tito Rodriguez, Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo – musicians that Sanchez, a conga player, would one day seek to emulate.

But first he had to learn how to play.

“I’m the only musician out of the whole family,” Sanchez said. “My brothers and sisters love music and they love to dance but nobody actually took the time to learn an instrument, except me ’cause the guy who lived across the street, who’s still a friend of mine, Benny Rodriguez, he had a rhythm and blues band and I used to watch him practice.”

Sanchez taught himself to play by practicing to the music of the bandleaders he admired. The rest is history. After playing the Los Angeles Club scene, he joined Tjader’s band in the 1970s.

Later, he would play with other greats, among them Santamaria, Tito Puente, and Dizzy Gillespie.

“They were my heroes growing up in life, and I actually ended up knowing them,” Sanchez said. “I got to hang out with them. I got to play with them and they became my best friends. Now, that’s a dream come true.”

You can read and listen to more of my interview with Sanchez here.

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