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For a Grammy-winning Latin-jazz artist raised in the shadow of LA, Poncho Sanchez is hardly a Hollywood type. When he's not traveling the world, you're far more likely to find the Norwalk-born conguero in OC or Long Beach, where he'll be performing again at the Long Beach Jazz Festival.
Of course, there was a time when the godfather of the congas struck up an unexpected friendship with the Godfather of Tinsel Town. "It was 1976. I had been working with [legendary vibraphonist] Cal Tjader for about a year, and Cal told me Marlon Brando and Merv Griffin were coming to our matinee set at the Hong Kong Bar at the Century Plaza Hotel," recalls Sanchez, calling from his Whittier home.
At the time, Sanchez was in his mid 20s, building a strong reputation with his mighty palms. He stayed with Tjader until his death in 1982 and managed to score a record contract with Concord Records based on the strong endorsement of his employer. In that 30-year span, Sanchez has released more than 25 albums under his name, earning a Latin-jazz Grammy in 2000 for his simmering live album Latin Soul.
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"Marlon used to sit in with Cal out in East LA at a place called the M Club back in the early '60s," he says. "He'd come in, have some drinks and play the bongos. So I told Cal, 'Introduce me, introduce me.'" Sanchez's brief conversation with Brando revealed his surprising familiarity with Latin percussionists. "He told me, 'Poncho, I love the conga drum! Mongo Santamaría! Tito Puente! The greats!" It was a once-in-a-lifetime brush with celebrity that would have made for a good anecdote on its own. Little did Sanchez know, that was only the beginning.
A few years later, Sanchez received a phone call. "Brando got my number from the musician's union, and he wanted to tell me about this conga drum he had invented," he recalls. "It was a drum with a handle on the side that could tighten the head and make the pitch go up. It was something different. We talked for about an hour. I told him he was one of the world's greatest actors, but he insisted he wanted to be an inventor. He even invented some kind of underwater cooling system in Tahiti. To this day, professional hotels have been using his concept!"
That first phone call led to several more, but Sanchez never got a chance to test the drum out. That is, until last year. "I got a call from my friend DJ Felix Contreras; they had found the drum in a storage space, and he wanted me to try it," he says. "There were all these pictures of Marlon in there, old contracts, a bird cage. This was Marlon Brando's shit! It was like being in his garage."
Alas, the likelihood of seeing the Brando conga in Guitar Center is fairly slim. "It sounded pretty good. I was playing it and turning it with the other hand," he says. "I forget how he did it, but there was a lot of mechanical work in there, so it also made the drum heavier. It was a cool idea for a conga drum, but I was scared when I was tightening that thing. I didn't want to go too tight, or something might give."
Was it a marketable product? Not exactly. "It'd be too expensive to make, and people would be sending it back all the time. You'd be fixing more products than selling them," Sanchez says. "But it was a cool idea."
Although Brando never got his own line of conga drums, Sanchez did. The self-taught drummer plays a colorful set of Remo conga drums of his own design, his name emblazoned on the side. He and his band are touring constantly across the globe, bringing crowds to their feet and encouraging even the most reluctant of clumsy two-steppers. Though he is slated for a lifetime-achievement award from the Latin Grammy awards next year, he shows no signs of resting on those accolades.
"Nowadays, the younger guys have learned the new technique," says Sanchez. "They're really fast. It's like, 'Wow, I can't even think as fast as they play.' But speed is not everything. It's not what you play that makes it happen. It's what you don't play. I'm from the old school. I'm one of the heavy hitters. I lift my arms and my hands, and I smack the thing!"
This article appeared in print as "Corleone of the Congas: How conguero Poncho Sanchez became drum buddies with Marlon Brando."