In recent years, conga king Poncho Sanchez has hit on an irresistible formula teaming with a number of legends on a series of recordings fusing his fiery Latin jazz music with classic soul.
On "Out of Sight," released in 2003, Ray Charles, Billy Preston, Sam Moore of Sam and Dave, and former James Brown horn players Fred Wesley and Pee Wee Ellis all joined him. Then with "Do It!" he added funk legends Tower of Power and South African trumpet great Hugh Masekela to the enticing mix.
Most recently, when his record label Concord acquired the old Stax Records catalogue he invited a number of Stax legends including singer Eddie Floyd, keyboardist Booker T. Jones, and guitarist Steve Cropper, plus former James Brown saxophonist Maceo Parker, to play on the album "Raise Your Hand."
Iration performs “New Roots” reggae Thursday at the MACC’s McCoy Theater.
"I grew up with soul music in the '60s. I heard all the Stax Records stuff like Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, Eddie Floyd and Booker T in high school," says Sanchez. "For the last couple of records, I've been leaning into this Latin soul bag, playing soul music Latin style. Of course I'm not the first one to do it. Mongo Santamaria recorded an instrumental version of 'Cold Sweat' in the late '70s.
"Concord told me they had bought Stax, and they asked, 'Are there any artists you want to record with?' I said, 'Are you kidding? How about Eddie Floyd and Steve Cropper and Booker T?' We changed the arrangements a little bit and we nailed it. I feel blessed that these heroes of mine want to be on my records."
The guest artists joyously evoke the classic Memphis soul sound on the opening title track and on Floyd's signature hit, "Knock on Wood." In between some Latin jazz gems, the distinctive sax of Maceo Parker enlivens a remake of Jr. Walker's "Shotgun" and the funky instrumental "Maceo's House."
* The Poncho Sanchez Band performs at 7:30 p.m. April 23 in Castle Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. Tickets are $40, $30 and $12 plus applicable fees, half-price for kids 12 and younger, available from the MACC box office, 242-7469 or www.mauiarts.org.
* Iration plays the MACC's McCoy Studio Theater at 7 p.m. April 23. Seating will be moved for dancing. Tickets are $25 plus applicable fees, available as above.
Born in Texas into a large Mexican-American family, and raised in L.A., Sanchez first heard the hot rhythms of Latin jazz as a young boy when his older brothers and sisters tuned in a radio station playing musica tropical by the likes of Machito and Tito Puente. He was also exposed to the jazz of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown, along with the R&B, soul and rock music of the time.
"I'm the youngest of 11 kids and when I was just a little boy, my brothers and sisters got into listening to the radio," he recalls. "They were into the first wave of the mambo and cha cha cha music that came from New York City. That's how it all started."
By 10th grade, Sanchez had become interested in the congas. Self-taught, he devoted himself to making Afro-Cuban rhythmic styles his claim to fame, learning by listening to the old Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo and Tito Rodriguez records.
"I always loved the sound of the conga drum and timbales," he says. "I started learning the rhythms and patterns just by listening to the records. I learned pretty quick. My sister knew a professional conga player and he came over to give me a lesson. I put on my favorite Cal Tjader record and started playing to it and afterwards he said, 'How did you do that little thing with your right hand, and how did you do that thing with your left hand? You sound pretty good.' That was my only lesson."
When Sanchez first began playing music he idolized James Brown. As the lead singer, a self-described "Chicano James Brown," in a high school garage band called Little Frank and the Halos, he learned how to dance and spin like the soul legend and kick the bottom of the microphone stand to make it jump back.
"I loved James Brown and started dancing like him in junior high," he recalls. "I was auditioning for a neighborhood band and they needed a singer. So I did my best imitation of James Brown and threw the microphone back, and they loved it. From that day on I've been the lead vocalist of every band I've been in."
Sanchez's big break came in 1975 when he had an opportunity to play with his idol, vibraphonist Cal Tjader. He would be a major part of Tjader's band for the next seven years, an association that lasted until the vibraphonist's death in 1982. Sanchez first formed his own group in 1980, leading his ensemble during Tjader's vacation periods.
With the passing of the years and the death of leading Latin jazz artists, Sanchez has been heralded as the "keeper of the flame."
"I just love my music and respect it very much," he says. "I do my thing from my heart and soul. Next year I will celebrate 30 years with my band. I have somewhat of responsibility to keep this thing alive and I'm very happy to do that. I do this because I love it. Latin jazz is my music, it's my life."
Over the years, Sanchez has heard from numerous fans how his music has uplifted them. "I've been amazed by the things fans have told me," he reports. "Music is powerful and it has helped me many times get through hard times."
Of all the stories he has heard about his music's impact, he is most touched by a meeting with some teenage boys in Peru.
"I went down to Lima to play and there were some kids at the airport calling my name," he says. "I had never been there before. So I walk over to the fence and they were poor kids from the neighborhood. They loved my music and I told them to meet me at the back of the concert hall. I took them backstage and they watched my whole concert. The next day I'm flying home and the kids were there to see me off. One of the young kids told me something that has stayed with me forever. He said, 'Mr. Sanchez I get out of Lima, Peru every night.' I said how? "Every night I put on your records and I'm out of here.' He said, 'You give me freedom.' I got chills when he told me that. The guys had to load me on the plane. That's one of many stories. I know music heals people."
Initially formed in Kona but now based in Santa Barbara, Calif., the reggae band Iration returns to the islands on April 23 for a show in McCoy Studio Theater at the MACC.
Describing their sound as "New Roots," Iration injects a modern twist to traditional roots reggae. "What sets Iration apart from the typical reggae band is their significant rock feel," notes the Santa Barbara Independent. "Heavy percussion and deep bass lines define songs like "Fire," which lead singer Micah Pueschel said comes from listening to the energy of bands like Led Zeppelin and Metallica."
With two CDs out, their music was featured on the MTV shows "Maui Fever" and "Living Lahaina." Iration's debut full-length album, "No Time for Rest," featured one of the last recorded performances by reggae legend Mikey Dread, who worked with The Clash and UB40. And they've shared the stage with Pepper, Steel Pulse, Stephen Marley, The English Beat and Yellowman.
* Contact Jon Woodhouse at email@example.com.