In his column this week, Jeff Weiss talks with renowned conga player Poncho Sanchez about the unlikely gringo who put him on. Today we've got another Sanchez story about an even stranger encounter — with Marlon Brando.
“It was 1976. I had been with [legendary vibraphonist] Cal Tjader for about a year and Cal told me Marlon Brando and Merv Griffin were coming to our matinee set,'” recalls Sanchez, calling from his Whittier home. “Marlon used to sit in with Cal out in East L.A. at a place called the M Club back in the early '60s. 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 more than a passing familiarity latin percussionists. “He knew everybody! Mongo Santamaria! Tito Puente!”
A few years later Sanchez received a phone call. “Brando got my number from the union and he wanted to tell me about this conga drum he had invented. 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.”
That first phone call led to several more, but Sanchez never got to test the drum out. That is, until last year. “I got a call from my friend DJ Felix Contreras that they had found the drum in a storage space and he wanted me to try it. 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. 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? “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. 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 with his name emblazoned on the side.
“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!”
Sanchez performs tonight at Walt Disney Concert Hall alongside trumpeter Terence Blanchard