Vibrant, charismatic, joyful in presentation, infectious in execution

Latin percussionist Pablo Sanhueza performing in late September at the 17th Street underpass in Kansas City (photo by Jim Barcus)

Pablo Sanhueza celebrates 20 years as a band leader, making a place for Latin jazz in KC

Pablo Sanhueza had no sense of the trajectory of accomplishment he would embark on when he picked up an acoustic guitar in his parents’ house when he was in third grade. Since settling in Kansas City in 2003, Sanhueza has been electrifying audiences as a band leader specializing in Latin music, performing locally, regionally and internationally, including a tour with jazz great Bobby Watson.

Sanhueza’s projects include the Kansas City Latin Jazz Orchestra, Makuza (2004-2012), and Los Subtropicales (formerly known as Calle Vida), a band focused on salsa, cumbia and merengue. In 2018, Sanhueza co-founded the Kansas City Latin Jazz Orchestra & Latin Jazz Institute, billed as “the first cultural immersion education and performance non-profit orchestra in the Midwestern United States dedicated to Jazz and Latin American music and dances.”

For Sanhueza, the Latin Jazz Orchestra has been a labor of love and dedication to a transformative music. This year he celebrates 20 years as a band leader, one who is always front and center. Sanhueza’s style is a vibrant, charismatic and relentless push, joyful in presentation, infectious in execution, rendering audiences helpless to involuntary foot tapping and swaying of hips.

Sanhueza’s antecedents were familial. His uncle was a guitarist and an influence, but he also was an obstacle. “He believed that music was something special and not for everyone. I was discouraged more than I was encouraged to pursue music,” recalled Sanhueza.

His father and mother played folkloric music, much attuned to the party and politics of the democratically elected Chilean socialist leader Salvador Allende. That was enough to eventually force his parents into exile when Augusto Pinochet took power in a United States sponsored coup in 1973.

The contradictions of the American experience were present to him from the beginning. “My parents were socialists. How could the USA grant them asylum? I think it was a palliative to offset the pain they had caused by supporting Pinochet’s coup.”

His parents moved to the United States in 1977. Sanhueza stayed behind with other family, eventually reuniting with his parents when he was 22, in 1995. Throughout, music was a constant.

By the time he arrived in the United States, the guitar had been relegated to secondary status and instead he was deeply into percussion, investing his time on cajon, a Peruvian percussion instrument played by slapping the surfaces with the hands and fingers. His percussive passions were fueled by the very folk traditions of his parents and family.

According to Sanhueza, music during the dictatorship was not a form of entertainment but of education; like poetry, it was a way of educating the masses. “It was a way of raising consciousness. That’s what we were all thinking — self-consciousness, cultural consciousness, and historical consciousness.”

He was inspired by the Afro-rhythms of Cuban music brought to Chile during Allende’s presidency. “There was a lot of percussion in the records of Victor Jara. Jara’s “Un Son Para Cuba” was a key introduction. Without knowing it, I was being exposed to the Afro-rhythms. My consciousness began to grow. I realized that our music had more influences from African music and rhythms than we were being taught in the schools.”

The Enduring Pull of Afro-Cuban Music

The beginning of his musical journey in Kansas City was eye-opening. “When I came here, I had the idea of music being a cultural expression, not an artistic endeavor,” he said. The late bassist Patricio Lazen was one of his first mentors.

“He was the first musician that I knew that worked everywhere. He was the first to show me without sarcasm or being closed off that it’s very hard for us to find a mentor, one that takes us by the hand, grabs our attention and shows us the ropes.”

Lazen told him the folklorically rich music of his youth was not going to cut it in a country where the audience for it would be limited to music explorers, or the Chilean diaspora in exile. Instead, he introduced him to blues and jazz, and the local scene that included such venerable locations as the Mutual Musician’s Foundation.

Another influence came via the late Augustin Diaz, who led a drum circle in Loose Park. Sanhueza was introduced to Diaz, who was part of a musical group presenting on a radio show his mother hosted.

“He was the percussionist for the group, and I got to talking to him and he invited me to come and play with them at the park. That was the first study session focused exclusively on Afro-Cuban music.”

While taking ESL classes at UMKC, Sanhueza also took a jazz band class under Steven Decker. “His class was my first formal class in the study of African-Cuban music,” Sanhueza said. While Diaz’s park gatherings were the practical introduction to the music, Decker’s class provided the intellectual foundation for Sanhueza. After the ESL program he ended up continuing his formal percussion music studies at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque until 2003.

After graduation, he moved back to Kansas City with his wife at the time. The move afforded him the opportunity to start the first incarnation of the Latin Jazz Orchestra. As he recalled, the decision to start the band was a matter of necessity. “No one else was doing it. If I was not going to be a leader no one else was going to make it happen.”

Descarga KC was the original Afro-Cuban jazz ensemble. “My debut as a band leader was at the Blue Room in May 2003. The band lasted only one season.” According to Sanhueza, the experience taught him “the formula of having guns for hire to play this music did not work, and ever since, the effort has been to create a team of accountable and committed young musicians.”

One achievement Sanhueza is most proud of is taking the burgeoning sound he was orchestrating and introducing it to places where the music was not traditionally showcased. “I’m not saying we were the first ones to play salsa in Kansas City… We made a consistent effort to take the music to different places. That meant being the first to bring salsa to the halls of Kemper Museum, the Nelson-Atkins Museum as well as the Blue Room.”

In the great irony that is the creative life, Sanhueza has come full circle with his latest project, OFELA. (Orquesta Folklórica Experimental Latinoamericana). Through this project the ensemble honors the first Latino folklorists in Kansas City.

“In this ensemble,” he explained, “we explore the music of the Andes rooted in the folklore of Quecha, Aymara and the Afro-Indigenous people of the area, such as the Yanga of Bolivia, and the Chincha from Peru and Chile.”

If life is a string that winds back on itself, then the arc of Sanhueza’s musical journey will be a rich reset of his earliest influences incorporated into the explorations of the past 20 years. The result promises to have audiences swaying hypnotically and rhythmically to the beats.

For more information and upcoming performances, visit pablosanhuezamusic.com.

José Faus

José Faus (He,Him) is a visual artist, performer, writer, independent teacher/mentor with an interest in the role of artists as creative catalysts for community building. He received degrees from the University of Missouri at Kansas City in painting and creative writing. He is a founder of the Latino Writers Collective.

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