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Chops: The Art of the Slap

Poncho Sanchez and Adam Rudolph on transitioning from the drum kit to the conga

Adam Rudolph (photo by Molly Sheridan)
Adam Rudolph (photo by Molly Sheridan)
Poncho Sanchez (photo by Ashley Stagg)
Poncho Sanchez (photo by Ashley Stagg)

For Poncho Sanchez, 65, growing up in the Los Angeles suburb of Norwalk felt like living in a “pretty white world.” Whether he was searching for Tito Puente or Cal Tjader albums at the local record store or looking for something beyond the standard guitars, saxes and trumpets at the music shop, his inquiries were met with the same blank stares. So, like many percussionists, his first experience with rhythm was on a trap kit. When the teenaged Sanchez finally got his hands on a conga drum, “it was love at first slap.”

Making the transition from drum set to hand drums may have come naturally to Sanchez, but it can be a bit more challenging to those who aren’t destined to become one of Latin jazz’s most legendary congueros. Still, Sanchez recommends following a path similar to his own—namely, picking up a drum and experimenting to find a connection. “Just get a drum and start hitting it,” he advises. “Even if you’re playing it a little bit wrong, for the first couple of weeks just mess around and get a feel for it, and then you can get serious.”

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