David Sánchez and the African Tinge

The acclaimed tenor saxophonist explores his—and jazz’s—roots on a new series of albums, his first in 11 years

David Sánchez (photo: Daniela Murillo)
David Sánchez (photo: Daniela Murillo)

Like his music, David Sánchez operates in many places at once. The tenor saxophonist, who returns frequently to his native Puerto Rico, is speaking to JazzTimes on the phone from his home in Atlanta, but he’s just returned from a three-week residency in Colombia and is preparing to fly to the Dominican Republic. Those flight paths are far from arbitrary. Every place he goes, Sánchez seeks out the local African diasporic community—the equivalent of Puerto Rico’s Loíza, which has the island’s highest concentration of Afro-Puerto Ricans. In Colombia, that was Palenque, a village just outside Cartagena well-known for its status as the first free African community in the Americas, established by enslaved peoples who had escaped from the nearby port city in 1691.

“Every time I travel to places like that, I see and hear these parallels,” Sánchez explains. “If I close my eyes … here I am in Palenque and I’m thinking, am I in Haiti? No, I’m in Palenque. That’s how the idea started—like, ‘Wow, sometimes we’re far away from each other and yet so close.’”

Sánchez’s idea is a series of albums called Carib, dedicated to tracing common sounds and traditions around the African diaspora. The first edition, released in June on Ropeadope Records, takes inspiration from the overlap between Haitian and Puerto Rican music—specifically, traditional Haitian rara music (the soundtrack to a Lenten celebration that eventually gained dual significance as a way to remember the revolution of 1791-1804) and the bomba played at the Fiestas Tradicionales en Honor a Santiago Apóstol in Loíza. The next, he says, will likely feature the Palenqueros of Colombia.

But those echoes are just one example of the kind of déjà vu Sánchez says he experiences whenever he’s traveling around Latin and South America, the Caribbean, and even North America, referencing New Orleans as another place that carries the same intense connection to its African musical roots. There’s a whole world of interconnected yet distinct diasporic genres that are often flattened into the classes of “Latin” or “world” for North American and European audiences. Sánchez seeks to illuminate each one in a new way via a combination of deep research and contemporary jazz improvisation. The goal: to musically articulate a cultural category that isn’t based simply on geography, but on a combination of persistent socioeconomic inequality and shared history.

“The consistent thing is that it’s Afro,” he says. “Whether it comes from an African-American perspective or an Afro-Caribbean perspective or an Afro-Latino perspective, that’s what you’re going to find in my music.”

Natalie Weiner

Natalie Weiner writes about music for a variety of publications including JazzTimes, Billboard, The New York Times, Pitchfork and Rolling Stone. She is also a staff writer at SB Nation where she covers women’s sports and the NFL. Previously, she was a staff writer at Bleacher Report, and an associate editor at Billboard magazine.