Congo Sanchez is like the polyrhythm of the Washington, DC music scene. He is well-versed in world music and sounds and a fan of Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti. He is studied in percussion, symphonics, and electronica. Sanchez is a favored go-to producer for dance bands and international music ensembles. In addition to releasing his own work, the wunderkind contributed to The Empresarios’ Bestia EP, Funk Ark’s From the Rooftops, and Thievery Corporation’s Culture of Fear. In April, Congo Sanchez’s EP, Vol. 1, was released on ESL Music.
Sanchez is thoughtful young man with a crafty, DIY approach to music-making. We chatted about Afrobeat, the vinyl record industry, and how he came of age in the DC post-funk movement. He reminisced on cultivating his musical roots while a college student in Indiana. “I’ve always been attracted to music and playing music and learning how to re-create the sounds I’m listening to. As a student I got a lot of experience under my belt as far as playing in the orchestra and certain jazz settings.”
When Sanchez got back to DC, he began producing beats and tracks with his college bandmates for demos. He laughs, “I developed a little addiction to the studio and started to get my hands dirty, focused on recording. I got into producing by doing demos, experimenting with my band to get better gigs.”
To be in cahoots the with Thievery movement, Sanchez recognizes diversity and the musical ingenuity needed to illicit diverse scenes. We talked about Rootz of See-I, Thievery, and how they became absorbed by the scene. Sanchez confides, “DC is a melting pot of cultures. I was getting to know Rootz. He was one of the first artists I sang with. Then casually through association with the area, I got to know more people performing in this band, and that band. Then I got involved in producing the first Funk Ark record—as well as their demos—on the ESL label. Next thing I know, I was working with Eric Hilton and Rob Garza. I performed a lot on Culture of Fear.”
Hilton and Garza ultimately added a drum set to their shows after Sanchez shined on some the group’s recordings. “It evolved in a very natural way,” Sanchez recalled.
Afrobeat and its core protest-music structure is branded in Sanchez’s psyche. He sort of alludes to the Funk Ark liberating it as he found footing in the DC scene. “In the time I spent playing with the Funk Ark,” Sanchez says, “I had already been influenced by the music of Fela Kuti and Tony Allen [Fela's drummer]. Will was looking to take the Funk Ark in the Afrobeat direction. It was win-win because me and my dear friends in [the band] got to hone our style. I’m a percussionist and a drummer first, so Afrobeat influences my music.” On his EP he samples Fela. “The purpose of [our] music is to be revolutionary. ‘Music is a weapon,’ as Fela would say. It gives you a positive and real perspective and does not leave anything at the door. It’s about exposing things that can [be censored] in real life.”
Congo Sanchez is a proponent and advocate of vinyl music, too. “Vinyl is now the only legitimate format that we can sell. Digital sales are at the mercy of Spotify and the subscription base. Radio has wiped out the possibility to distribution as it converts to sales. Vinyl is the last form of distribution. My parents are surprised by the [renewed popularity]. Even though it’s a niche market, people care.” He repeats, “It’s the last form of physical distribution in the world. I’m a heavy believer in it. ESL puts out 45s and vinyl. I’ve worked with Fort Knox, who puts out 45s and vinyl, and Electric Cowbell, a boutique vinyl label.
“Unlike your iPod or iPhone, with vinyl you actually take the time to drop the needle. It slows you down a little bit. I carries a message that transcends the political. There’s a cultural message in vinyl. Hopeful the vinyl culture will always be around. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.”
Congo Sanchez is well-revered sideman here in DC. Side musicians shouldn’t be underestimated. Look at Fred Wesley, the trombonist who spiced up the funk for James Brown All-Stars.
Name your favorite sideman in the comments below for a chance to receive a pair of tickets for Saturday’s show plus a copy of Congo Sanchez’s 7” EP Vol. 1. The winner will be chosen at noon on Friday, September 15th.