Antonio Sánchez & Migration, BlueShore Financial Centre for the Performing Arts at Capilano University, Wednesday, June 26, 8 p.m. Tickets: $42/$40. For more information and schedule visit coastaljazz.ca.
The border barrier could keep people out, but it couldn’t stop them from dancing.
Where San Diego and Tijuana meet, the U.S. and Mexico part ways. The adjacent sun-soaked cities are separated by the imposing presence of a dark fence, 18-feet high, which descends from the foothills and cuts across the two towns, eventually separating the beach and stretching into the Pacific Ocean. You can swim there, but you won’t make it far.
In a time when talk of building walls and the re-emergence of a kind of nationalism most had hoped was long gone has resurfaced, the border barrier between San Diego and Tijuana is a reminder of how turbulent things have become. Despite this, it was there last year, at that border fence that dips into the ocean, where jazz musician and drummer Antonio Sánchez saw something remarkable happen.
“I have this image of the men and women an inch away from the fence just dancing really intensely and then people on the other side doing exactly the same thing,” Sánchez tells the North Shore News from his home in New York City. “It was just a very powerful thing, I’ve never experienced anything like that.”
Sánchez was in town for an annual trans-border festival called the Fandango Fronterizo, where Americans and Mexicans and visitors from around the globe – musicians, dancers, spectators, onlookers – come together on both sides of the barrier to perform music and defy what the barrier was erected to do – keep people apart.
“It was beautiful to see how the fence kind of disappeared for a second,” says Sánchez.
As he walked around the beach snapping photos that day, Sánchez was struck by an image of a little girl playing right next to the fence, unaware of the vast structure’s larger implications and at peace in that carefree way that only kids ever are. At the right moment, just as the little girl managed to jump for joy, Sánchez took a photo to capture that perfect moment.
“That juxtaposition really struck a chord – of that little girl, without even thinking about the fence, was just playing there,” he says.
It was this photograph that ended up becoming the cover for Lines in the Sand, the latest album from Sánchez and his band, Migration.
Not one to shy away from standing up for what’s right, Sánchez describes the new album as a piece of musical and political protest meant to shine a light on the immigrant experience – an experience he’s quick to point out is very different from his own as a man born and raised in Mexico City before moving to the U.S. at 21 to pursue his musical ambitions.
“I moved just to fulfil a dream, which was to play music with the best musicians I could,” he says. “This album is not about me at all, this album’s about a completely different kind of immigrant that lately especially is being demonized and politicized by a few very powerful people in the name of this fake and twisted nationalism and populism.”
The album opener, “Travesia Intro,” makes Sánchez’s intent even more clear. The song opens with sounds of chaos and distress taken from real-life audio clips of families being separated during exchanges with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
“I thought it would be a good way to get people’s attention,” says Sánchez. “A lot of the people that were being stopped by ICE and by state police were either legal immigrants or they were citizens. They were being stopped solely on the basis of racial profiling. Every time it makes me angry because I’ve been the subject of that as well.”
Coming from the smaller sphere of the jazz world to entering the enormous landmass that is Hollywood and then back again, it’s been a wild trip for Sánchez from his beginnings in Mexico to his path to becoming a U.S. citizen.
Growing up he didn’t take to jazz immediately, but he does claim that the drums “discovered” him, as opposed to the other way around. “It was such a strong energy and force that just happened between me and the drums,” he says.
His mother exposed him to the usual gamut of British Invasion-era rock bands, and as he rocked out and continued to bang away on the drums, he eventually discovered jazz and its myriad complexities.
“I just wanted to learn what else I could do with the instrument, and that usually leads to jazz since it includes improvisation, which is the purest form of expression in real time. I started getting fascinated with the mechanics and the intangible part of improvisation.”
In 1993, Sánchez moved to the U.S. to study jazz at the Berklee College of Music. After successfully putting out numerous jazz albums as a band leader or sideman, Sánchez truly entered the limelight a few years ago when his original film score for the Academy Award-winning film Birdman received high praise and won numerous accolades in 2014.
“Jazz is one of the smallest spheres you can be in and then Hollywood is one of the biggest ones,” he says with laugh.
The stage might have been bigger, though stylistically Birdman wasn’t necessarily a departure for the jazz drummer. Sánchez has always favoured a big, bold, cinematic sound, noting that in his youth he used to set up a tape deck and record himself improvising sonic drum explorations for hours on end. He also received a degree in classical composition and piano before moving to the U.S.
“I just started hearing things in a different way and loving the lushness of good orchestration,” he says.
It’s a mindset that Sánchez and his band have made sure to incorporate when it comes to their live performances as well.
“It’s not a gig, it’s an event,” he says. “I feel like if you have powerful music and you don’t present it the right way then it’s not going to have the same effect. We really try to put on a good show together.”
If the music from Sánchez’s latest album is any indication, the narrative of the performance will touch on some emotional subject matter, but it’s a subject he feels is more important than it’s ever been.
Citing his fear that the divisiveness of our current times will lead to an erosion of our capacity for empathy, Sánchez wants his music to help us feel a little more, speak up a little more, and try to do as much good in the world as we can.
“Anything can change in a heartbeat. How would we want to be treated?”