By Scott MacClelland
JUAN L SÁNCHEZ turned 50 in December and was feted by his family and friends at a private home in Carmel Valley. Among the sixty or so who serenaded him were his family and fellow musicians, including longtime friend Paul Contos, well-known jazzman and education director for the Monterey Jazz Festival. There was dancing and mariachi. “I felt like I was in heaven.” Still, Sánchez is a work in progress, a restless soul constantly doing while also becoming.
Singer/songwriter Sánchez was born in Málaga, on the Costa del Sol, into a family of musicians and dancers. At 8, he moved to Madrid where he studied at the Real Conservatorio of music. Then at 17 he decided to quit formal music studies in favor of English philology at Complutense University, also in Madrid. At the time, “I did not know any other studies,” he told me. “I imagined myself a journalist, or a priest, or a translator. But I never had a clear path to a career.” (Philology is the study of language from written sources.) “Doing philology gave me the prospect of traveling, and that enticed me.”
During the following five years he taught himself guitar and traveled extensively throughout Europe, working for two summers in Germany, attending both Friedrich Wilhelm Univeristät in Bonn and the Interuniversity Center in Dubrovnik, Croatia. He also visited Turkey, Morocco, Austria, France and Italy, falling in love with their respective folklore. Upon completion of his Bachelor’s degree, he obtained scholarships to Stetson University in Florida, where he studied musical theater and voice, and UCLA, where he completed his MA in Applied Linguistics.
In 1989 he moved to Monterey, where he worked for seven years as a bilingual elementary school teacher. It is also during that time that he started writing his first original compositions. He assembled Trova Latina, a Latin American folk quartet that performed in coffeehouses, libraries and schools in the area.
In 1997 he founded the Juan L. Sánchez Ensemble with an exceptional and eclectic group of musicians well-versed in jazz, Middle-Eastern and Latin music from around the Monterey Bay region. They released their first album Cosmopolita that year and started touring nationally. In 2004, they launched their second release, Hijos de la Tierra (Children of the Earth), dedicated to all farm workers around the world. (To watch click on the video.)
“Farmworkers have been part of my life for several years,” he explains. The example of his mother-in-law, a former farmworker, brought him into direct involvement with elementary education. “I worked in Castroville where many of the students had to travel with their families from here to, for example, Yuma, following the crops.” He was dismayed when his students would arrive for school Monday mornings sunburned. And he was chagrined when, asking if they had spent the weekend at the beach, the kids said they were picking strawberries.
“These were good-hearted folk,” he said. Their plight weighed on his conscience. “Their language was taken away from them,” he says, “and I’m a linguist.” Circumstances like these stand in contrast to his own children who have been fortunate to attend private schools. “My son David [in the photo as a young boy with his dad] has never had a B in his life. He also speaks Mandarin. He was student body president at Santa Catalina School.” But, as a community, he says, “we have not really invested in bringing people into the fold.” Farmworker families “would come to parent teacher meetings covered with dust after 12- or 14-hour workdays picking strawberries covered with pesticides. They were exhausted, but they were there. It broke my heart. And yet we blame the victims.”
“Whatever I did came from the heart. My grandfather was killed by Franco in Spain yet my father was ashamed and never talked about it. Even the bishop in Málaga turned his back. I felt I could draw from this well, growing up with singers and writers, playing cards with my friends.” It stayed in his subconscious. “These voices are asking ‘now do you see what we saw?’ They infuse my songwriting.”
In 2008 Sánchez moved back to Málaga with his family, where he spent two years working as a children’s entertainer/storyteller and performing with a Moroccan/Spanish project named El Jardín de la Sultana (The Sultaness’ Garden.) “It was a great experience but our income and expenses cancelled each other out.” In 2012, he released his first solo album for children and families entitled Canta Conmigo: Sing with me in Spanish, which has been widely praised by parents and educators alike.
Today, Sánchez continues his work as children’s performer and artistic director of his ensemble, and as a lecturer at the Service Learning and Music and Performing Arts Institutes at CSU Monterey Bay. His Mondays are reserved for office paperwork, Tuesdays he teaches all day at the university, Wednesday provide flex time, much of it now dedicated to launching the new Palenke Arts project, a multi-cultural arts center for the city of Seaside. “Right now we are trying to find a space that can host music classes and concerts for the community. In May we will be hosting a mariachi and Latin jazz ensemble from Texas State University.” Fridays he teaches children’s theater through the Arts Council at Foothill Elementary in Monterey and at Highland School in Seaside.
Weekends he does shows “here and there.” And he remains restlessly in search of more ways to perform his music and to help those in need, from the Carmel Youth Club or GoKids out of a firehouse in East Salinas—where his wife is employed—to driving his son to the Pacific Grove Jazz Club, or engaging Paul Contos to arrange some of his songs, or planning another tour—he has one coming up in April in Petaluma—to performing at Pacific Grove Library or Oldemeyer Center in Seaside. “I was told I was competing with the Blind Boys of Alabama,” he rolls his eyes.
Juan L Sánchez, “Cosmopolitan Composer”—catch him if you can.