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Kansas City Latin Jazz Orchestra's rhythms of revolution have kept crowds dancing for 20 years

Interior of a small bookstore. People are seen from behind who are sitting, listening to a small group of performers in front of them.
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Pablo Sanhueza presented his Orquesta Folklorica Experimental Latino Americana on Sept. 11. The ensemble includes graduates and aspprentices in the Latin Jazz Institute, and played a genre called nueva canción chilena, or the Chilean new song, which incorporates political and social themes. The concert commemorated the 50th anniversary of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's coup over the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile.

After arriving from Chile, Pablo Sanhueza made it his mission to spread the sounds of Latin America, and create an inclusive and radical space for cross-cultural appreciation.

A quaint bookstore in the Strawberry Hill neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas, might seem like an odd place for a concert commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Chilean coup.

Yet Latin jazz percussionist, vocalist and band leader Pablo Sanhueza makes it seem natural.

“The coup was also a strike on the artist,” said Sanhueza, reflecting on what life was like for Chilean dissenters of that era. “They killed all the major artists of the time: Intellectuals, writers, musicians, painters.”

Sanhueza has been sharing these parts of Chilean history, and his heritage, with the Kansas City region since he fled his homeland for the Midwest in 1996.

“It was like disarticulating an entire society that was moving forward — similar to the United States, in a way,” he said. “The ‘60s were brutal.”

He pairs the lessons with the pulsating beats of Latin jazz. Sanhueza has devoted countless hours to the music, here and abroad, as a way to recoup what he lost back home. In the process, he built up the Kansas City Latin Jazz Orchestra, and created an eclectic community that spans the metro.

A table covered in a black cloth shows several books and some other literature with Latin themes and other musical intestes.
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
A collection of cultural items and history books from Chile at Flagship Books on Sept. 11. The items include a kultrun, the ceremonial drum of the indigenous Mapuche people, news clippings from the day after the Chilean coup and pressed metal art produced by Chilean exiles in Kansas City in the 1980s.

“It's the music of revolution and gathering people together and discussing what brings us together,” said Sanhueza. “It starts in the music.”

This year, Sanhueza and the orchestra are marking their 20th anniversary, packing shows from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art to the grounds of the Kansas State Capitol with diverse crowds in celebration.

For some of the band's most passionate fans, the music embodies an important part of their culture. For world-renowned trumpeter Lonnie McFadden, who owns the Reno Club in downtown Kansas City, it’s more about the energy Sanhueza’s music brings to the room.

McFadden said, even for a seasoned veteran like himself, sitting in on an orchestra jam session is electrifying.

“I know what it's like to play in a club where everybody's dancing, but I had never played in any band where the dance floor stays packed for the whole hour and 15 minutes that we are on stage,” he said.

Fans felt the energy, too, at a Monday night show on Sept. 11 at Flagship Books, in Kansas City, Kansas. It mingled with the smell of empanadas from local Chilean catering service, Gustitos Chilenos.

Fans converged on the small room to not only commemorate an infamous day, but also to catch a smooth groove and celebrate what Sanhueza brought with him to Kansas City.

Nicholas Garcia, 25, is one of those fans. He lives in the Argentine neighborhood, just down the hill.

“I am Mexican, Pablo’s Chilean — but there are a lot of similarities,” he said. “Love the music, and it makes me want to dance.”

Garcia first heard Sanhueza in 2018 at the Blue Room on East 18th Street. He said the experience showed the love his Latin culture has received in Kansas City’s historically Black district.

“We need that more than ever. (It’s) the music from all of our roots — Hispanic, African American,” said Garcia, a welder by day. “I am happy to be a part of what’s going on in Kansas City.”

Passing on a legacy

Brandon Cooper had experience playing the drums before he was introduced to Sanhueza by a mutual friend. He was also a student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Cooper fondly remembers when Sanhueza first tasked him with playing the claves, two wooden cylinders that form the foundation of Latin jazz when struck together.

He admits it was the hardest thing he’d ever done musically at the time.

Outdoor photo of people performing music on a stage. There are men wearing tropical-themed shirts and a woman wearing a red dress holding a green fan who is singing and gesturing with her left hand.
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Pablo Sanhueza, center, Brandon Cooper, at left, and the Kansas City Latin Jazz Orchestra at KC's Lawn Party 2023 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Members of the band include apprentice musicians and graduates of the Latin Jazz Institute, several of whom began studying with Sanhueza in high school.

“That's when it opened my eyes to where there's so much intricacy, so much roots and overall depth, to what he's been doing and what he was showing me,” Cooper said. “I just got bit by the bug, and I wanted to learn more about it”

He said what really drew him in was Sanhueza’s deep knowledge of Latin jazz instruments and culture — and its origins in the Yoruba and Fulani tribes of West Africa. It was knowledge that helped Cooper get in touch with previously unknown parts of his own mixed heritage.

“This music is definitely a portal to … understanding just me and who I am and where I fit in. This means it gives me a sense of identity and where I come from,” said Cooper, who is Black and has a white father.

‘The motivation to do this work’

Sanhueza calls this influence on others his gift. He said it comes from years of trial and error.

“What keeps us in business — it's not sales. It's the motivation to do this work," he said.

Sanhueza’s passport is stamped with proof of that motivation as well.

In 2014, he started the Kansas City-Chile Jazz Exchange, a program that works with the Chilean government and local organizations to foster a cultural exchange between Sanhueza and Chilean artists.

Pablo Sanhueza in his Overland Park home basement with part of his collection of South American folklorical percussion instruments from Chile, Colombia, and the Afro-Latin Diasopora. It is a collection some of gifts and custom instruments he has obtained on his research travels in South America.
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Pablo Sanhueza in his Overland Park basement with part of his collection of South American drums. Some were gifts, others are custom instruments from throughout South America.

Since then, he’s spent years studying salsa, merengue, cumbia, and other rhythms from countries throughout Latin and Central America, including Bolivia, Costa Rica and the Caribbean.

“Peru is also another universe — super rich, huge African presence, huge American Indian presence,” said Sanhueza, “Cuban music, Puerto Ricans, too. We have a connection with them through the years. … And then today, Colombians are the keepers of the salsa flame. We work with them all the time. In Kansas City, they always had big numbers.”

Sanhueza founded the Latin Jazz Institute in 2018 to help raise the next generation of musicians.

“Through repertory and learning new songs to perform in front of people, that's the band aspect of the institute,” said Cooper, the percussionist, and a leader in the nonprofit’s operation. For the 20-year-olds taking part, it’s an intensive but meaningful time.

“Looking at documentaries with Pablo or trying to study different books that he's recommending,” Cooper said. “Just understanding more information in depth about the culture that we're playing, the connotations of all the songs and where they fit.”

It's the first bilingual performance and education nonprofit in the Midwest focused on Latin jazz, salsa and Latin folkloric dance.

“The motivation is always to work with underserved youth, you know? Marginalized youth,” Sanhueza said. “Because there's going to come a moment that we're going to have to retire, and it's healthy to think that way.”

The decades of dedication and hard work have made Sanhueza’s orchestra the region’s premiere Latin jazz band, and earned him recognition as a Touring Artist for the Missouri Arts Council.

That, and the longest-running residency at the American Jazz Museum’s Blue Room Club, has assured the art form a home in Kansas City for years to come.

Corrected: October 5, 2023 at 1:19 PM CDT
This story has been updated to clarify Brandon Cooper's experience playing the drums.
As KCUR’s race and culture reporter, I work to help readers and listeners build meaningful and longstanding relationships with the many diverse cultures that make up the Kansas City metro. I deliver nuanced stories about the underrepresented communities that call our metro home, and the people whose historically-overlooked contributions span politics, civil rights, business, the arts, sports and every other realm of our daily lives.
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