An Interview with Johnny Polanco by Sharon German

Johnny PolancoSharon: First and foremost thank you for giving an opportunity to interview you. I feel very privileged in doing an interview with such an exceptional artist like your self. “La Voz del Mambo” would like to say thank you for taking out your time. We feel immensely honored. Johnny, how did you become one of the most sought-after bandleaders in the US?

Johnny: In 1998 I retired from the Marine Corps and then I traveled to California. I ran into an old friend, Arty Web (outstanding flute player), we then started to play with local bands. Shortly, I then ran into Armando Castro, he knew a lot about music, especially the tres. Armando owned a restaurant and he wanted to get rid of an established band who played at his restaurant. Since 1993, I’ve been playing there every Monday. That’s where I started and I have a lot of love for that place.

Sharon: How does it feel to be managed by one of the head promoters of the salsa scene, Albert Torres?

Johhny: We’ve done many projects together. The West Coast Salsa Congress gets between 6 to 7 thousand people a day. We’ve been very, very busy. We started when I had a band and Albert Torres wasn’t in the dance scene. Albert wanted to start something and we collaborated. I brought the band and he brought the venue. It wasn’t successful in the beginning. The salsa scene here in LA wasn’t anything like it is today. There weren’t many salsa clubs, so we would go to R&B clubs and soon, slowly but surely it started to pick up. We both grew off each other and it has been a pleasure working with Albert.

Sharon: You have achieved a skill of playing 13 instruments which include the tres and cuatro guitar, trombone, vibes, and many more. Is your talent natural or is it build by practice along with a musical education?

Johnny: I never went to school, I never had a formal lesson. I was adopting instruments and then playing them. I would buy instruments from the streets; One time I purchased an instrument from a drug addict, it cost me $10.00, then I made music from the instrument.It is very rewarding when you perform. The music that I play I like it to be danceable. Dancers are creative people and I like to feed that. I always watch the movement on the dance floor.

Sharon: The majority of the salsa artists are from the East Coast, you are from the LA area. Is the love different when you travel to the East Coast?

Johnny: The scene in LA has gotten huge. The LA scene is incredible and I would say it is better than New York and Florida put together. However, the musicianship in the East Coast is a lot better. There are a lot more bands in LA, but they are not at the same level. Believe it or not the ambiance is no different. In New York the dancers are great and the scene is just as cool when you get there. In Los Angeles we have more clubs and the scene is bigger. We have a lot more musicians, but not at the same caliber.

Sharon: You have television credits that include Moesha, New love Boat, Buddy Faro, Fired up and others. Your film credits include, Death with Smoochie, Dance with Me, Contact, I Llike it Like That and others. You have also done commercials for Miller Lite Beer, Nike and others. There aren’t many bands or artist who get the opportunity to experience music at this level. How does it feel to travel beyond barriers?

Johnny: It feels good to go beyond the club scene. It feels good to know that there are enterprises and corporations that are realizing that they can benefit from the Hispanic market and want connections to Latinos. Salsa music is no longer supported by Latinos. Salsa music is supported by people all over the world. Today, they are playing salsa music in commercials and are also attracting the group of people who enjoy that music. It is not necessarily a Latin product. I’m thankful to have partaken in some of these acting roles as well as the musicianship of these materials. Lately, the Hollywood industry has been opening up opportunities for me in acting roles.

Sharon: Your band, Conjunto Amistad was formed in 1993 and for nearly a decade this band has influenced the growth and popularity of Salsa music. What are some of your potential ideas with the movement of the band for the next couple of years?

Johhny: We are making new changes with the band, adding a few musicians and getting the education out. We are currently preparing a new CD. The CD will have the sounds of, Cachao, son montuno, and mambo. The structure is going to be the same, but we are looking to get a sound that is going to intensify the band. Next year, we are considering in doing a live CD, since we are respected for being a great live band.

Sharon: Currently, Conjunto Amistad is preparing for a national and international tour that includes NYC, Washington DC, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Hawaii, Japan, China, Italy, England, and additional locations. What do you hope to deliver to these different cities and countries?

Johnny: Well, the salsa movement in the far east is getting big. Last year there was 3 thousand visitors a day for the salsa congress in Japan and we went to China last year. The 2008 Olympics will be held in Beijing and many Latin American countries will be participating, to entertain that crowd they will have salsa participate as well. The movement is big everywhere, the scene is great and I don’t think it will ever loose it’s niche. There are a lot of young people involved in salsa as well as a lot of older people involved in salsa. This is what salsa offers. It is good for all of us. It is our responsibility as artist to go and put the next movement, it is a continuous cycle.

Sharon: After 35 years of a professional musicianship, currently you are also in the production of your 10th Anniversary CD. What would be the meaning behind this album?

Johnny: Over production time, we decided to change the direction of the CD and make it a tribute to Cachao calling the album, “El Tumbao del Cachao”, in replacement of the 10th Anniversary CD. Cachoa is a legendary bass player who is one of the founders of mambo. He just also won a Grammy.

Sharon: What is the origin of the name of your band, Conjunto Amistad?

Johnny: I made the name up because, it was basically a group of my friends and some of them long time friends from my home New York.

Sharon: What message do you send to all Salseros?

Johnny: Well basically we have to continue to strive to keep our culture, continue to make it grow and for salseros to support live entertainment. This is very important because, the dancing and the music goes hand in hand. Keep dancing and keep on teaching so we can have salsa for ever.

Johnny Polanco