Perhaps not “all politics is personal,” but for Mexican born and raised drummer and composer Antonio Sanchez, who became a naturalized American citizen in 2016, the criminalizing of immigrants and the breathtakingly casual cruelty in the enforcement of border policies by the Trump Administration do feel personal, deeply personal.
“I feel so blessed and so thankful for what I’ve achieved in the United States,” says Sanchez. “But at the same time, I feel completely repulsed by what the United States is doing to immigrants — especially to people coming from the South. […] So whenever and wherever I’m performing, I’m speaking out, trying to make sense of what is going on.”
Not surprisingly, Lines In The Sand (CAM Jazz), his follow-up to last year´s remarkable Bad Hombre (CAM Jazz), is a passionate and eloquent statement from a superior artist and emerging social activist. In Lines In The Sand, Sanchez turns his anguish and anger into a moving musical statement, as much a protest against injustice as a tribute to every immigrant’s journey.
“With all the political turmoil and ethnic violence that is permeating the country and the world,” writes Sanchez in the liner notes for Lines In The Sand, “it’s been impossible for me not to pay much closer attention to what being a brown-skinned immigrant with a Latin name from a third world country means to me, as well as the implications for my family and my future children.”
“As I write these words [in July 2018], families are being torn apart at the US-Mexico border in a grotesque attempt to deter illegal immigration (which happens to be at a historical low). Small immigrant children being scarred for life by these inhumane policies keep reminding me of the millions of people that aren’t as fortunate as I have been and whose journey to come to this country sometimes becomes a matter of sheer life or death.”
Working with his band Migration — John Escreet on piano, Fender Rhodes and Prophet Synthesizer; Matt Brewer on acoustic and electric bass; Thana Alexa on vocals and effects and Chase Baird tenor saxophone and EWI — Sanchez builds, in some cases very explicitly, on the social and musical statements in Bad Hombre.
In “Bad Hombres y Mujeres,” which Sanchez calls “a kind of a reverse remix,” he took the bass line from the original tune, “which is a lot simpler in Bad Hombre, and turned it into this kind of almost symphonic piece.” Meanwhile “Home,” an instrumental piece in its previous version, is re-imagined here with lyrics by Alexa.
In fact, the voice is a critical element in Lines In The Sand. As in Sanchez’s earlier The Meridian Suite (2015), it is mostly treated like another instrument — now carrying the melody lines, as in the elegiac “Long Road,” now creating textures with the electronics or the keyboards, saxophone, and bass.
“I like to have that human element in my music,” says Sanchez. “Even though the saxophone can be incredibly lyrical, people can relate to the voice in a completely different level.”
Voices also appear at strategic points in the extended pieces in Lines In The Sand — “Travesia” and the title track, which bookend the recording — adding to their distinct cinematic quality. In some instances — most notably in the dramatic intro to “Travesia,” an audio verité collage of cries and noises from ICE and police raids — Sanchez makes his point bluntly and unambiguously. For the most part, the pieces suggest soundtracks for imaginary films. It’s an approach to musical storytelling that Sanchez had a chance to explore while working on the score for Birdman (2014).
The soundtrack earned him a Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media, and nominations for the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score, and BAFTA Award for Best Film Music.
“I really started liking the idea of creating a narrative to tell longer stories,” he says. “And in that narrative, I can develop my characters, which are my melodies, my rhythmic ideas, in a more thorough way. On “Travesia” and “Line In the Sand,” I’m really thinking in a cinematic storytelling kind of way.”
“In ‘Travesia’ I’m really trying to evoke the journey that immigrants have to go through. With the intro, which is so violent, I wanted to give [the listener] a really concise narrative of what happens on one of those raids and what it must feel like. The piece then gets really intense sometimes, and sometimes it gets beautiful and very sparse. I really like contrast in music, so I love to go from the most sparse and softest passage to an incredibly intense section, take you by surprise and, I´d hope, take you on a journey.”
The storytelling approach also informs the title track, in which Sanchez includes a fragment of “At the Wall, US/Mexican Border, Texas, 2020” a poem by Mexican-American students and activists Paola Gonzalez and Karla Gutierrez that he found on YouTube.
“I thought their poem was powerful and poignant so I grabbed it and added it to a section of the track that I always felt like it needed something extra,” explains Sánchez. “When I superimposed the poem over that section it gave me goose bumps. “
The journey comes to rest on the story told by yet another voice, that of Boston-based Mexican-American poet, musician, and activist Jonathan Mendoza reading his poem, “Blood Country.” In Mendoza’s prayer-like cadence, “Blood Country” suggests a glance back before stepping into a new world.
It says in part:
I pledge allegiance to staying.
I pledge allegiance to going.
I pledge allegiance to remaining, and longing,
despite knowledge of a forbidden future.
I pledge allegiance not to the blood,
but to the scar. Not to the blister,
but to the thickening of skin,
“This was such a perfect statement in which to end,” says Sanchez. “With Lines In the Sand I want people to stop for a second and think about what’s going on with a lot of human beings in this precise time in history, and how immigrants are being viewed, not only in the United States but all over the world, and how those human beings can be feeling.”