Belen’s native son, Keith Sanchez, is back with a new band and a new purpose
On a brisk, December afternoon in Nob Hill, pale winter sunlight illuminates musician Keith Sanchez, brightening his already warm presence as he explains his musical journey from the Southwest to El Salvador and back again.
“The Catholic Church created a monster,” jokes musician Keith Sanchez, Belen’s native son and former St. Mary’s student, where he says it was Father Fernando Rubio who was instrumental in encouraged his musical ambitions at a tender age.
Sanchez began what would become a lifelong career as a guitarist and singer at the age of 6, in the city of Belen, when his older cousins taught him to play the guitar on a beat-up instrument larger than him.
Years later, the musician strums yet another beat-up instrument, his Martin N-20 nylon-string acoustic, which he calls his “Willie Nelson special.”
Just like Nelson’s priceless guitar, Sanchez’s sports a splintered hole beneath the strings from constant playing, giving it a unique charm.
Along with the “really cool” priest and his cousins, Sanchez credits having a couple of great, musical parents — Milli and Alex Sanchez — to his success as a working musician.
He recalls growing up with his parents’ circa 1960s and ’70s rock and protest music records, listening to his father singing Elvis Presley songs and his mother playing piano.
By elementary school, Sanchez was singing in the St. Mary’s choir and in seventh grade he wowed his class during a talent show when he performed The Eagles’ “Desperado,” an experience he remembers as terrifying.
And then in 1986, his world dramatically changed when at 13 his father’s work for the University of New Mexico and USAID took the family to San Salvador, the capital city in the civil war-torn country of El Salvador, to work on rebuilding and maintaining communities’ schools.
It was during his seven years spent in the country that his path as a musician began to really develop.
“It was definitely the most eye opening and earth shattering thing that has ever happened to me in my youth. It opened my eyes to the world,” Sanchez says. “I remember there was this American diplomat who sat down with me, because I was very young, and he said, ‘Young man, I’ll tell you, you’re going to cry now that you’re here, but I guarantee, you’ll cry when you leave.’ And he was right because it became home for me…
“To see people in such strife and yet such passionate and powerful and joyful people, it blew my mind,” he said. “Here was a people that just brought things to a connection to what I think the heart of being a human being is.”
Because the country was dangerous on “many levels,” the family was under constant curfew by the U.S. embassy, says Sanchez, who remembers being driven to school by guards armed with M-16s. But, as young people will do, Sanchez says he and his younger brother, Todd, who is also a musician, found ways to sneak out and visit the “worst parts of San Salvador” — where revolution and rock ‘n’ roll were in the air, and where the Sanchez brothers honed their musical chops under thatched roofs, amongst the city’s best musicians, young and old, in San Salvador’s underground music scene.
“It always blew my mind what huge rock ‘n’ roll fans Salvadoreans were. Whether they spoke a word of English or not — Led Zeppelin was Led Zeppelín,” says Sanchez. “They were passionate about their rock ‘n’ roll.
“One night there was a skirmish, an actual fire fight broke out and we dove under tables and waited for the gun fire to die down — I just remember that smell of gun powder in the air — but as soon as it calmed down everyone got back up and the band got back on stage.”
As cliche as he says it might sound, Sanchez believes rock ‘n’ roll transcends boarders. The Salvadoreans, he said, didn’t have to comprehend the lyrical message of the songs to know it was the music of rebellion, and not just political rebellion, but the rebellion of youth, of change in their own lives.
While rock music is embraced by young people worldwide, he said he found something exceptional about the Salvadorean people’s passion for the genre, in so far as the big U.S. Salvadorean gang, Salvatrucha, uses the rock ‘n’ roll fist with the pinkie and pointer fingered up as their gang sign.
But, while he says he grew up imitating these rock bands, it wasn’t just rock ‘n’ roll that influenced him, it was also the country’s cumbia and salsa music that influenced him, and what he calls the ancient sounds in which you hear “the old indigenous rhythms. Because if you really listen to cumbia,” he says, “there’s an indigenous rhythm in that.”
He says he absorbed all of these sounds through osmosis, without realizing it, because his passion was always rock and the blues.
But when he finally came back to the United States and started his first band, Stoic Frame, he discovered all these sounds permeating their music.
Stoic Frame was formed in Belen by Sanchez and his brother, a longtime friend and Belenite, Glenn Buddha Benavidez, and Matias Pizarro, whom the brothers met in El Salvador.
“We realized that we carried a love for (those other sounds),” says Sanchez. “I really thank my experience in El Salvador, musically, for making me fall in love with all those Latin rhythms.”
Stoic Frame, formed in 1992, went on to become a popular band, touring the Southwest until they eventually decided to move to Los Angeles to “jump into the Hollywood scene,” and signed with the label-group Navarre Distribution.
Described by Sanchez as Santana meets Nirvana, with song written in Spanish and English, the band played together for almost 12 years.
“We played all these side gigs, and we were always so passionate about so many styles of music that it made it easy to just jump into these sawdust on the floor biker bars and play all these old rock covers and Latin covers,” says Sanchez.
During one of these side gig along the Pacific Coast Highway, a fellow approached Sanchez claiming to work for “Carlos.” Thinking it was all hot air, and not really knowing who Carlos was, Sanchez jotted down his contact information on a bar napkin and didn’t think much of it until the next day, when Carlos Santana called.
Santana was opening a chain of restaurants called “Maria, Maria,” and wanted to hire Sanchez as the primary performer for his restaurants that spanned from California to Austin, Texas, and to scout and manage new talent.
“They flew me up and I got to sit down with one of my heros growing up. I ended up taking the position,” says Sanchez, who then worked for Santana for 3 1/2 years.
Eventually, Sanchez decided he’d had enough of the high-paced business life and that it was time to get back to the music and move home. So two years ago, Sanchez, his wife, Ana Romero, and their little boy, Tobias, moved to Albuquerque, where he has since formed a new band, Keith Sanchez and the Moon Thieves. The Belen native also founded the New Mexico Academy of Rock and Blues for youth.
He says he feels he is “passing on a torch to the next generation of music in New Mexico,” where he says Albuquerque is among the strongest music scenes in the country.
He compares NMARB, which he runs with his wife and bandmate Benavidez, to the School of Rock, except that they “go all the way back,” facilitating music camps during school breaks that include lessons on the history of rock ‘n’ roll and blues.
They also teach music technique and theory, weekly guitar seminars and weekly lyric writing seminars. More information on NMARB can be found at www.nmarb.com.
He is also teaching special education with Albuquerque Public Schools and is heading back into the studio to record a full length album with producer John Wall.
Sanchez says he feels that above all else, song writing is his gift and his “pain brush.”
“My goal right now is to write a catalogue as a song writer, because I write everything from country to blues to singer songwriter to artsy ‘alt’ rock,” he says. He said he’d even like other artists to preform the songs and is also looking into writing music for film.
He describes Keith Sanchez and the Moon Thieves as rootsy meets edgy with Latin influences and a little bit of blues and country mixed in. The band is comprised of Belenites Benavidez, guitar; Reagan Espinosa, drums; and Albert Sanchez, bass. They perform Fridays at the Luna Mansion.
The band also performs at Scalo, the Launchpad and at Low Spirits in Albuquerque.
Like all great working musicians of his time, Sanchez’s music can be readily found on iTunes.
But even with all his worldly travels, Sanchez doesn’t forget where he’s from — “a long line of musicians, politicians and priests” in a little city on the Rio Grande, where he grew up listening to his tios playing their accordions in ranchero bolero bands.
He remembers the bands that would come from all over the state to play at local fiestas and the uniqueness of New Mexico’s ranchero music.
“I remember (my uncles) sitting me on their lap and showing me how to play the accordion. That sound in my ear!” recalls Sanchez. “I think there’s something that spawns kind of a lament in our art and our music here because it can be a very hard place, you know, because of the sadness of the desert, of the winds, and these things I think are all part of what went into the creativity, that are just part of the soil here. And in Belen, I saw so much of that.”
For more information about Keith Sanchez and The Moon Thieves, visit www.facebook.com/keithesanchez.
-- Email the author at email@example.com.