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One On 1 Profile: Latin Jazz Master Bobby Sanabria is a Musician, Teacher and Activist Dancing to the Beat of His Own Drum

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You can hear his music online and in stores, in New York concert venues and schools, and certainly in his Bronx apartment. It's safe to say Bobby Sanabria is a true New York musician. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One on 1 profile.

Bobby Sanabria likes to teach. In his class at the Manhattan School of Music, he says, "we have all these drums form this big massive school of percussion, una schola, and that's what drives samba."

He even likes to teach in the hallway at his apartment in the Bronx.

"That's the real way you dance mambo and somme, breaking on two. Your foot breaks with slap of the congga drum on two," he says. "So you're like this, you do a time step, one, two, three, four."

Bobby Sanabria loves everything about Afro-Cuban jazz. He's a percussionist, arranger, producer and composer, a seven-time Grammy nominee for solo work, collaborations and, in 2012, the Bobby Sanabria Big Band. The music is all around him.

"The brass shells is a very dry sound that we use to play, what we call cascara," he says.

For Sanabria, the meaning of the music extends far beyond the notes.

Among the pieces on his wall that he holds most dear is a poster with the words of the Puerto Rican independence icon, Pedro Albizu Campos.

"'Aquel que no está orgulloso de su origen no valdrá nunca nada porque empieza por despreciarse a sí mismo', which means, 'The person who is not proud of their origin, their cultural origin, will never amount to anything because they begin by insulting themselves,'" Sanabria says.

He teaches and leads Afro-Cuban jazz orchestras at both the New School and the Manhattan School of Music.

"I love the power of harmony, and you get that really in a big band, the complexity of harmony, the complexity of rhythm, and how the big band is like a giant organism," Sanabria says.

"It's very empowering to pass on what one knows to the next generation of players, especially since we're now in a time period where the music isn't as present in the mainstream as it was," he adds.

"When I was growing up in the '70s, when the music was in full force in New York City, there wasn't a place you couldn't go to in New York where you didn't hear some type of Latin music."

His passion for the music is so deep that when the Grammy Awards tried to cut several categories in 2011, including Latin jazz, Sanabria led the protest, lending his name to a lawsuit against the Grammy Awards.

"All of a sudden, I start reading the verbiage, and I start going to myself, 'I don't freaking believe this, man. They're taking away all these categories.' I was livid," he says.

"It was very culturally insensitive as well, because the majority of categories that were cut represent what we call foundation categories, the foundation of American music."

Latin jazz and other categories were eventually reinstated.

The issue brought back some early advice from Sanabria's mother.

"I was getting bullied, and she goes, 'You got to fight. Fight,'" he says. "'If you don't fight, you lose right away already. You got to stand up for yourself,'

Bobby Sanabria is a Bronx guy, born and bred. He grew up in the Melrose Houses. He remembers listening to a neighborhood concert from the window of a friend's apartment.

"I'm hearing (sings in Spanish and snaps fingers) and the saxophones coming in, I'm going, 'Oh my God, we got to go down there, man!'" he says. "And then Tito Puente comes out, and they introduce him as the king of Latin music."

"It was just awe-inspiring, awe-inspiring, and from then on, I said, 'This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.'"

A few years after that fateful night when he saw Tito Puente, Sanabria earned a spot at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston in the mid '70s, his first extended time out of New York. Not everyone was so welcoming.

"'Hey Bob, somebody's on the phone for you,' and I, 'Hey, you freaking spic, go back to where you came.' I got all that," he says. "It was amazing."

However, he was surrounded by a talented and thriving musical culture. Sanabria turned down some offers to hit the road with professional bands in order to stay in school, but when Tito Puente, whom Sanabria calls his hero, played a gig near Boston, Sanabria asked if he could sit in on the timbales.

Mishkin: You have it in you to say it. Where do you think that comes from?
Sanabria: Only thing I can say, as we say in Spanish, cojones. Bravery. I was nervous. I was nervous as all hell, but I said, "If I don't do this now, I'll never do it."

Sanabria has gone on to play around the world, but he's never far away from the Bronx. He lives there today with his wife, folklorist Elena Martinez. His view of the borough hasn't always been so romantic.

"There were a few incidents that happened in my life when I was young that I said, 'Wow, I could got killed,' or 'I just avoided being killed,'" he says.

Sanabria gives much of the credit for surviving the neighborhood of his youth to his parents.

"Like many other working-class people in the growing up in the South Bronx at that time, they were working-class, but they had middle-class values," he says. "They wanted their kids to survive and thrive, and I have my parents to thank for that. Jose and Juanita Sanabria."

In 2006, Sanabria was inducted into the Bronx Walk of Fame. He's always quick to point out a fellow Bronx success story like Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and he's always ready to fight the borough's good fight.

"That image of the South Bronx, that's still, it's like a stigma with us, the burning buildings, etc.," he says. "That's been gone for years, years."

His love of the Bronx is not just based on nostalgia for the great Latin music venues of his youth but also an enthusiasm for the borough's future. He and his wife Elena serve as co-artistic directors and curators of the Bronx Music Heritage Center.

"I'm looking forward to the future, and besides doing all the other things that I do," he says. "At this point of my life, everything I do has to have meaning, and this is really keeping with that mission."

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