SFJAZZ.org | QA-John Santos

On The Corner Masthead

Revealing the Big Secret:
A Q&A With John santos  

October 14, 2022 | by Richard Scheinin

John Santos

Bay Area-based Latin jazz legend John Santos is the subject of a new documentary film, John Santos: Skin to Skin, which will be screened at SFJAZZ on October 30, followed by a performance by Santos’ renowned Sextet. Staff writer Richard Scheinin spoke to the percussion great and former SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director about the film, his music, and career.

In the new documentary film about percussionist and bandleader John Santos, there’s a scene in which he sits at the dining room table with his family, stuffing envelopes with CDs and press releases. Over the years, by working as his own publicist, he remarks, he has spent thousands of hours on “this kind of stuff. If I would’ve spent ten percent of that time practicing, I’d be a really good musician.”

Such self-assuming remarks are typical for Oakland-based Santos, whose decades-long resume includes stints with legendary musicians like percussionist Tito Puente, bassist Israel “Cachao” López, pianist Eddie Palmieri, and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Titled Skin to Skin, the new film is as warm and informative as its subject. Santos is a connector — certainly of musicians in the Bay Area, where he has led crackerjack bands for decades: Orquesta Batachanga (a charanga-style dance band), the Machete Ensemble (named, in part, to honor his great-grandparents, who were sugarcane cutters in Puerto Rico and Hawaii), and his Sextet, which performs at the SFJAZZ Center on Oct. 30. A birthday bash for Santos, who turns 67 on Nov. 1, the sold-out show will highlight his pan-Caribbean take on jazz and Latin jazz — and much else; he isn’t easy to pigeonhole — as well as a screening of the film, which is directed by Kathryn Golden and has been in the works for a decade.

Santos, who grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District, is more than a connector of musicians. As an activist, teacher, and historian, he spans — rather, crisscrosses — numerous communities and brings 3-D perspective to his discussions of Afro-Latin folk forms and rhythms. A conversation with Santos is likely to stretch out in multiple directions, addressing the African sacred music of the Yoruba and Congo traditions that spread throughout the Western hemisphere, initially as a result of the slave trade. Today, that Afro-Cuban — and, again, pan-Caribbean — musical message is heard worldwide in funk, samba, New Orleans jazz, swing, rhumba, hip-hop. Santos can spell out (verbally) and demonstrate (musically) the connections, while folding in essential context about history, politics, spirituality.

In the film, the late Robert Farris Thompson, a preeminent scholar of Afro-diasporic art and music, says, “John is onto the big secret.”

In other words, Santos understands global traditions and how they arise from — and remain connected to — the routines and rhythms of daily life. He works hard to understand and demystify music, though, in the end, he acknowledges, its powers remain profoundly mysterious. It isn’t about entertainment; that’s not its essence. No, music is about creating community and redressing injustices — it’s about resistance.

It’s also about communing with the ancestors: “It’s kind of a bolt of electricity that goes through the dancers and the drummers and the singers. And when that happens and you’re able to stay there and let it be more than a moment, and then it elevates and you kind of get to the next level — you hear it, feel it. That’s when the hairs start to stand up on your arms, because you’re in this rhythmic space.”

The film moves straight through Santos’s life story.

His paternal grandfather was Cape Verdean and a musician. His maternal grandparents were Puerto Rican, and their house was filled with music. His parents were jazz fans, and Santos — a huge baseball fan as a kid, and, briefly, a union electrician, as a young man — was steeped in music, captivated by it, and somehow driven to understand it at a deep level. His close friend Raul Rekow, the late percussionist who played with Santana for 38 years, recalls how Santos, still in his teens, dragged him into endless hours of listening to recordings of drums and chants, transcribing the rhythms and words, and filling binders with the transcriptions.

A self-taught scholar, Santos, it seems, was always thirsty to learn, and always taking command of his pursuits. Multi-instrumentalist John Calloway, Santos’s oldest collaborator — and a member of the Sextet to this day — recalls that his friend, while in his late teens and 20s, acted “like a leader while the rest of us were just, `Where’s the gig?’ “

Skin to Skin has some terrific footage of gigs by Santos and his various groups, much of it filmed at SFJAZZ.

And it has an unusual ending.

Over the lengthy closing credits, his close friend Jerry Medina, the great Puerto Rican singer and trumpeter, improvises, on and on — and Santos, the leader, the subject of the documentary, is barely seen. He shrugs it off, saying that his friends and bandmates don’t get enough attention.

A scene from John Santos: Skin to Skin

Here’s my conversation with Santos. It’s been edited for clarity and length.

Q: You’ve traveled widely as a musician. You’ve performed with lots of legendary musicians. But you’ve also made a point of staying close to your community. I think of you as a “local” musician — in the best sense. Is that how you see yourself?

A: If you really want to go to the top, you go to New York — that is almost the expected path for jazz and Latin musicians. And I understand it; it’s the pilgrimage you have to make. It’s the mecca. But I can’t live in New York. I’m too much of a West Coast person. I first went to New York in 1978 and loved it — I still love it — but the city is too fast for me. I was hanging out with Jerry and Andy González and Milton Cardona and that whole crew, all great mentors to me, but those guys were like vampires, hanging out all night, partying hard. They’d get up out of bed at midnight and start partying and after a couple of days, I’d had enough. I came home.

Just going there kind of solidified my love of the Bay Area.

Q: Well, you’re born and raised here.

A: Where I grew up in the Mission District, especially in Bernal Heights, we lived in a place that was just amazing — Massasoit Street was a little tiny short block where there was a Cuban family and a Filipino family and a Black family and a Chinese family, a Mexican family, a Salvadoreño family, a Caucasian family — and we were the Puerto Ricans. There was a gay couple across the street. I took it all for granted until years later, when I realized that the cultural blend we have here is amazing. So I love being a so-called “local” musician, while also having the chance to play with a lot of folks around the world, in New York and in Europe, where I started going in the mid-‘80s, mostly to teach. But to tell you the truth, ever since 9/11, I’ve intentionally tried to not be on an airplane. It became a drag to fly instead of an adventure.

And then at the beginning of the millennium, my kids were starting to be born. So I haven’t traveled a lot since then.

I’m kind of a local boy.

Q: Something I noticed in the film — and which is always the case when you perform — is that you look sharp onstage. You and the band look impeccable, like old-school musicians.

A: It comes from my grandparents on both sides of the family. My Cape Verdean grandfather, who played the accordion, was one of those guys who dressed in a suit every day — he had a suit and a flower in his lapel, even if he didn’t leave the house. All his friends were like that, and they would come over on the weekend, and he would cook this delicious Cape Verdean food and they would sit around the table and eat and play the most gorgeous music. I was always struck by the way they looked. They all had that sense of pride. They carried themselves in a respectable manner and I noticed that from the time I was a child.

On the Puerto Rican side, it was the same thing. They took care of how they looked. My dad was a stickler for that; he was a super dresser. So to hear you say that about me – my dad would have enjoyed hearing that. But I don’t hold a candle to those guys in terms of dress and style.

It’s something I’ve always noticed in all the traditions that I’ve been around —the jazz scene, the blues scene. All those musicians dressed like that. Maybe they didn’t have a lot of money, but they were looking good. It was one of the reasons I wanted to become a musician. Because I admired how they presented themselves, and I saw the respect that they were given as musicians and in the family.

Q: The last time we spoke, you described how your Puerto Rican grandfather — Julio Rivera, who was a professional musician — played at home every weekend to a living room packed with dancers. You described how the aromas of your grandmother’s cooking wafted through the house and the music felt like a celebration.

A: To this day I can’t think of this music without thinking about the food. There’s no separation. Whatever situation we’re in economically as a people, when you get to a family place – that smell of the food goes with the music, hand in hand. We were just at a friend’s housewarming — a Puerto Rican family. The guy is an incredible cook: Rico Pabón, the rapper. He’s in the film. He’s an amazing cook and he learned from his grandmother. So they recently found a place to live that they could afford, and the whole community was there and he cooked these big huge pots of food for everybody. It reminded me of how my grandparents did it. They didn’t cook out of little pans. They used big pots. When you’d go home, they sent you out the door with plates of food, and that’s what Rico did.

Q: What were some of your grandmother’s best dishes?

A: Oh man, three come right to mind. The first is arroz con gandules — it’s a Puerto Rican rice with pigeon peas, and it’s a little spicy, with kind of an orangey color, and just delicious. And there’s ensalada de bacalao — salad with salted codfish, a specialty of my grandmother. The third would be pasteles, which is kind of the tamal of Puerto Rico. Instead of being made out of maíz — corn — it’s made out of plantain, and it’s wrapped in a plantain leaf with all these tasty things inside. Incredible.

Q: When you perform, you sort of treat the stage as a living room. You’re the leader, but you don’t put yourself front and center. You move around, switching between percussion instruments. Often, you’re sitting off to the side or behind the other members of the band. Why is that?

A: One reason is just out of gratitude. I work with musicians who sometimes are considered like “sidemen,” and oftentimes sidemen don’t get any love. Yet they’re as important as anyone. In my case, I’m not a virtuoso singer or percussionist. What I do is glue it all together and coordinate things. I’m good at that. But in my band, I’m probably the least musical guy. It’s the truth. So the musicians I have – I respect them a great deal, and I just want them to know that and not give the impression that it’s about me.

Because I couldn’t do it on my own. I’m kind of a jack of all trades. I’ve studied a lot of types of music, and for that reason I have a rounded experience. But out in the world, if you were to look, say, at all the conga players out there — Pedrito Martinez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Poncho Sánchez, Danielito Diaz – I’m not a virtuoso player like those guys. What I’m able to do is, I bring the best out of my band. We bring the best out of each other.

Q: I think you’re being modest.

A: It’s realistic. I don’t have illusions.

Q: Not every musician thinks about music the way you do. You connect it to history, politics, folklore, religion, the ancestors. You hear musical connections everywhere, and you can explain them, because you’re also a scholar of the music — and basically self-taught, which is amazing. Why are you the way you are?

A: My mom was a community activist, and she also was the most “educated” out of her family, even though she only had a high school education. But she was really good at reading and writing and she got me at a very young age into my academic endeavors. So, I’m the same way. I only have a high school education, but from elementary school on, I was very into reading and writing and she taught me how to edit. She taught me how to go back and tighten what I’d written and make it concise and effective.

The music that was calling me was this Afro-Caribbean music, but the Latin community in the Bay Area is more Mexican and Central American. It’s not like New York and the East Coast, where the Caribbean community is primary. So, I started reading and taking in a lot of information about Caribbean culture and music. Even when I was still in high school, I was asked to make presentations. There were no courses here, so I started putting it all together — I taught a class at Mission High with Raul Rekow, my late great friend. I was probably 18, maybe 17. It was a drumming class and we talked about the history of the drumming and what the music represents. I also gave a lecture at the Mission Branch Library on 24th Street around the same time.

Q: You’ve said that this perspective had kicked in by the time you were 10.

A: I’ve always been fascinated by the history and its connection to the music. That’s another reason I’m grateful for being in the Bay Area. Coming out of the ‘60s and into the ‘70s, there was a movement of solidarity with the struggles of Latin American countries and that coincided with the opening of a place called La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley which opened in 1975 and also the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts (in San Francisco) which opened its doors in 1977. I learned in those places about the struggles of people in Cuba and Chile and Argentina and Peru and Brazil and Africa — the history of colonialism. We were learning there about the importance of the arts and music to those struggles — and how the music was really born out of those struggles. I started collecting materials and reading and putting it all together.

The more you get into it, the more you realize there’s always more to know — getting to know the Cuban roots, and the African roots, and making the connections. To me, it’s just been a constant thing of going back to the drawing board and the woodshed and preparing and connecting and trying to understand all these things.

The strategy is to work toward social change. That’s much more important than getting a GRAMMY nomination or selling X amount of records.

Q: I’m struck by how you’ve always made these global connections while staying rooted in the community — it’s that “local” thing again.

A: Well, I mentioned La Peña – we’re playing there this month! So I’m still involved, and my kids grew up going to La Peña, taking classes there. I played and/or taught at La Peña every year from around 1975 until my kids were born, and then my kids started going, so I was taking them back and forth and the connection has continued.

Q: As a teenager, you used to play congas in Dolores Park in the Mission — you and Raul Rekow and lots of other musicians. Can you describe that scene?

A: Funny you should mention that, because I was at Dolores Park a couple of weeks ago, jamming at a memorial for a friend who passed — a percussionist who was in those classes that we taught at the Mission Cultural Center, and he became a musician. He was a Mission District guy — his name was Tony Price — and a lot of musicians came to his memorial. It was an emotional thing to begin with, but also because I realized that I hadn’t played in Dolores Park since a certain day in 1974 when I got arrested in the park while playing with Raul Rekow. The police rolled up and arrested us for being in violation of a noise ordinance. That was 48 years ago, and I hadn’t played there since.

My mom used to take us there when I was really little. It’s got those rolling grass hills, and as children we would have a blast rolling down the hills. And then when I was in high school, there was a great conga drumming scene in the park, especially on the weekends. On a sunny day, there’d be a ton of conga players — quite a scene. That’s where I met John (Calloway), at one of those jam sessions.

Q: What is the gist of your pan-Latin, or pan-Caribbean, musical perspective?

A: We have a shared history, and the history is not pretty. It’s a colonial history. People always have to be reminded of that, because we live in this culture of normalization — normalizing violence and war and forgetting that colonial reality. It’s worse than denial, the fact of normalizing it. And where it’s hitting home for me right now is in Puerto Rico, where the capitalist absurdity is at an all-time high. They’re privatizing and selling beaches. They’re closing 600 schools and selling the buildings to corporations.

Q: Knowing all that, what is your goal as a musician?

A: The strategy is to work toward social change. That’s much more important than getting a GRAMMY nomination or selling X amount of records. What’s important is to get people’s faces away from their screens, away from Facebook, and to get active and work for change. It’s criminal, the way people are suffering. In the places where this music comes from, the people can’t really achieve happiness or even make a livelihood because of the conditions due to the colonial history. Even today, now, I’m tripping about my own children — what can my children afford, now and in the future?

As artists, it’s always been our responsibility to document these truths and to advocate for the conditions that are in our communities right now. A lot of people don’t want to hear that. But our music, by nature, it’s born out of a political reality, so we can’t make it not political. We can’t make it all “roses are red and violets are blue.” That’s not what’s important. The priority is to make change.

Q: Will you describe the spiritual aspect of the music?

A: That’s at the root of what we do — all the rhythms that we play. All the music we play has its roots in dance music and that’s a very important part of our tradition, respecting and acknowledging the elders and the ancestors. And when people come up close to the music, when they get right up next to the musicians and feel the vibrations of the drums and the other instruments and hear the old rhythms and melodies and songs, it starts to create a trance environment which is conducive to the ancestors coming. When you see really good dancers, they can almost levitate to the music, and it just feeds the musicians and heightens that musical environment. It gets higher and higher.

There’s this idea of channeling when you’re playing — you’re channeling ancestors from your own life and experience, various persons and elders, and their energy and concepts are coming through you. We’re channeling that energy from the people who were here before us. And as you play on stage – if you’re a tenor player you’re trying to channel Coltrane. If you’re a percussionist, you’re attuned to some different ancestors. You want to bring them into the room and create an environment that lifts. That spirit is what the music is about.

Q: Who are you channeling?

A: I don’t think about it when I’m playing. I would hope that my most influential teachers come through when I’m playing. I don’t intentionally do it. But I would hope that Armando Peraza, Orestes Vilató, Francisco Aguabella, Alejandro Publes, Pancho Quinto, Papin (Ricardo Abreu), Raul Rekow — all these players who I had the great honor to learn from, that they would come through in my playing.

John Santos performing at SFJAZZ

Q: When you’re playing drums and the music is lifting — what does that feel like?

A: It’s very much like playing at a ceremony — if you play consecrated drums at a ceremony where the intention is to call the ancestors into the room. It’s that feeling when you’re playing sacred drums and reenacting rhythms and movements and songs that are ancient and having them serve that purpose of bringing the spirits into the room. When the musicians are really in sync, when all the gears are fired up, when the rhythms lock in in a really powerful way — the stronger the rhythmic element is in the band, that gets into people’s bodies, and their bodies will begin to reflect those same rhythms.

Q: You don’t get to that space every night.

A: No. When you start to learn this sacred drumming tradition, the people who teach you are very strict. Even if you’re playing the baby drum, your role is very important, because if you let down the energy, if you lag or if you make a mistake, it’s not going to go there. It has to be coordinated. That’s what we’re aiming for on stage. It’s like a pot boiling — we go back to the food. It starts as a simmer, and gradually the trance element comes in, and it’s bubbling, a slow burn, and pretty soon the flavors start to blend and pretty soon you have something special.

This formula of coordinating rhythm with other musical aspects and movement is intended to invoke spirit. It’s this very powerful thing that connects us to the history of humanity. You find this in the Caribbean, in Africa, in Asia, and around the world. This is not just something that’s unique to some night in a salsa club where there are some good dancers. This is what unites humanity.

Q: Can you talk a little more about your teachers and about the lineage of drumming, generally?

A: It gets complicated. The last time I was in Cuba, in 2018, I went to the city of Santiago — in the eastern part of the island — for the first time. And I met a legendary gentleman, and at first I walked right by him, because I didn’t know who he was. He was an old guy. He looked very much like a street person, and he smiled at me and we just nodded at each other and then as I was talking to somebody else, they said, “Did you see him?” Did I see who? Well, it turns out this real old gentleman who I’d just passed in the street — he was the teacher of my teacher, from whom I learned batá (the hourglass-shaped, double-headed drum played in Yoruba ceremonies). My teacher is named Koyuti, and this man I’d just passed had been his teacher. So who knows? I may be playing some things that come from this guy I met on the street in Santiago de Cuba. His name is Galií. I went back and talked to him, and we discovered all these connections we had through music. We’re all part of this lineage.

Q: The film follows you and your family to Peñuelas, Puerto Rico, the town where your great-grandmother was born. There’s a scene where you’re in a graveyard, looking for the graves of family members, and you’re chanting something traditional.

A: That was a Congo song; the Congo roots of our music often deal with the dead.

Q: Your son João — who was maybe six years old at the time — is accompanying you, playing rhythms on rocks with a couple of sticks. He sounds like he knows what he’s doing! Are your kids musical?

A: Yeah, my son is 14 now and my daughter Avelina is 17. It’s in their blood and they’re both very good. My daughter sings very well and dances and my son is a really good piano player. They’ve grown up around this music since they were in their mom’s tummy, and they’ve been around this extended musical community every day of their lives, so they’re both very rhythmic, very musical.

Q: What was it like for you, going to Peñuelas?

A: It was very much like a dream — surreal, very surreal. The town is in the interior of the island, in a valley surrounded by mountains. I’m not in touch with my family relations in Puerto Rico, because my great-grandparents left in 1901 and never went back. As a result, I’ve got a lot of cousins there, but I don’t know who they are. So we decided to go – it was the first time I went with my family to Puerto Rico. I said, “Let’s just go to Peñuelas where my great grandmother was born and just feel it, feel the vibrations of this place.”

We were in the plaza there, and I met some guy and started telling him my story, and he said, “What are your family names?” So I told him: Ramos and Borrero. And he said, “You see that hill up there with the radio tower? All the Ramoses are still up there. And you see that water tower over there between the two peaks? That’s where the Borreros are.” They’d been there for a century and it’s rare that people leave. He said, “You wanna go up there?” I said, sure. So he got in his car. We got in our rental car, and we followed him up this windy rode and I saw this dude who looks exactly like one of my cousins. I got out to talk to him, and it turns out this guy’s a Borrero, so he’s probably a distant cousin.

Scene from John Santos: Skin to Skin

Q: The film also deals very sensitively with the death of your first child, your daughter Amaly who passed when she was only a month old. Your wife (the author and arts activist Aida Salazar) describes how you were able to transfer your grief into music. Can you talk about that process?

A: Firstly, I should say that it’s the kind of thing that can tear a family apart; a lot of couples don’t make it. But also, it brought us closer and it brought us into another community — there are tons of people who have had the same experience. It’s a common experience: “Oh, yeah, that happened to us, too.” It kind of helped us to get through and to process it.

But I also felt like our traditions around the ancestors and around life and death – that helped, too. My wife is Mexican — the Day of the Dead. That tradition is strong throughout Latin America, honoring the ancestors, the ones who’ve passed. In Western culture, it’s not much more than macabre, but for us — when this happened to us, we kind of leaned on our traditions of life and death.

I was born on the Day of the Dead, November 1. I feel that I have some kind of connection there. My older brother Franco died on November 1 and so did my close friend Raul Rekow. In fact, we were on stage at SFJAZZ the night he passed (in 2015). And I feel this connection — this life-death ancestor connection — is fortified for me. I can feel it through the music. We play music to celebrate births and to honor anniversaries. But we also play music to honor the dead. I’ve written lots of music for colleagues and friends who’ve passed. And at that time, I really did dig into that. It was kind of a saving grace for me to compose in that way, and to play and remember. In fact, Jerry Medina was coming to play with us. He arrived a day or two after my daughter died, so he was here with us and went through that experience with us. It’s another reason why we’re so extremely close. We’re like family. It ends up fortifying our family and community even more.

Q: Let’s finish up with Tito Puente. How did you meet him and what was it like to perform with him?

A: You have to study Tito if you’re a percussionist. You have to go through his school.

Tito was a santero in the Afro-Cuban religion and his godfather moved here to San Francisco, to the Mission District, and his godfather’s roommate turned out to be the flute player in my group. It was real bizarre. Total coincidence — Tito’s godfather, this old man named Nilo Tandrón, ended up in San Francisco in the Mission District and he was roommates with my boy Juan Ceballos (the flutist). That’s how I met Tito: Nilo was a highly respected elder in the santero community, and Tito would come for advice, blessings, rituals, and spiritual cleanings in addition to just “family” visits.

Tito had signed with Concord Records, a Bay Area label. They would coordinate with Tito when he was doing a gig out here. And we were all young aspiring musicians, and Tito realized he might be able to work with some of the talent out here and maybe he wouldn’t have to keep his entire big band here from New York throughout all the recording sessions. So several of the local musicians got a chance, and I was lucky to be one of them, and that’s how I wound up playing with Tito and recording with him on three of his albums in the mid-‘80s.

Tito Puente: "Contigo en la Distancia" with John Santos (bongo)

Q: And what was it like to record and perform with the great Tito Puente?

A: Recording and performing with Tito Puente was like a Puerto Rican kid way into baseball getting to play on the same team as Orlando Cepeda and Roberto Clemente! And then getting to know them — or him — intimately: laughing, eating and drinking, hearing jokes and amazing stories, getting life-experience advice. He was super down-to-earth, a brilliant, conservatory-trained composer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist and impeccable bandleader and, simultaneously, a streetwise brother from the ‘hood, not necessarily in that order.

The screening of John Santos: Skin to Skin and performance by the John Santos Sextet on October 30 is currently sold out. However, additional tickets may be made available over the days leading up to the event. Please check here for updated availability.

A staff writer at SFJAZZ, Richard Scheinin is a lifelong journalist. He was the San Jose Mercury News' classical music and jazz critic for more than a decade and has profiled scores of public figures, from Ike Turner to Tony La Russa and the Dalai Lama.

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