Santos remains a vital force in Latin music


This article by Jesse Hamlin appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

It was a jolt of electricity, literally, that prodded percussionist and bandleader John Santos to quit his day job in 1978 and make music his profession as well as his life.

Santos, a San Francisco native whose Puerto Rican and Cape Verdean grandparents drew him into the Afro-Caribbean music he has played and taught with distinction for four decades, was an apprentice electrician until he shocked himself while running conduit on a construction site. He was standing 20 feet up on a ladder, which he kicked out from under himself when he got zapped.

“I was sleep-deprived,” Santos says, “coming home at 3 a.m. after doing a gig and having to get up at 5:30 to go to work. I was hanging from a conduit, screaming. A guy came over and set up the ladder. That was it. I walked off the job. That was my last day.”

It turned out to be a good move for Santos — a Bay Area cultural asset who turns 60 on Sunday, Nov. 1, with a performance at SFJazz by his superior sextet and guests like the great Cuban timbalero Orestes Vilató — and for the artists and audiences who have benefited from his musical energy, scholarship, entrepreneurial skills and integrity.

With the money he’d saved from his stint as an electrician, Santos was freed from taking the lousy $30- or $40-a-night gigs which other musicians needed to make ends meet. Instead, he devoted himself to studying the music, books, records and videos he had gathered over the years with the help of older San Francisco musicians like Carlos Federico and Benny Velarde, who would bring him materials back from New York, Puerto Rico and occasionally Cuba.

“I had this great library of stuff, and I was transcribing music, making notes, writing lyrics to traditional songs,” says Santos, a tall, graceful man with a trim soul patch and a penchant for snap-brim fedoras of the sort his elegant Cape Verdean grandfather wore. He is sitting in the sunny bougainvillea-draped 1920s Oakland bungalow he shares with his wife, Aida, a writer, and their two young kids. A row of conga drums sits by the piano.

The money saved, he goes on, “allowed me to dive in as deep as I’ve been able to do,” and funded the first two records he produced on his long-running Machete label.

One was by Batachanga, the far-ranging Afro-Caribbean band he directed, the other by Santos’ Grammy-nominated Machete Ensemble, which brought a stronger jazz focus to the pan-Caribbean mix and featured original and folkloric tunes arranged by talented associates like trombonist Wayne Wallace, flutist John Calloway and pianist Rebeca Mauleón. Both records featured Vilató, a New York Latin jazz firecracker who moved to San Francisco in 1980 to play with Santana and connected with these tuned-in young musicians, who were honored to play with him.

“We were playing the kind of music he loves — traditional Cuban dance music, rumba, bata, mambo, danzón,” says Santos, who over the years has played with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach to Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri and the celebrated Cuban bassist and composer Cachao. “Orestes gave us a lot of advice on how to play this stuff, and he made some wonderful recordings with us.”

Vilató, who lives in the East Bay but rarely plays locally anymore, recently did a workshop in Oakland with Santos and the visiting Havana rumba player and composer Raul “Lali” Gonzalez, who also performs Sunday.

“It was really very nourishing,” he says. “John has been a major force in keeping Latin music alive for many years and getting jobs for musicians locally and internationally. Always with new ideas. He is a humble, warmhearted human being who keeps his friends and family very close.”

Some of those old friends will be onstage with him Sunday, among them violinist Anthony Blea, who was 14 when he played in Santos’ first band in the ’70s, singer Destani Wolf and Raul Rekow, the longtime Santana percussionist with whom Santos was arrested in ’73 for allegedly making too much noise while drumming in Dolores Park in the middle of the day (his one and only night in jail). Various Mission District legal and community organizations rose to their defense — “a blender at 20 feet is louder than that,” Santos says with a smile — and the case was tossed.

“The drum is part of our expression, our history and culture,” says Santos, whose righteous indignation was aroused by the recent dustup at Lake Merritt over a drum circle triggered by a complaint from a neighbor in that rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. “It tells us we don’t live with as much freedom as we might think,” the percussionist says. “Our art comes out of political circumstances, and we wear that on our sleeves.”

Santos grew up in a politically engaged family in the Mission, where his mother was a community organizer and his father cut hair, tended bar and drove a city ambulance. He loved the live music and warm communal vibe at his grandparents’ houses, where he would quiz the old guys about the music. His step-grandfather Julio Rivera was a string-strumming bandleader from Puerto Rico with a rich collection of Puerto Rican and Cuban recordings. John’s father was a big jazz fan who bought him his first conga drum at 12, second-hand for $50, and a few years later began taking him to sit in with bands led by pros like Velarde, an old friend of the elder Santos from Mission High, at joints like the Log Cabin on Bayshore.

“I’d drink my Shirley Temple and sit in,” says Santos, who also played with his grandfather’s band at all the family gatherings — holidays, birthdays and funerals. He wanted to know about the music.

“I was interested in the history of what was going on. The old guys loved that! A young person who’s interested in the history of what they’re doing? Nowadays it’s all about the technology, and what’s the newest thing, as opposed to what’s gone down before. So they took me under their wing.”

He became so versed in the linked histories of Afro-Latin music and jazz he was invited to give a presentation at the Mission branch of the public library while still a student at Galileo High. That was the start of the teaching career that has brought him to community and music centers, universities and schools across the country and abroad.

“I fell into it. But I realized immediately that I loved it,” says Santos, who is now teaching Latin percussion and music history at the California Jazz Conservatory and the College of San Mateo. “To make a presentation you have to prep, and I had to dig deep into my resources. To this day, that’s one of the

ost important and fun things I do.”

All the research and reflection has enriched his playing.

“When you get to hear the masters, and see and make sense of the evolution of certain styles, you understand the drumming from a better spot,” says Santos, who tries to find time to practice amid his other activities. “I’d love to have more chops. I’m always working to free up time so I can inch in that direction.”

Among other original shows Santos put on as a resident artistic director at SFJazz was the 2013 U.S. debut of Ernesto Osviedo, the celebrated 80-year-old Cuban bolero singer. He performed at last month’s Monterey Jazz Festival with Santos’ sextet, a veteran crew featuring saxophonist Melecio Magdaluyo, pianist Marco Diaz, drummer David Flores, bassist Saul Sierra and John Calloway on flute, piano and percussion.

They haven’t prepared any “crazy arrangements” for Sunday’s show. “It’s going to be real open, loose, a party,” Santos says, a cross-section of music from various phases of his musical life.

“I’ve been really fortunate to learn from the elders, to play and record and talk to and learn directly from Cachao and Tito and Diz, from the pioneers. That’s experience you can’t get any other way. I try to continue that by teaching. Young people come up to me and I see myself in them. It’s an honor to be part of that continuum.”

The John Santos Sextet and special guests perform at 8 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 1, at the SFJazz Center, 201 Franklin St., S.F. $24-$65. (866) 920-5299,

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