John Santos’ Afro-Caribbean Mission

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Andrew Gilbert (Mission Local) reviews the documentary Santos: Skin to Skin (Searchlight Films, 2022) directed by Kathryn Golden and Ashley James and focusing on community activist, percussionist, and seven-time Grammy nominee John Santos.

When he was priced out of San Francisco back in the early 1990s, John Santos had to leave the Mission behind. But the culture and ethos he absorbed growing up in the neighborhood continues to shape his musical vision as a percussionist, bandleader, educator and activist who embraces the Afro-Caribbean rhythmic continuum.

A Latin jazz icon with seven Grammy Award nominations and an expansive, self-produced discography that encompasses master musicians from Cuba, Puerto Rico, New York, the Bay Area and beyond, Santos has thrived outside of Latin music’s commercial domain. 

A new documentary film, “Santos: Skin to Skin,” screens Sunday afternoon, Oct. 16, as part of the 45th Mill Valley Film Festival at The Roxie, co-presented with SFJAZZ (an Oct. 30 screening at the SFJAZZ Center, where Santos has often curated concerts as a resident artistic director, is sold out). John Santos joins “Skin to Skin” filmmakers Kathryn Golden and Ashley James for a Q&A following the Roxie screening. 

The film covers a lot of ground, offering an intimate portrait of the percussionist on and off the bandstand. In many ways it is a family portrait that situates Santos amidst a dense web of relationships, including his wife, award-winning author Aida Salazar, and their children. There is no shortage of musical peers singing his praise as an inspirational force responsible for expanding the international reach of the Bay Area’s Latin jazz scene. But one of the film’s primary pleasures is that it lets the drums do plenty of talking.

Filmed over nearly a decade, “Skin to Skin” captures various ensembles he’s led and special guests he’s showcased, like Havana’s late great Ernesto Oviedo, a maestro of boleros Santos introduced to the Bay Area. 

“One of the things I really wanted was to allow the music to be part of the narrative,” said Golden, who directed “Skin to Skin.” “Whenever you make a film about an artist or performer, there’s nothing like a live performance. There’s no way to replicate that energy. But John puts the music in a broader context. He’s always been a very political artist, and as a performer he links the music to world history, migration, and all kinds of issues that affect us.” 

As partners in Searchlight Films, Golden and James are no strangers to exploring the ways in which history flows through cultural expression. James filmed and directed the 2001 film “Bomba: Dancing the Drum,” about the Cepeda family, longtime standard-bearers of the percussion-driven Afro-Puerto Rican dance tradition. And together they made 1986’s “And Still We Dance,” a film detailing the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. As an artist embedded in a thriving community of musicians and cultural activists, Santos seemed like an ideal subject. [. . .]

With mentors like Cuban conguero Armanda Peraza and Panamanian timbalero Benny Velarde, both early Tjader collaborators, Santos soaked up all the musical knowledge he could and started drawing connections between various African diasporic traditions that manifested across the Caribbean. [. . .]

His music isn’t on commercial radio, but it’s been heard where it counts most. Legendary pianist, composer and bandleader Eddie Palmieri, known as the Sun of Latin Music, offers his benediction for his younger colleague in the film. “John Santos lives in my heart,” he says, “rent free.” [. . .]

For full article, see

The film:
“Santos: Skin to Skin”
Kathryn Golden and Ashley James
Searchlight Films, 2022
1 hour 15 minutes
English and Spanish with English subtitles

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