John Santos is one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s most versatile Latin musicians. He’s a conguero, percussionist, historian, record producer, composer, writer, vocalist, lecturer, teacher, and an in-demand session player. He also runs his own label, manages and books his bands, and produces concerts. Without Santos, the San Francisco Latin scene wouldn’t be as vibrant as it is. Lucky for everyone, he hasn’t slowed down his creative pace since he discovered his affinity for the congas at the age of 12.
“I actually started my career on clarinet,” Santos says from the Oakland home he shares with his wife and two young children. He speaks like a jazzman: short bursts of words and long melodic lines double back on themselves, repeating key phrases to give the conversation resonance and texture. “My parents got the clarinet for my older brother, Franco. He passed it on to my brother Dave, who passed it to me. I got my first musical training in theory and reading in grammar school and in the Boys Club. I stopped because I was getting interested in girls. I thought mouthing the reed was giving me buckteeth.”
While he was learning clarinet, Santos was listening to the music his parents and grandparents loved. They had record collections filled with Cuban and Puerto Rican artists like Armando Peraza, Patato Valdéz, Mongo Santamaria, Munequitos, Francisco Aguabella, Ramito, and Tito Puente.
“I come from a Puerto Rican family and my grandma’s house in the Mission (district) was the center of our world. Aunts, uncles, and cousins convened to celebrate Puerto Rican food, music, and culture. There were a lot of conga players at those gatherings, and I was drawn to the drums.
“My grandfather, Julio Rivera, took me to the bars and halls where his band played for dances, weddings, and anniversaries. He was a guitarist and his crew would rotate, according to who was available. I had one formal lesson from one of my dad’s friends, Rene Rivera, who was no relation, but mostly I watched them play and tried to copy what I was hearing on records. I played my first gig with Julio when I was 12.”
Santos, his brothers, and cousins attended San Francisco’s Mission High, where another student was getting attention for his music. “Santana was playing gigs with his Santana Blues Band. I respected the older musicians in my grandfather’s band, but Santana used congas and timbales to play rock. That gave me the inspiration to dive in and become a professional. A lot of kids started Santana copy bands and played his repertoire.”
Santos started jamming on congas in Dolores Park, across the street from Mission High, and learned some valuable lessons quickly. “You need to take care of your hands; the conga can be unforgiving. In the early days, I tended to over play and hit too hard. We learned by ear and by watching the older guys who played in dance bands. In the old days, there was no amplification. They had to hit hard. I’d play for eight hours, then go back the next day and do it again. Your hands would blister and sometimes crack open, but you get used to it. I eventually learned how to get a sound without pounding my hands into the drum, but I’ve only had a few formal drum lessons. In 1990, I had a timbale lesson in Cuba with Victor Valdés and one in San Francisco with Changuito (Jose Luis Quintana of Los Van Van). I had apprenticeships with two great Cuban folkloric drumming masters. Koyuti in 1981 and Francisco Aguabella in 1984. They taught us about batá drumming, which we were trying to learn from recordings and transcriptions (charts) from the ’40s and ’50s. They laid out a lot of knowledge over several months; we’re still learning from the material he gave us.”
As Santos added batá, bongos, timbales, wood blocks, cowbells, and other hand drums and percussion instruments to his arsenal, he was drawn away from the pop of Santana and into the world of Afro Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Caribbean folkloric music. He began investigating the origins of drum music and the drums themselves.
“The congas directed me to Afro Cuban music. My parents’ records made me aware of Chano Pozo, Candido, and Francisco Aguabella. I became a fanatical record collector, making transcriptions of the conga drum parts on the albums. The drum pulls you in with its joyful music, then makes the connection to the ancestors and Africa and the history of the drum, including slavery. The story of the music and the drum moved me as a young man; how enslaved Africans were stripped of their cultural expressions, yet the drum rose like a phoenix in Cuba and other places. It became the voice of the music of the common people, not only in the Caribbean, but also among an international community. I embraced the idea of the drum as resistance.
“In the U.S., too, they were afraid the drum would unify the Africans and tried to suppress it. That mentality is still here with the current attack on the arts and eliminating music from the schools. When I started digging into the roots of the drum, everything I learned took me deeper. I wanted to find out where the roots come from. It’s become a lifetime endeavor of discovering rhythms, choreography, and songs.”
Santos moved from Latin rock to salsa bands, with one quick but notable side trip. “My friend Raul (Rekow) got me an audition to play timbales with Santana in 1976. I got the gig, but only stayed in the band for a month.
“After I was fired from Santana in 1976, I joined La Orquesta Tipica Cienfuegos, the first homegrown charanga in the Bay Area. They played Cuban-based dance music and, like most groups in the Mission, they were young and not very organized. I took over the band and told them to forget about gigs. ‘Let’s go to the woodshed and really learn how to play this music.’” Some musicians left, but those who stayed got access to a database Santos had put together, 500 tunes on 20 cassettes, all done without computers. When they started playing out a year later, they were smoking. With their impressive repertoire of folkloric and dance music, they took Latin music in the Bay Area to a new level, mixing up Cuban sones, mambos, rumbas, and danzones with Puerto Rican bomba and plena.
“Cienfuegos was an incubator and an exciting learning experience,” Santos says. “Eventually, some of the people from Cienfuegos began Orquesta Batachanga, again mixing Afro Cuban folkloric and dance music and adding flavors from Puerto Rico and Brazil. I had some hand problems that kept me away from the congas for a year, but when Batachanga got a record deal they asked me to produce their album with (percussionist) Michael Spiro.”
Batachanga was impressed by Santos’ production on La Nueva Tradicion and asked him to assume leadership of the band. “We did well locally, but some of the musicians started playing in a lot of other bands as well. I’m not into subbing the positions out and I make that clear to the musicians that play with me. I decided to leave the group in ’84, but I wanted to document the music we were doing. I proposed a recording on the label I was starting, so we made Mañana Para Los Niños, played one record-release party, then broke up.”
Machete Records, the label Santos started to record Mañana Para Los Niños, was born out of necessity. “You dream about being on a label when you’re young, but when I signed with a local (San Francisco) label, it was a fiasco. I wanted to do it myself and know how many records are being sold, but it’s a full-time job, even for a staff of people. I do the production work myself, with my wife’s help on the last couple of CDs. It takes away from practice time and my work as a composer, but I took it on and most of the albums I’ve made since 1984 have been on my own label.”
After Batachanga splintered, Santos moved toward Latin jazz, organizing the John Santos Afro Cuban Jazz Ensemble, an 11-member group that gave Santos and his colleagues an opportunity to challenge themselves with more complex writing, composing, and arranging. “We got a good reception playing around town and, when we made our first record, Africa, Vol. 1 (1987), I changed the name to The Machete Ensemble, a continuance of our original concept to blend tradition and innovation. I call the band and the label Machete, as a tribute to my mother’s family. They were part of the migration of Puerto Ricans to Hawaii after the US invaded Puerto Rico in 1898, during what U.S. history books call the Spanish-American War, but was actually a war of the colonies against Spain. The next year, hurricane San Ciriaco flattened the island. The sugar plantations in Hawaii scooped up the workers who had no way to sustain themselves. Almost half the population left the island; 6,000 went to Hawaii. My great grandparents unknowingly signed themselves into indentured servitude. The cane cutters were called macheteros. After years of going from plantation to plantation looking for work, they finally came to San Francisco. I use the word to honor them.”
Between 1985 and 2006, The Machete Ensemble was one of the premiere Latin Jazz bands on the West Coast. They played on both coasts, the Midwest, and Havana, packed clubs, and made eight seminal albums, including S.F. Bay, nominated for a Best Latin Jazz Album Grammy in 2003. “We had a great run, but there were too many economic pressures in the last few years. I’d rather not work than accept the same wages we were paid 20 years ago. I disbanded the group in 2006, but I’d already started the John Santos Quartet (in 2003), which morphed into a quintet and now a sextet. Our latest album, Filosofía Caribeña, Volume 1, is the first for the sextet. Although, like the previous quintet CDs (Papa Mambo, Perspectiva Fragmentada), we made it with about 30 guest musicians, including Colombian singer Claudia Gomez, Cuban singer and guitarist extraordinaire Pável Urkiza, percussion master Joey Deleón, and Bay Area conguero Javier Navarrette.
“We started writing and performing for Filosofiá at the beginning of the year with my sextet: Saul Sierra (bass), Marco Diaz (piano, trumpet), John Calloway (flute, percussion), Melecio Magdaluyo (saxes), and David Flores (drum set), who is a great young drummer who can play hip-hop, folk, jazz, and Latin. The project is commissioned by grants from the East Bay Community Foundation, the National Association Of Latino Arts And Culture, the Ford Foundation, and generous individual donors. We’ll be presenting the world premiere of Filosofía in a multimedia setting with music, spoken-word performances by Rico Pabon, a young hip-hop Puerto Rican poet, Kamau Daáood of the World Stage in Los Angeles, and legendary Puerto Rican super vocalist Jerry Medina, on April 2, 2011 for the S.F. Jazz Festival. Choreography will be by Ramon Ramos Alayo who will be bringing along a few dancers as well.
“We want to introduce people to Caribbean philosophy as an antidote to the systematic failure of a government driven by money and greed. Filosofía Caribeña references values that have to do with honoring the elders and the ancestors, the concept that everything has a spirit, the medicinal use of herbs, and the core values our families passed down through the generations. The Caribbean is the heart of the Americas, a creole (mixed-race) society that brought an African connection to the U.S. through New Orleans. We want to emphasize its uniting factor, especially for the African American and Latino communities, and share our common story and struggle.”
Santos just released La Esperanza, an acoustic project with The Coro Folklórico Kindembo, in January 2011. It’s a follow-up to the group’s Grammy-nominated Traditional World Music Albums Para Ellos (2004) and La Guerra, No (2008). “Kindembo is a Congolese word that means a mixture of many things,” Santos explains. “It’s Cuban folkloric and spiritually based music, as well as profane music, mainly percussion and vocals. We have guests including tres player Nelson Gonzalez, Little Johnny Rivero, Jose Clausell and Luques Curtis from Eddie Palmieri’s band, local percussion greats Harold Muñíz, Sandy Pérez, and Jesus Díaz, Lázaro Galarraga and Roberto Borrell from Cuba’s Conjunto Folklorico Nacional, and a host of wonderful singers. We’ve been working on it for eight years. Kindembo’s origins go back to a group I codirected in high school, Conjunto Folklórico Yambu, inspired by the Mongo Santamaria album. The group has changed over the years, but this is the music I really love, the root of all the Latin jazz and contemporary music we do.”