By Gaetano Kazuo Maida
October 16, 2022
“The drum is like a heartbeat.” —John Santos
I grew up in the Bronx in the ‘50s. This was in an old Italian neighborhood, full of grape arbors and fig trees (even a goat!), but by the time I was eight our neighbors on one side and across the street were from Puerto Rico, and on the other side were African Americans; it’s mostly Caribbean now. My public school was a ten block walk from home and most of my classmates there were Jewish. My parents were a mixed couple (Japanese/Sicilian) and most of their friends were mixed in one way or another as well, so I had a strong sense of a wonderfully polyglot community that ill-prepared me for the rather homogeneous and affluent population of my elite public high school. But it did open my ears to a wide variety of music. The soundtrack at home was folk, blues, soul (long story), flamenco, and opera, but in the streets it was doo-wop and Afro-Caribbean.
The Bronx is well known for being home to Latin music legends like Tito Puente, Machito, Tito Rodríguez, Vicentico Valdés, Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto, Johnny Pacheco, Willie Colón, and many others. Not to mention the later originators of hip-hop and rap like Grandmaster Flash and Kool Herc. But I digress…
The master Latin music percussionist, composer, band leader, educator, and community activist John Santos is a second-generation native San Franciscan who grew up in Bernal Heights, adjacent to the Mission District. But he would have been right at home in the Bronx of my youth. His family roots go back to the Cape Verde Islands and Puerto Rico, and the San Francisco of his day was very much like my old neighborhood, full of an amazing variety of cultures and music. “We had the world on our one little block,” he says. He is widely known as a “keeper of the Afro-Caribbean flame,” and his life is a celebration of that heritage and community exuberance.
Santos: Skin to Skin, with its Premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival, is a rich, nuanced portrait of him and his music and mission directed by Kathryn Golden. This is a cultural feast, that rare music documentary that can bridge generations and cultures through the story of one man. It’s also a primer on Afro-Caribbean music, tracing its roots back to the diaspora of slavery, and fundamentally, to the ubiquity of the drum.
“The drums sing songs… there’s a melodic content,” Santos tells us. “You’ll find the same drums [throughout the Caribbean]. That’s because of our common history of slavery. We have to recognize that as uniting us. The music teaches you that right away.”
This is not a simple man. He’s played with many of the greats in jazz, Afro-Caribbean music, and other traditions, including Tito Puente, Cachao, Dizzy Gillespie, Eddie Palmieri, Max Roach, Patato Valdés, Chucho Valdés, McCoy Tyner, Paquito D’Rivera, Zakir Hussein, Rhiannon, Carlos Santana… the list goes on.
“The opportunity to learn from elders became a path for me,” Santos says. He pays it forward too, mentoring and teaching young people at every chance. “We know that by teaching our children to love and not to hate is really the key to fixing a lot of the problems we have.”
He’s also a renowned scholar of the traditions, currently a faculty member of California Jazz Conservatory, SF State, College of San Mateo, and Jazz Camp West, and he’s a trustee of SFJAZZ. He performs with his own groups of differing configurations: the John Santos Sextet, the John Santos Quintet, the Machete Ensemble, and El Coro Folklórico Kindembo, and has his own record label, Machete Records. He has been nominated for a Grammy Award seven times. Santos collaborator pianist/composer Omar Sosa says, “He said, ‘let’s do something different’ and the ‘different’ of being different was to be ourselves.”
Yale scholar Robert Ferrris Thompson tells us, “John is onto the big secret: what is the essence of language, meaning; and what is the essence of meaning, translation.”
For all that (and there’s much more), he’s a family man with a wife and two young children, and they live in Oakland now, with extended family and many friends in and around a lot for impromptu music and feasts. And there has been loss too, with their first daughter dying just after birth. His wife says, “We almost didn’t make it… but John was able to transfer his grief into music.”
The film generously includes several performances, rehearsals, and recording sessions, and the music moves from mambo and samba and bolero to fusion and delightful improvisations. He tells us, “A lot of the inspiration comes from sacred music traditions that are old, that are rooted in the community, that deal with ancestors. We’re trying to channel that energy and communicate with each other…We have to create an atmosphere that is celebratory and lift each other up.”
After Skin to Skin, you’ll want to spend more time with this man and this energetic and deeply connected music.
Santos: Skin to Skin screens and John Santos performs with the Sextet and “very special guests” following the film at SFJazz Center, 201 Franklin St, San Francisco, CA 94102 on Sunday, October 30 at 8:00 pm. Full information here.
Mill Valley FF Audience Favorite | ¡Viva el cine!
Official Website. Sign up for information about future screenings.
Kathryn Golden, Producer/Director/Editor, bio here.
Watch Smithsonian Folkways interviews with John Santos about various musical instruments here.
And learn how to play Latin percussion instruments from John.
John Santos’ YouTube offers more performances.
Gaetano Kazuo Maida is a media professional and strategic planner. He has both owned and consulted for restaurants, and has been active in the tea arena here and in Asia. He was a founding director of the Buddhist quarterly Tricycle, and producer/director of several films including Peace Is Every Step, a film profile of Vietnamese Zen teacher/activist Thich Nhat Hanh, narrated by Ben Kingsley. He was featured in the film by Les Blank and Gina Liebrecht, All in This Tea. Maida is currently executive director of the nonprofit Tea Arts Institute, as well as Buddhist Film Foundation, which produces the International Buddhist Film Festivals around the world.
Maida has written for EatDrinkFilms about his search for the perfect Bialy, about Les Blank’s ALL IN THIS TEA, and reviewed THE VELVET QUEEN, CITY OF GOLD, THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM, IN SEARCH OF ISRAELI CUISINE, Jewish food films, RAMEN SHOP, HALLELUJAH–LEONARD COHEN, A JOURNEY, A SONG. and THE AUTOMAT.