Music News & Reviews

Percussionist John Santos drums up interest in Afro Latin Jazz

Percussionist and band leader John Santos still considers himself a student of the drum even as most consider him a master.

Santos, 59, was born and raised in San Francisco’s Mission District and now lives in the East Bay, but he has traveled the world researching the origins of the Afro Latin jazz he performs. He’s bringing his band to River Walk Park in West Sacramento for a free performance Saturday night. He’ll also teach a percussion master class at La Raza Galeria Posada on Saturday afternoon.

“I know a lot of master percussionists and I don’t consider myself to be a master percussionist,” Santos said in a recent phone interview. “The drum calls you, and I got affected deeply by the spell of the drum and the lure of the drum.”

As a young person, Santos became interested in percussion and played in his grandfather’s band at age 11. Around that time, he began to understand that the music also held keys to his Puerto Rican heritage and to culture in general.

“It works as a tool to document our history and the words of folks who are our ancestors,” Santos said. “That’s what fascinated me and has had me on a lifelong journey.”

A five-time Grammy nominee, Santos has a legendary collection of instruments, recordings and literature, which he puts to use in a variety of ways.

He has been a resident artistic director at the new SFJAZZ Center, curating performance programs as well hosting listening party events where he plays recordings and discusses music. Santos also has lectured on Afro Latin jazz at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora and served on the Smithsonian Institution’s Latin Jazz Advisory Committee. He also gives lectures and percussion demonstrations in Latin America and Europe and is known worldwide as a writer, educator, cultural historian and activist.

“I learned in a traditional way, meaning it’s an oral tradition and I learned from spending time around elders,” Santos said. “When they, the elders, see a person that age taking an interest, they really tend to open up their arms and take you under their wing. None of those guys in grandfather’s band were teachers, but they all taught me a great deal just by talking and telling stories.”

They also brought him artifacts that he collected and preserved – vinyl records, cassettes, reel-to-reel and VHS recordings. By the time he was in high school, his collection was “formidable” and it’s still a great resource to him today.

When asked who Santos’ percussion heroes are, he laughed. “That’s a long list,” he said, “but most directly related to what I do as a percussionist are Armando Peraza and Francisco Aguabella, who I spent a great deal of time around because they both lived in the Bay Area for many years.”

Both percussionists, now deceased, were Cubans who came to the United States in the ’50s and found notable jazz employment before also working in Latin-based rock bands. Aguabella played in Jorge Santana’s Malo and in Carlos Santana’s eponymous named band, which Peraza also played with for 20 years.

Santos had a brief dalliance with the seminal Latin rock band in 1976 as well, but never performed with them. He did start leading his own groups soon after, though, and created his personal label Machete Records 30 years ago. He has released 12 albums as a leader on the imprint, including his most recent project, the two-volume “Filosofía Caribeña,” exploring the African, Iberian and indigenous influences on Caribbean culture.

“It’s meant to highlight the black and brown, so to speak, nature of Creole society and Creole culture,” Santos said.

The percussionist said he’s most proud that the project was financed independently, mainly through private donations.

“We did some fundraising, got some matching grants from the East Bay Community Foundation, and those grants were matched by supporters in a crowd-sourced kind of way,” Santos said. “The records highlight these deep African traditions that exist in the Caribbean just a few minutes south of our border.

“Our jazz tradition is closely, intimately related to that evolution; we’re branches of the same tree. We share this common labor history, common colonial history which should unite us. So the music could make us understand we have common struggles that go way beyond race and color.”