John Santos’ Caribbean Philosophy

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“We play traditional rhythms, but the nature of the traditional rhythms is that there’s improvisation and a lot of room for expression,” Santos says of his music.

(Photo: Michael G. Stewart)

Working from his self-described “mansion” in Oakland, California, John Santos is surrounded by the things he loves most: his family, more than 5,000 vinyl records and hundreds of globally sourced percussion objects dating from the early 1900s to present.

One of the most prolific, awarded, and recorded Afro-Caribbean percussionists in the world, the 68-year-old Santos is also a renowned educator, clinician, author and subject of the 2023 documentary Skin to Skin (Searchlight Films). He has recorded more than 20 albums as a leader (many on his own Machete label), with highlights including Orquesta Batachanga’s Mañana Para Los Niños (1985), the Grammy-nominated John Santos y El Coro Folklorico Kindembo’s La Guerra No (2008) and The John Santos Sextet’s Art Of The Descarga (Smithsonian Folkways, 2020).

Santos’ latest release, Filosofía Caribeña Vol. 3: A Puerto Rico Del Alma, reflects his long career and deep family heritage, featuring his core band and a host of celebrated guest musicians including Jimmy Bosch, José Roberto Hernandez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Manny Martinez, Beatriz Muñíz, Christian Nieves, Sandy Pérez, Fito Reinoso, Sandra García Rivera, Ismael Rodriguez and Elio Villafranca.

In the liner notes, he calls it “our homage to the tiny island with the immense heart that has produced so much marvelous music, while valiantly resisting colonial violence and mentality for more than 500 years.

“Puerto Rico is also the birthplace of my great grandparents, Domingo Troche Caraballo Pérez from Yauco and Juana Dominga Ramos Borrero from Peñuelas, both in the southwest of the island. My family migrated from Puerto Rico to Hawaii in 1901 and to San Francisco in 1925. My stepgrandfather, Julio Rivera — an exceptional requintero and guitarrista from San Mateo de Cangrejos whose band I began playing with at the age of 12 — came to San Francisco in the late 1930s. This is a very personal project to honor those deep roots from the island that we still feel deep in our hearts.”

To those uninitiated in this rich folkloric music, Filosofía Caribeña Vol. 3: A Puerto Rico Del Alma is like the sound of fireworks at Puerto Rico’s San Sebastián Street Festival. The heat and glare of Santos’ profoundly groove-inducing sextet equally reflect the simple beauty of the traditional plena rhythm, which Santos executes to sublime stature on “No Me Mientas Más,” one of five original Santos compositions on the album, accompanied by four covers.

Growing up in the Bernal Heights section of San Franscisco, Santos was engulfed in music. He attended high school with Carlos Santana and played conga (after starting on clarinet) with dozens of ethnically diverse bands.

“We were in the middle of the city, right on the edge of the barrio of the Latin district, which overlooked the Mission District,” Santos explained by phone. “It was like a mini World’s Fair. We had a Mexican family, a Chinese family, a Puerto Rican family, a white family, a mixed family, a Cuban family, a gay couple. I did a lot of playing coming up in Dolores Park in the Mission District, and there was a lot of music in the street at that time.”

While his parents perfected their swing dancing technique, John spent evenings at his grandparents’ house, spellbound by their “incredible collection of Puerto Rican music,” he said. “The first band I played with was my step-grandfather’s band; he played a variety of different kinds of guitars.”

Santos also inhaled Cape Verdean music in the family home, performed by his other grandfather. By 1966, Santos was playing conga with his grandfather’s band, learning the oral tradition from the source.

He takes pride in a huge collection of Puerto Rican rhythm and song books given to him by both of his grandfathers. “It has been the resource for me my whole life,” he noted.

Eventually, Santos became a close collaborator with renown Cuban percussionist Orestes Vilató, a seminal figure who graced the bands of Ray Baretto, Fania All Stars and Santana.

“When Orestes moved out here in 1980, we began a relationship that continues to this day,” he explained. “He’s on just about all of my records, including Filosofía Caribeña Vol. 3: A Puerto Rico Del Alma. He gave me a conga drum that was given to him in his childhood. It’s probably from the 1940s.”

As for the literal meaning of the new album’s title, Santos translates it as “Caribbean philosophy. A Puerto Rico del Alma means ‘to Puerto Rico from the heart.’ It’s the first time I’ve made an entire project of all Puerto Rican music and rhythms. I’ve usually mixed it with more Cuban-themed material.”

Which begs the question, is Santos a staunch traditionalist regarding indigenous rhythms, or does he allow room for personalization and stylization?

“We play traditional rhythms, but the nature of the traditional rhythms is that there’s improvisation and a lot of room for expression,” he says. “What we and a lot of people do is take those traditional rhythms and make them our own. We bend them and play with them and experiment within the parameters of the tradition, and sometimes, beyond. We create music that is right out of the tradition, but it’s something new.”

Also new, or at least recent, is the 2020 Santos documentary Skin to Skin, described on the film’s website as “a feature documentary about master Latin Jazz percussionist and community activist John Santos. An urban legend, Santos is acknowledged as a ‘keeper of the Afro-Caribbean flame, using music to navigate the politics of culture, global migration and his Puerto Rican heritage.’”

Santos’ solo recorded output is impressive, and his sideman discography, equally so. It includes Tito Puente Orchestra’s Un Poco Loco (Concord, 1987), Charlie Hunter Quartet’s Pound For Pound (Blue Note, 1998), Omar Sosa’s Bembon (Ota, 2000) and Alexa Weber Morales’ Vagabundeo/Wanderings (Patois, 2007). These put Santos in mind of his earliest albums as a leader: John Santos & The Machete Ensemble’s Africa Vol. 1 (1988) and Machete with special quests Chocolate, Anthony Carrillo, Cachao and Orestes Vilató (1995); and Machetazo: Ten Years On The Edge (1998).

“I’m proud of my early records because we put a lot of love into them and collaborated with a lot of musicians,” Santos said. “My core group is a sextet, but there are 25 or 30 musicians on each of those records which we brought in from different generations, these master musicians from Cuba and Puerto Rico. Those records really stand the test of time.”

Santos is already in production on his next recording, Vieja Escuela (Machete), scheduled for release next January. DB



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