Interview: John Santos, My Music is Who I Am

John-Santos
By Don Macica –

“My experience totally comes from the folkloric tradition. My grandparents on both sides were musicians. My dad’s family is from Cape Verde off the coast of Senegal while my mom is Puerto Rican. I grew up in that environment so I was listening to and playing traditional Cuban, Puerto Rican and African music at an early age.”

I’m speaking with San Francisco Bay area percussionist, band leader and educator John Santos via phone from Washington, DC, where he is making several appearances in connection with the Smithsonian Institute’s Folklife Festival. From there he’ll travel to Chicago for two Latin Jazz Festival appearances this week: A lecture and demonstration entitled My Music is Who I Am at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center and leading the John Santos Sextet at the Humboldt Park Boathouse. Both events are presented by the Jazz Institute of Chicago.

Santos had led several bands over the course of his four-decade career. The best known of them was the Machete Ensemble, which lasted for 21 years but dissolved in 2006. That’s the group I caught at HotHouse, the South Loop venue that closed its physical doors several years ago but continues as a still vital organization with programming in various locations around the city. As it turns out, that’s the last time Santos played in Chicago until now.

“The economics of that group were really difficult,” says Santos. “It varied from 12-14 members, and a group of that size is very hard to take on the road. It was hard to get decent paying work for that many musicians. I downsized to 9 members, but even that was hard to support.”

After Machete Ensemble broke up, Santos started a quartet, which has gradually built up to the sextet that will visit Chicago this week. Besides being a top-shelf performing Latin jazz ensemble, they specialize in educational presentations from lecture/demonstrations to detailed clinics focusing on any number of relevant subjects such as composition, arrangement, rhythmic development, stylistic interpretation, studio performance, etc. Their repertoire consists of arrangements from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the US, as well as original compositions.

The conversation turns back to the importance of tradition in Santos’ music. “After my experiences playing with my family and during my development as a professional musician, I studied all sorts of African influenced music. As a percussionist, I was drawn to the conga and batá drums, and from there to Congolese and Nigerian music. I started collecting instruments and vintage recordings. That folk tradition became a driving force in my career.”

Santos continues, “Those folkloric traditions form the basis of what I do, but then we apply that to original music using contemporary jazz harmonies and themes that talk about experiences that are relevant to what we’re living through.”

With that, our conversation moves to Santos’ educational efforts and programs, one of which he is presenting this week in Chicago. “Workshops, lectures and classes are nearly half of what I do, with performing and composing being the other half,” he notes.  “I took the title My Music is Who I Am from a dissertation by the great Latin jazz bassist Andy Gonzáles.  That title really resonated with me, so I created this presentation that talks about Afro-Latinos like myself and the way music is intertwined with our identity, history and culture. The music is an almost sacred document that tells our story in our own voices and the voices of our ancestors.” He continues, “I’ll be using a lot of historical recordings from my collection to illustrate certain themes of who we are, in our own words, and I’ll show how those same themes are relevant to our lives today. It will show how connected we are to these older traditions, but at the same time have contemporary examples that play the same role.”

It is mid-afternoon, and Santos still has one more Smithsonian Folklife panel to attend. As we are saying our goodbyes, Santos remarks, “I’m really looking forward to coming back to Chicago. I’ve done events before with Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center at the old location. I’m honored to be presenting there again and of course I’m excited to be performing at the Latin Jazz Festival. It will be great to see old friends and make some new ones.”

My Music is Who I Am, Thursday, July 14, 7:00pm at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, 4048 W. Armitage, Chicago. Free admission, but registration is requested. srbcc.org

10th Annual Chicago Latin Jazz Festival, Friday-Saturday July 15-16 at the Humboldt Park Boathouse. 1301 N. Sacramento, Chicago. John Santos headlines Friday at 9:00pm. Free admission. jazzinchicago.org

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