Latin-American roots constitute a significant dimension of the national art form which is jazz. One of the most prominent Latinx jazz musicians in the Bay Area is John Santos. Santos, a seven-time Grammy-nominated percussionist, has had a passion for Afro-Latin music, especially jazz, for most of his life.
“Growing up in SF’s Mission district … greatly informed my musical choices and career,” he said. Santos not only experienced a sensational music scene in San Francisco, but also recognized how this music had an important role in the American struggle for social justice. “It exposed me deeply to … the progressive movement of solidarity among countries and communities seeking social justice,” he said.
Santos began his music career when he was around 11. The first band he joined was his grandfather’s, who introduced him to the tumbadora (conga drum). “If I had to pick a favorite (instrument),” Santos said, “I suppose it would be the tumbadora, my first percussive instrument.” He never had a mentor, so his bandmates taught and influenced him.
“The various percussionists who came through (my grandfather’s) band playing tumbadoras, timbales (high-pitched drums), bongós, maracas, and güiro (notched gourds) guided me,” he said.
Santos wants his performances to communicate three important points to his audience. “We are one race with common aspirations and rights and there is an urgent connection between artistic expression and working-class social reality with its inherent struggle … our music is born from these struggles, unites us, and allows us to creatively define our history and identity in our own voices … There is no place for war in this day and age, ” he said.
Santos said that he aims to, through music, convey that racial discrimination has no place in our communities. In his inclusive musical approach, he tries to unite people and connect their stories, creating a tangible sense of togetherness.
Santos uses these key points to teach his student Mario Barragan, who is also a tumbadora player and sophomore at Berkeley High School.
Barragan was very young when he joined an Afro-Puerto Rican folklore band at the La Peña Cultural Center. He was in a band with a small cohort of nine people who were also studying cultural music. Santos’s children were also in that band. The band played in many different venues in the Bay Area.
“In the band,” said Barragan, “I was … (good friends) with his son and his daughter … we would hang out, have playdates, go do tours … around the Bay Area.”
“I didn’t know how much of a big deal he was,” continued Barragan, “but my parents used to go to his shows before he knew them. So it’s kind of crazy how we met him. And then we created this lifelong bond.”
In his performances, Barragan tries to bring out patterns of music he has learned from Santos, especially in his handling of the tumbadoras. “In my solos, I’m bringing African rhythms and Puerto Rican rhythms and Cuban rhythms all together from what I studied (with Santos) when I was younger.”
Barragan is in the Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble at SF State, which is co-taught by Dr. John Calloway and Santos. Both Calloway and Santos are teachers who dig deep in Afro-Latinidad musical topics. Since Barragan is interested in a career in music, Santos takes him and his son to shows. “It’s nice shadowing him,” said Barragan, “and seeing what he does at different venues.”
Both Santos and Barragan dig into their cultural heritage and play a form of music that is exciting and authentic. Santos is a giant in that musical genre, and Barragan aspires to establish himself as a prominent Afro-Latinx musician.
There is a new CD release entitled “Vieja Escuela by The John Santos Sextet” featuring four of Santos’s mentors, to be released on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024, with a concert at the Freight & Salvage. Students will be admitted at half price.