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SANTOS: Skin To Skin – Film Review

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John Santos
Grammy-nominated percussionist John Santos

After nine years of work, Kathryn Golden was finally able to screen her documentary film SANTOS: Skin to Skin and it was definitely worth the wait. One such screening was at the festival tent at the Mendocino, California Film Festival on June 2nd. The audience was treated to an exploration of the life and times of musician John Santos. In the film Santos emerges as more than just a remarkable musician. He is a social activist, educator, family man, a music historian and preservationist as well.

Life for Santos began in the beautiful neighborhood of Bernal Heights in the San Francisco Mission District. On his block there were families of various ethnicities and backgrounds.  Santos traces his ancestry back to Puerto Rico and the Cape Verdean islands.

Early life for Santos was filled with music as both his grandfathers were musicians. Any opportunity to play music, be it a birthday, a holiday or some made up celebratory moment was filled with music. Santos noticed that the musicians were always nattily dressed and thought he might want to be part of that world. He speaks also, about how the sound of the drum, the tumbadora, called out to him and he had to respond.

John Santos Interview at Home Studio in Oakland CA
John Santos Interview at Home Studio in Oakland CA

Raul Rekow, conga drummer for Santana for 37 years, remembers when John and he would go to Dolores Park and play congas. There were no books or videos to guide them, so they had to rely on their ears. Sometimes they would play the rhythms incorrectly and have to start again and relearn the correct way to play them.

John was not satisfied with just learning to play the instruments of Cuba and Puerto Rico, he wanted to know about where the music came from and why. After careful study, John curated a series of presentations at the Galería de la Raza in San Francisco called The Roots of Salsa. As the years went by, the presentations became more sophisticated with videos in addition to seminal recordings. John began to write about the music and it came to the attention of ethnomusicologist Robert Ferris Thompson, who is interviewed twice in the film. Thompson, a renowned expert on African rhythms, consulted John about a specific rhythmic nuance which Thompson vocally describes to great effect.

In April 2011 the Board of Trustees of the Recording Academy eliminated the Latin Jazz category, and Santos and many other artists protested. After two years of letter writing, phone calls, organized protests in Los Angeles and a lawsuit& the Academy finally reinstated the category. Santos has also not been afraid to voice his opinions on many issues of the day. He has come out against the gun violence that happens all too often in our society. In the film he says the powers that be don’t want to hear him talk about politics at all.

The John Santos Sextet at SFJAZZ
The John Santos Sextet at SFJAZZ

Many of the musical performances were filmed at the SF Jazz Center where Santos was a resident artistic director for the years 2013-2014. Featured are a wide range of musicians from Hip-Hop artist Rico Pabón to Cuban pianist and composer Omar Sosa. Mainly the John Santos sextet, with Marco Díaz on piano, Saul Sierra on bass, David Flores on drums, Melecio Magdaluyo on tenor and soprano saxes and Dr. John Calloway on flute, provides the bulk of the music. Guests such as Walfredo De Los Reyes on drums, Orestes Vilató on timbales and Ernesto Oviedo on vocals, add their respective energy to the proceedings.

There are two very serene moments in the film where Santos, the family man, comes to the forefront. His two children and partner Aida Salazar go down to the beach and perform a ceremony honoring their child Amalí, who died shortly after she was born. It is a moving scene where flowers in the shape of hearts are offered to the goddess of the seas Yemayá. The other takes place in Peñuelas, Puerto Rico at the graveyard as the family looks for the place where Santos’ great grandmother was buried. This is an occasion for music as Santos sings and his son, who has picked up two sticks, plays an accompanying rhythm.

John Santos Cemetary Rumba in Puerto Rico
John Santos Cemetary Rumba in Puerto Rico
Santos Family - Beach in Puerto Rico
Santos Family – Beach in Puerto Rico

At a recording session for Ernesto Oviedo, a marvelous Cuban singer, the Santos home doubles as a recording studio. The musicians inhabit different places in the house so the sound of one instrument does not bleed into another. Later in the film, Aida and John are inserting the finished recording into envelopes to be distributed to two hundred people who will disseminate the music. In this way Santos preserves the music that he loves by making the recording and distributing it himself.

The eminent pianist Eddie Palmieri makes this statement,” John Santos lives in my heart and pays no rent.” After viewing this film John Santos will live on in the many hearts of those folks who enjoy great music.

SANTOS: Skin to Skin – A Searchlight Films Production
SANTOS: Skin to Skin – A Searchlight Films Production

As an added bonus, the audience at the Mendocino Film Festival enjoyed an hour of live music with the John Santos Quartet. I thought this older (and mostly non-Latino) crowd would not understand nor enjoy the music and boy was I wrong. After the first song, they were dancing in the aisles and they enthusiastically applauded each number.

The set focused on music from the 40’s and 50’s. Classic jazz and Cuban tunes filled the tent. Included in the set were Pent Up House by Sonny Rollins, Equinox by John Coltrane and Drume Negrita by Ernesto Grenet.  Three of the compositions were attributed to members of the band, pianist Marco Díaz  with Raíces and Descarga Con Changüí and bassist Saul Sierra with Mi Niña. On Mi Niña (A Danzón/Mambo), which Sierra dedicated to his daughter, he played a very complicated rhythmic bass solo. Sierra’s family from Mexico City was in the audience and his playing was truly inspired. According to Ann Walker, one of the organizers of the Festival, a week after the show Mendocino was still talking about SANTOS: Skin on Skin and the concert.

SANTOS–Skin to Skin is a film portrait of community activist and seven-time Grammy nominee John Santos, a “keeper of the Afro-Caribbean flame.” Rich in musical performances, Santos links the rhythms of his ancestors to contemporary struggles of identity and social justice.

Photos courtesy of Searchlight Films Production

Brooks Geiken is a retired Spanish teacher, with a lifelong interest in music, specifically Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, and Black American music. His wife thinks he should write a book titled "The White Dude's Guide to Afro-Cuban & Jazz Music". Brooks lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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