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John Santos Sextet “Vieja Escuela” CD Release Concert

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The John Santos Sextet & Friends
L to R: John Santos, Dr. John Calloway, Saul Sierra, Marco Díaz, David Flores, Charlie Gurke.

On a rainy Saturday night in Berkeley, California in January, the venerable Freight and Salvage was host to a CD release party by The John Santos Sextet.  The occasion was dedicated to the appearance of “Vieja Escuela,” a  compendium of songs in honor of four elders of Cuban music: Ernesto Oviedo, Orestes Vilató, Raúl de la Caridad González Brito aka “Lali” and Jerry González.  Oviedo was an undisputed master singer of Boleros, Vilató is the greatest living timbalero (timbales player), Lali was the foremost composer of Cuban rumbas and Jerry González was an excellent conguero (conga drummer) and trumpeter.

The first set had four highlights taken from “Vieja Escuela,”  including, “Lago Xochimilco”, a Danzón by bassist Saul Sierra, “Amor Por Tí” sung with great feeling by José Roberto Hernández, “No Pierdas La Maña” with the subtle violin stylings of Fernanda Bustamante and Anthony Blea and finally, “Profecía” a fine Bolero.  

The most surprising song of the evening was lyricist Willie Ludwig’s two décimas (ten-line poems) converted into a Son Jarocho (music from Veracruz, México) called “Paso A Paso Andando”. Hernández played a vihuela (special eight-stringed guitar) and sang the politically tinged lyrics with great passion.  Santos picked up the quijada which is a jawbone, and the  special dusky ringing sound permeated the hall. Oddly enough the Son Jarocho did not seem out of place in a concert dedicated to Cuban music.

The John Santos Sextet & Friends: Vieja Escuela
The John Santos Sextet & Friends: Vieja Escuela

The second set concentrated on music contained on the CD “Ernesto Oviedo and The John Santos Sextet Siempre Clásico” (2014), a musical offering focusing primarily on the Bolero.  The three Boleros played in the second set, “Si Te Contara”, “La Sitiera” and “La Historia De Un Amor” recalled an era where a song told a story which was languid and at the same time heartfelt.   

Santos told an important story as an introduction to the Black pride protest song “Bruca Maniguá”, written by the revolutionary composer/guitarist Arsenio Rodríguez.  Rodríguez gave the lyrics to Miguelito Valdéz, a criollo, or light skinned man, as the management of the Tropicana (a famous Cuban night club) did not allow black people to perform there. To add additional irony to the story, Valdéz sang to an all-white audience who could not comprehend the lyrics.  The Sextet, with special guest Orestes Vilató (timbales), played a simply masterful version of “Bruca Maniguá”.  Starting with a piano intro by Marco Díaz where he quoted “Stormy Weather”, which paid homage to Abelardo Barroso y la Sensación’s version.

To not mention Orestes Vilató’s amazing dexterity and precision would be a crime.  Vilató is that unique musician who brings his extensive knowledge of Cuban music and enlivens the whole atmosphere.  A shining example was his sensitive and superb accompaniment on the Danzón “La Mora”.  As Santos said he is the indisputable master of the Danzón.

The sold out crowd at The Freight and Salvage received a solid shot of old school Cuban music that they will long remember.

John Santos CD Release Party: Vieja Escuela

The John Santos Sextet:
Marco Díaz – piano, trumpet
Dr. John Calloway – flute, piano, percussion
Saul Sierra – bass
David Flores – drumset
Charlie Gurke – saxes
John Santos – percussion

with Special Guests:
Living legend Cuban percussionist, Orestes Vilató
Bay Area icon, violinist Anthony Blea
Dynamic Peruana violinist/vocalist, Fernanda Bustamante
Internationally recognized Mexicano vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, José Roberto Hernández

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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