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The John Santos Sextet: A Puerto Rico del Alma – Concert Review

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The John Santos Sextet at the Freight & Salvage
The John Santos Sextet performing at the Freight & Salvage. Photo: John Santos' Facebook.

At the end of October and the beginning of December 2022, the San Francisco Bay Area had two special occasions of music from percussion master John Santos. First at the SF Jazz Center and second at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley. Both shows were cause for celebration and were designed to showcase The John Santos Sextet’s latest release, Filosofía Caribeña Vol. 3: A Puerto Rico Del Alma

First, an introduction to John Santos and his music is required. John was inspired by the music he heard while growing up in the Mission district in San Francisco. His musical influences came specifically from the islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico. As a young man he formed many groups to explore the sounds of the Caribbean. Full disclosure here, I have been following John’s music since the 70’s when he led the charanga (featuring flute and violin) group, Típica Cienfuegos. In the 80’s I recall seeing Orquesta Batachanga at the Great American Music Hall In San Francisco. Finally through compact discs I have enjoyed the music of the Machete Ensemble. Which brings us to the present and the churning, burning, and stunning John Santos Sextet. The sextet features: Saul Sierra on bass, Dr. John Calloway on flute, David Flores on drums, Marco Díaz on piano, Charlie Gurke on alto, tenor and baritone saxophones and John Santos on assorted percussion instruments, including congas, bongos and shekere.

L-R:  Marco Diaz, John Santos, Dr. John Calloway, hidden Saul Sierra, Charlie Gurke. Not pictured David Flores. Photo by Brooks Geiken.
L-R: Marco Diaz, John Santos, Dr. John Calloway, Charlie Gurke, Saul Sierra and David Flores (hidden). Photo: Brooks Geiken.

The first set at the Freight was dedicated to Cuban music while the second was devoted to the new disc, Filosofía Caribeña Vol. 3: A Puerto Rico Del Alma. John acted as master of ceremonies by announcing the tunes and giving background information on each selection. The whole band was in exquisite form throughout the evening from the opening notes of The Sense Of Now, with solos by Dr. John Calloway on flute, Charlie Gurke on alto sax and John on congas, until the last few notes of Plenamente. A chant to the Yoruban God Shangó, Alabí Oyó, flowed into the marvelous Israel y Arístides, dedicated to two giants of Cuban music: bassist, composer Israel López “Cachao” and conga drummer Arístides Soto, better known as Tata Güines. During his extensive bass solo, Saul Sierra paid homage to Cachao by quoting some of his well known compositions. Then it was time to give the drummer some and David Flores took complete advantage of that opportunity with a blistering solo on Visán. To conclude the set, Descarga Con Changüi from the John Santos Sextet’s Art Of The Descarga on Smithsonian Folkways, the whole band followed the tradition of the descarga with each member of the band taking a dynamic solo.

YouTube Video – John Santos Sextet & Friends: El Casabe

At the beginning of the second set John announced that they were going to play five selections from the new disc, Filosofía Caribeña Vol. 3: A Puerto Rico Del Alma. He also mentioned that the sextet would concentrate on two important Puerto Rican rhythms: the bomba and the plena. The sextet swung into the appropriately titled Bomba Sin Bomba, a tune written by Quique Dávila featuring the vocals of José Roberto Hernández. A plena called No Me Mientas Más (Stop Lying To Me) was dedicated by John to all politicians, with vocals by Christelle Durandy and introducing the cuatro playing of Pedro Pastrana. The cuatro, for the uninitiated, is a ten stringed instrument native to Puerto Rico.  Back to the bomba rhythm for the selection, La Brega, written and powerfully sung by Shefali Shah. The lyrics to La Brega are an indictment of the United States’ policy toward Puerto Rico. No Pongas Escalera (a plena) is described by John Santos as, “warning against making it easy for folks to step all over you.” By now you will no doubt recognize that John Santos’ music has a distinctly political bent. In addition to his many talents in the world of percussion, John is also an activist for social justice. An ode to the plena, Plenamente, closed the set. Cristelle Durandy sang a moving tribute to the enduring nature of the rhythm. Lively solos by Charlie Gurke on baritone sax and Pedro Pastrana on cuatro left the crowd wanting more. There were some special guest instrumentalists at the end of the show, Javier Navarrette on congas and Anthony Blea on violin. Anthony’s commanding solo brought back memories of his work with Orquesta Batachanga. Having heard the new music, it wasn’t possible to pass the merch table without buying the new disc.

YouTube Video – John Santos Sextet & Friends at Freight & Salvage

The remaining four cuts on Filosofía Caribeña Vol. 3: A Puerto Rico Del Alma starting with Giovanni Hidalgo are no less impressive. Arguably the most accomplished conga drummer ever to come from Puerto Rico, the tune pays homage to Giovanni’s greatness. The vocals by Juan Luis Pérez bring life to the composition. John has written a fitting tribute to one of his inspirations. The plena, America Unida, also penned by John, recalls the work of Willie Colón and Rubén Blades at the end of Pedro Navaja. In that song they refer to a uniting of all of the countries in South America, Central America and the Caribbean. John goes one step further by adding North America as well. Jimmy Bosch adds his distinctive trombone and arranging skills to America Unida. Bandleader Fito Reinoso shows his compositional and vocal prowess on A Chichito Cepeda, a bomba dedicated to the master Puerto Rican percussionist Luis “Chichito” Cepeda. To round out the album, John recorded the bomba entitled Recuerda (Remember). Recuerda mentions many of the musicians who have “dedicated their lives to the grand tradition of the drum” including, Ray Barretto, Mongo Santamaría, Tommy López, Luis “Chichito” Cepeda, Julito Collazo and Ray Romero. Cuban pianist Elio Villafranca plays a poignant solo towards the end of the song.  A final note, there were 26 musicians who played on Filosofía Caribeña Vol. 3: A Puerto Rico Del Alma and they all make significant, heartfelt contributions.

In keeping with his convictions, John is donating 100% of the proceeds from the sale of Filosofía Caribeña Vol. 3: A Puerto Rico Del Alma to the Taller Comunidad La Goyco (lagoyco.org) for the first three months of this year. Taller Comunidad La Goyco is a community based workshop for music, dance and the visual arts in Santurce, Puerto Rico. By donating the money from the sale of the album, John is giving back to the people of the island of enchantment who have inspired his musical journey.

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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