USA Fellows Stories: John Santos

John Santos - Stories

John Santos - California
USA Fontanals Fellow 2007, Music

by Ed Barguiarena

Tradition. Gratitude. Dignity.
Life and art rooted in the legacy of the past.

Inspiration. Respect. Hope.
Visions of a creative and compassionate future.

Love. Knowledge. Beauty.
Heartfelt gifts for the grand circle of humanity.

These are the kinds of words and thoughts that come to mind after spending time with John Santos. Hearing him speak, reading his words, or listening to his music all lead one to the same conclusion: Santos digs deep for his art. He digs not only for technical mastery but also for the intimacy of creating music with people, professionals and novices alike. For Santos, music is more than just sound; it is a social experience, a gathering, a living gift.

Born in San Francisco, Santos is a passionate and humorous man, profoundly and humbly intellectual, and like many artists, he flourishes at the crossroads of struggle and grace. His daily routine is a mingling of community, family, and art, and it’s clear that he loves it: “I’m a musician and a teacher, but along with that I am very close to my family. I live in an interesting spot, a place where a lot of people are connected to the roots of African music and Latin jazz through the cultures of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean in general.”

This wide swathe of cultural influences encourages a very open-minded artistic philosophy. There is a sense that music is free to move in many directions, mixing elements of the traditional and modern, but at the core of it all, “folklore is the glue.” The enduring power of aural tradition serves as a reminder of a great lineage, a legacy of musicians who have extended and expanded tradition while leading everyday lives. “Just listen to AfroCuba de Matanzas, Familia Cepeda, Yoruba Andabo, Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba, or Félix Alduén, and you’ll hear the inspiration for my own music.”

Santos is a Grammy-nominated producer who has worked with many of the stars of Latin music, including Israel “Cachao” Lopez, Los Pleneros de la 21, and Tito Puente. In the fall of 2008 he released two CDs: La Guerra No, folk music with El Coro Folklorico Kindembo, and Perspectiva Fragmentada, modern Latin jazz with the John Santos Quintet and friends. “With the funds from my USA Fellowship I was able to accelerate the release of these recordings. I feel very honored to be able to collaborate with so many great musicians.”

Like his music, the liner notes for Santos’s recordings are delivered with clarity and eloquence. His gratitude and respect are evident in every phrase: “Para Ellos (For Them) refers to our elders and all our ancestors upon whose shoulders we stand—in particular those whose courage, conviction, and love have left us the legacy of drum, dance, and song, and the tradition of fighting for the dignity of all beings.”

The traditions that Santos embraces and shares are not just musical; they are philosophical, political, and spiritual. This is where John Santos lives, not in a specific geographic location, but in a state of spirit and mind. And for all his eloquence he still relies on his beloved art form to propel the narrative: “One thing is still clear—the music is who we are. It's not a hobby or a task. It's how we express our deepest concerns.”

John Santos - 1 John Santos - 2