A girl dancing and a drummer
John Santos Bomba in Puerto Rico. Photo: Searchlight Films

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When he was priced out of San Francisco back in the early 1990s, John Santos had to leave the Mission behind. But the culture and ethos he absorbed growing up in the neighborhood continues to shape his musical vision as a percussionist, bandleader, educator and activist who embraces the Afro-Caribbean rhythmic continuum.

A Latin jazz icon with seven Grammy Award nominations and an expansive, self-produced discography that encompasses master musicians from Cuba, Puerto Rico, New York, the Bay Area and beyond, Santos has thrived outside of Latin music’s commercial domain. 

No matter how far he’s traveled, he’s maintained close ties to the neighborhood, an embrace that’s been enthusiastically mutual. On Saturday, Jan. 28, the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts presents the recent documentary “Santos: Skin to Skin.” The evening is both a tribute to Santos and a fundraiser for the center that includes a reception, a film screening and a Q&A with Santos, director Kathryn Golden and her producing partner Ashley James followed by a concert afterparty. 

The film covers a lot of ground, offering an intimate portrait of the percussionist on and off the bandstand. In many ways, it is a family portrait that situates Santos amid a dense web of relationships, including his wife, award-winning author Aida Salazar, and their children. There is no shortage of musical peers singing his praises as an inspirational force responsible for expanding the international reach of the Bay Area’s Latin jazz scene. But one of the film’s primary pleasures is that it lets the drums do plenty of talking.

Shot over nearly a decade, “Skin to Skin” captures various ensembles he’s led and special guests he’s showcased, like Havana’s late great Ernesto Oviedo, a maestro of boleros that Santos introduced to the Bay Area. 

“One of the things I really wanted was to allow the music to be part of the narrative,” said Golden, who directed “Skin to Skin.” “Whenever you make a film about an artist or performer, there’s nothing like a live performance. There’s no way to replicate that energy. But John puts the music in a broader context. He’s always been a very political artist, and as a performer he links the music to world history, migration, and all kinds of issues that affect us.” 

As partners in Searchlight Films, Golden and James are no strangers to exploring the ways in which history flows through cultural expression. James filmed and directed the 2001 film “Bomba: Dancing the Drum,” about the Cepeda family, longtime standard-bearers of the percussion-driven Afro-Puerto Rican dance tradition. And together they made 1986’s “And Still We Dance,” a film detailing the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. As an artist embedded in a thriving community of musicians and cultural activists, Santos seemed like an ideal subject.

The film’s release coincides with Santos collecting several new honors. On Jan. 6, the Jazz Education Network presented him with the 2023 LeJENds of Latin Jazz Award at the annual conference in Orlando, honoring his scholarship and work as an educator. Healdsburg Jazz announced that Santos is the festival’s 2023 artist-in-residence. And he just released “Filosofía Caribeña Vol. 3: A Puerto Rico Del Alma,” the latest installment in a revelatory series. As the laurels gather, he takes it all in stride.  

Growing up in Bernal Heights, Santos, 66, didn’t harbor any grand musical ambitions. “It just was a path that happened early as a hobby, became a passion, and then a career,” he said. “Being in the Mission has a lot to do with it. At that point, Santana had just come out with his first record, and it was a big inspiration for all of us. He came out of the neighborhood and my older brothers and cousins knew him from Mission High.”

But Santos’ love of music started at home. His grandfathers were both musicians who played in bands, with Cape Verdean music on his father’s side, and Puerto Rican music on his mother’s. “My dad knew all the guys in Cal Tjader’s first band, who all came through Mission High School scene,” he said, referring to the San Mateo-reared vibraphonist who popularized Latin jazz on the West Coast in the 1950s. “The other part was just being in the Mission, which was such a rich musical environment, just wide open with all the great jazz, blues, and the creation of Latin rock.”

With mentors like Cuban conguero Armanda Peraza and Panamanian timbalero Benny Velarde, both early Tjader collaborators, Santos soaked up all the musical knowledge he could and started drawing connections between various African diasporic traditions that manifested across the Caribbean. What he couldn’t glean from older players, he sought out on his own, “looking at album liner notes and books and literature,” he recalled. With a cadre of similarly driven contemporaries, like conga great Raul Rekow (who went on to tour and record with Santana from 1976 to 2013), Santos started to gain a reputation as someone with a gift for sharing what he’d learned.

John Santos at home in his studio. Photo courtesy Searchlight Films.

“By the time I was coming out of high school, I was well on that path to finding the answers to those questions about how these traditions are related, and how they related to all the political resistance movements,” he said. “I got into that early, and I started getting asked to do presentations in high school. My first lecture talking about and listening to music, was at the Mission Branch Library. It’s all connected, playing, teaching and learning. I’d always tell people, I’m relatively new, and any questions, I don’t have the answers, I have elders and people to call to get them. That was the passion for me.”

Beautifully shot by James, “Skin to Skin” feels more like a deep hang with a friend than a lecture, with Santos sharing anguished moments (the loss of an infant daughter) and profound joys. Running as a subtext that only surfaces briefly is the frustration that no major label has taken Santos under its wing. The film largely takes his philosophical view about the nature of success, “which I think can be measured many ways,” James said.   

“You can have the commercial success, with a lot of cars and houses. You can be a music star known worldwide. John has taken another path, the path of the community. This idea that music should be more than about making money, about awareness of the issues that surround us. In that sense, he’s a tremendous success. He embraces that artists have more responsibility, to make the world a better place. That doesn’t always come with commercial success.”

His music isn’t on commercial radio, but it’s been heard where it counts most. Legendary pianist, composer and bandleader Eddie Palmieri, known as the Sun of Latin Music, offers his benediction for his younger colleague in the film. “John Santos lives in my heart,” he says, “rent free.” 

Rent may have driven him across the Bay to Oakland, but Santos’s heart is always in the Mission. 

Much of this article was first published on Oct. 13, 2022, but was revised to include the fundraiser and the new honors that Santos has received since then.

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  1. Great article. I’ve known John for over 30 years since I took my first conga lesson at Chickens That Sing music store in the Haight. I participated in the very first carnival at Precita Park which he helped organize, he has never changed, he always acknowledges me when I attend his concerts and is the sweetest man ever. I’m so proud to know him.

  2. I spent wonderful time with John at Lick Wilmerding High School in 1969. We played basketballl together. He left after our Freshman year. In our conversations, he missed the musical environment which was lacking at our school. A sweet person, with a sweet jump shot. I’m proud to have spent time with him.

    1. Isn’t it?! (Also wondering about that Pittsburgh Pirates jersey he’s wearing: Perhaps #21 in honor of the great Roberto Clemente?)

  3. Enjoyed the article. Have had the pleasure of making his acquaintance. A griot of music knowledge and as humble as he is talented. (The cat can play!) A gift to the world from San Francisco. Viva John Santos!

  4. John Santos! Truly a legend, someone who has gone above and beyond to represent, share and inspire new generations to the vast Latino music experience. I remember him well back in the days of an emerging renaissance of latino identity in the mission. So proud of him and his dedication to our roots and our vast musical spectrum. Thank you!