MOVING IN TIMETO A LOCAL LATIN BEAT
John Santos leading his Machete Ensemble through a 10th anniversary appearance at San Francisco's Stern Grove JOHN SANTOS
If there is a candidate for an "ubiquitous presence" in San Francisco Bay Area Latin music, percussionist John Santos comes closest to filling the bill. From a distance, his energy appears unflagging and his involvement in the local music community is extraordinary for its depth and breadth. Since as early on as the mid 1970s, Santos has been affiliated with or has led a continuous string of exceptional bands, picking up with Ritmo '74 and running through Tipica Cienfuegos, Sabor, Santana, Orquesta Batachanga, which released two highly acclaimed albums La Nueva Tradición and Manaña Para Los Niños, and his current Machete Ensemble, whose recordings include Machetazo (ten years on the edge), John Santos & The Machete Ensemble, and Tribute to the Masters. Given his prowess as a percussionist, he has additionally been called upon to contribute to such recordings as the milestone Latina Familia album; featuring Tito Puente, Pete Escovedo and Sheila E., Escovedo's Flying South, Candela's Madre Rumba, Padra Son, Conjunto Céspedes Vivito y Coleando and Flores, Carolyn Brandy's Skin Talk, and Claudia Gomez' Salamandra and Tierra Dentro.
Recording credits, however, tell only a fraction of the story. Santos is also renowned as a historian, scholar and proponent in his chosen field of Latin music. He is one of the few figures around capable of reaching back to the late 1940s and conjuring up the names of such bands as the Merced Gallegos Orchestra as prominent contributors to the development of Bay Area salsa. During one phase of his career, he researched and annually taught a 16-week "Roots of Salsa" course at San Francisco's La Raza Graphics Center. For many years he hosted a weekly radio show titled "Kindembo," (an Afro-Cuban term of Congolese origin meaning "a mixture of many things"), penned a column for Modern Drummer magazine, taught at the Haight-Ashbury Music Center, and served on the Zellarbach Family Fund Community Arts Distribution Committee. Santo has also been spotted sitting in on percussion with such bands as Salsa Caliente at San Francisco's Carnaval or serving as Master of Ceremonies for the City's World Drum Festival. He has written liner notes for the Folkways and Folklyric labels, the latter a subsidiary of the East Bay's famed Arhoolie Records. He has additionally been perennially involved with special projects such as a workshop presenting the distinguished Cuban drummer Walfredo de Los Reyes to a gathering of Bay Area percussionists to his "Conciertos de Tambores Residency 2000," a week-long series of classes, workshops and lectures hosted at San Francisco's Theater Artaud culminating with two concerts featuring Santos and Machete.
Still, there turns out to be much more to Santos than his scholarship and the list of his recording credits, achievements and connections. His professional pursuits are clearly motivated by passion and the most illuminating glimpse into his character was provided by the repeated bursts of affection and enthusiasm he holds for the people he works with and the music they make. His outlook and feeling kept shining through his words in passages such as:
"The most glowing example of a musical relationship in my life is Rebeca Mauleon, pianist and co-musical director of The Machete Ensemble. She's another inspiration, very dedicated and a great talent. I've been working with her for many years and I've seen her come up. I saw her in her first Latin music performance, on the piano, when she was 14 years old. I watched her grow and it's been an amazing thing to see, to witness, and to be part of. She has had a lot to do with the musical projects I've been involved with since 1981. We started working together in the Orquesta Batachanga in that year. From that point on, we've always worked together very closely. She's one of the main writers and arrangers for The Machete Ensemble. We're very good friends and I've always been very much inspired because she's a great musician."
Rebeca Mauleón, with The Machete Ensemble
It is from the perspective of such enthusiasm and affection that the following unfolded:
WBR: You marked your professional debut as musician before you were even a teenager thanks to an opportunity to join your grandfather=s band. How did that come about?
SANTOS: We have a big extended family, huge. I=ve got two grandfathers who are relevant to my historical formation; my musical formation in particular. My step-grandfather is Julio Rivera, the step-father of my mom. He was married to my grandma for many years. But my earliest memories of my grandma=s house were that she wasn=t married to him anymore; she had remarried. But one of my uncles is his son and the family was still very close. So he was around a great deal. He was still my grandfather. He was a professional musician. Several times a year, he would be playing with his band and his musician friends at my grandmother=s house, even though he was no longer married to my grandmother. That=s how the family worked.
My memories of when I was running around as a kid, even in diapers, go back to the late 50s in my grandma=s house. She lived right in the heart of the Mission. I spent a great deal of time there. That was like Grand Central for our whole family. I=ve got five uncles and aunts, and about six or seven great-uncles and aunts and dozens of cousins. Everybody converged on my grandma=s house for every occasion, if it was somebody=s birthday, if somebody got married, somebody died, every holiday, Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Labor Day, Catholic Holidays, Dia de Los Reyes. All of that made my grandma=s house the cultural center of the universe for all of us. And the background for it was music. Half the time that we were there it was live music: I had uncles and cousins who played. There=d be guitars hanging up on the walls and maracas, guiro and claves laying around. And they also had an incredible record collection of 78s of Puerto Rican and Cuban artists.
My parents were very much into Jazz. My dad was not a professional musician. He played guitar and piano and had a decent record collection. My dad had a great circle of about eight buddies. They went to elementary school together and went into the army together and spent their whole lives together, and they=re still together today, those who are left. My dad=s best friend was just the consummate Jazz collector. He had and still has a Jazz collection of records that is just unbelievable.
So from a time before I realized anything about music, I was listening to all that stuff. That was the soundtrack for our childhood, running in and out of the house, playing tag and running through the living room and out and down the stairs. There was always music going on. Always. And if it wasn=t live, then it was these wonderful records. I inherited a lot of those records, after the years went by.
The first band of popular music I played in was the band of my grandfather, Julio Rivera. He=s a Puerto Rican musician, born in Puerto Rico, and his band was made of all Puerto Rican musicians. But they played a combination of Puerto Rican and Cuban music, because Puerto Rican dance music has a lot of influence from Cuban music, as you can imagine. Besides Puerto Rican Bombas, Plenas and Boleros, they played Cuban-style stuff as well; Boleros, Sones, Guarachas, Mambos, and Rumbas. It was a wonderful training ground for me, to be around older musicians, all of them in their 40s, 50s, 60s and I was 12.
They were heroes, idols to me and to a lot of us young folks because musicians had an important role in the community and in the family. They were widely respected. Everybody loved them and they were treated well. They always were fed well and having fun and it just looked like a really desirable thing to do. I=ve always been a bit of history buff and so I found it really fascinating to be around those older guys, to be able to talk to them and ask them questions. They loved it, opened right up for some young person who was interested in their history and where they came from. That really began my road of studying and gathering information and teaching.
Prior to that I played clarinet in the Boy=s Club band, The Mission Boy=s Club on 21st and Alabama. I started clarinet in the 3rd grade and played about three years. Then I stopped, because I didn=t like it at the time. In retrospect, I have mixed feelings about stopping, >cause I love the clarinet now and if I had continued my studies, I would have gotten the theoretical background that I lack now. I didn=t have any formal musical training other than that.
WBR: But you joined your grandfather as a percussionist. Something had to get your hands on a conga or a bongo.
SANTOS: Well, you see all along I had been kind of a frustrated percussionist. I=d always beat on pots and pans since I was a baby. That=s how my mom would get me out of her hair, by putting pots and pans on the kitchen floor and letting me entertain myself. And I used to get in trouble at school for pounding on the desk and beating rhythms, always pounding nervously on the desk, and this and that.
Santana had an influence on me. When Santana was in high school playing, the only people who knew about him were his high school mates, which included my older brothers and cousins. They came home talking like, oh, man!, there=s this electric guitarist and he=s got congas and timbales in his group. That legitimized those instruments for us; kind of made them hip. We were very familiar with those instruments, we liked them but those were the instruments of the older folks. The hip thing to do was play the electric guitar. The Latin rock scene was born in the Mission with Carlos. He came out with his group and we went head over heels over that music. He used to rehearse right around the corner from my house. His conga drummers used to play in Precita Park, in Dolores Park, Aquatic Park. So there was a scene for those instruments. But now I=m talking about when I was 11 or 12 years old. That=s when I made that transition and really delved into that music headlong. I joined my grandfather=s band shortly thereafter.
My father=s father, Jose Joao Dos Santos, was born in Cabo Verde. He was a professional musician. He was my closest friend, my closest pal in the world up until I was about 11 years old. He lived in the South of Market area, in a little alley back there. I used to just hang with him, me and him. However when I first got to know him, when I was four or five years old, he wasn=t playing professionally any more. But he had several musician friends and some of my most precious memories are of them playing music in his kitchen. He had a big, spacious kitchen. He was a great cook and had those Cape Verdean dishes brewing and they=d be playing. He played accordion and guitar and sang. Mainly, though, he was an accordionist. His friends played all the typical instruments from Cape Verde. By the time I got to be about 11 or so, he started to get a little too sick so that I couldn=t just hang out with him. The Cape Verde musical connection faded because he couldn=t hold these little get-togethers at his house anymore. I never heard that music again until this recent craze of Cape Verdean music, Cesaria Evora and all those people who have come out and really put Cape Verde on the map in the world music scene. It=s been like déjà vu, a fascinating experience for me to hear that music again and just be jolted back to the smells and the sounds and the memories of my grandfather=s kitchen: the exact same Songs, the same music and the same instrumentation, the violao, cavaquinho, violin, the accordion, guitar, the voices; just gorgeous.
WBR: What was the Mission like then?
SANTOS: There weren=t as many peopleCthere were probably half as many people there. It was also pre-yuppie, pre-dot com and pre-gentrified. The Mission was very, very Latin, even more so than now, but still very mixed. You still found people of all persuasions there. Like my neighborhood where I grew up. We had Asian kids, white kids, and black kids, and Latin and everything you can imagine, all very mixed.. That didn=t seem at all unusual to us.
There was music all around. All the Latin traditions are very musical. So there was always a lot in the streets and you=d find little trios playing guitars, and old Mexican music. There were a lot of street fairs and music in the parks. Dolores Park always had a lot of live music. Also, San Francisco was the center of rock-and-roll. In the early 60s and mid 60s, I wasn=t doing a whole lot of playing, especially not as a percussionist yet. But I was certainly, like any kid, into popular music, what was going on. And between my older brothers and my older cousins, who were all between five and seven years older than me, I found out what was hip. Whatever they listened to, that=s what all of us younger generation would want to listen to. So that included all these great rock artists who were based right here in San Francisco, Jimmy Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, all that stuff. We used to eat that up, listen to that and see those groups once in a while, >cause they played in Golden Gate Park or on Haight Street.
WBR: And what about some of the clubs, Casino Tropical, Club Elegante?
SANTOS: I can=t tell you a great deal about those clubs until we start talking about the mid 70s, >cause I was too young to get in. I=d finagle my way in once in a while. Or sometimes have a gig. I=d find myself in bars playing with my grandfather=s group, when they could finagle that. Sometimes the owners wouldn=t want me in there, but at other times they were friendly and they would have me in there playing.
So I played all sorts of bars. I remember one, Pana Rico which was on 17th and Valencia. It=s a taqueria now. There was the Latin American Club on 16th Street. There was a place down on Bryant around 22nd or 23rd. And, of course, there were the halls. There was the Polish Hall on 22nd Street. There are a lot of halls all over in the different neighborhoods. There=s Genova Hall, the Slovanian Hall. In the Mission there=s a hall right off the freeway off the Mariposa exit. I think it=s the Slovanian. There=s another hall out Alemany Way. All these halls were active spots because any time there was a reception for a wedding or a funeral or whatever, families would rent these halls. So we played the halls a great deal, dances for every type of celebration you can imagine. There was also the popular Centro Social Obrero and the Puerto Rican Club, which, by the way, is the oldest Puerto Rican social club in this country. It was formed in 1912 and it still exists on Mission Street, right where Valencia Street runs into Mission Street. We played there a lot. So there were a lot of functions in rented halls, or in clubs, or in homes. We played all over the place.
WBR: And, speaking generally, what was the style of music you were playing?
SANTOS: This was music that we might identify in a very generic way asASalsa,@ though it was still before the term ASalsa@ was common. I=m going back now to the mid to late 60s .and coming forward. Salsa is a very, very general term. It means different things to different people. It has different significance depending on the context in which you use the term. Being from the West Coast, I don=t like to pigeon-hole the musicCat least not to the extent that Salsa is considered one thing, Charanga another, Son another. They are all considered to be Salsa by a lot of people, including myself. There are differences but they overlap; they have much more in common than they have differences.
Salsa is a word that has been used in the context of music since the 1920s in Cuba. But yet, it was not used at that point as a name for a genre. The main music around which that term applies is known as the Son, the Afro-Cuban Son, The Son is the most important root of Salsa. Traditionally the Son is interpreted with the bongos, claves (two pieces of wood, struck together), maracas, tres, guitar and voices. And then there is the dance known as Son. It=s a very rustic, very simple form, that comes from the black and creole, very humble, sector of society. That=s where the Son was derived and it has evolved a great deal since that time.
Salsa was a commercial term put on a form that had been in existence for many years. The term surfaced in New York City in the late>60s and early >70s in the Puerto Rican community. So there are a lot of people who believe that Salsa is a Puerto Rican form, entirely separate from the Cuban Son. The Puerto Ricans are very important in the development of Salsa, but it has to be understood where these points overlap: Salsa was born out of the Son and to this day its main elements still come from the Cuban Son.
Another important thing is that people dance Salsa. There are a few basic steps that, once again, derive from the Cuban Son. Mambo is also derived from the Cuban Son. SoAsalsa@ is a general term. But when you talk about salsa, you start with the Cuban Son. In that respect, the closest group here to the Cuban Son is Conjunto Céspedes. Their music is based more traditionally on the Cuban Son, although they have a lot of modern elements also. Traditional Son uses the tres, a very typical style of Cuban string instrument related to the guitar. Nowadays, the only groups using the tres in the Bay Area are the Conjunto Céspedes and the Conjunto Flores, and that is something that is a very strong connection to the Son for them. The local Salsa bands generally range between seven to 14 players. A lot of group have sprouted up. More people are learning how to dance, so there=s more of a demand. More clubs are including Salsa in their weekly rotations. DJ=s are doing Salsa. There is a movement. The Latin community here is not CaribbeanCas opposed to the East Coast, where you have a lot of Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Venezuelans, and Colombians for whom Salsa is a very natural expression. For the Central Americans and the Mexicans, Salsa is not their main form of expression, and it=s not as deeply rooted, it=s not really a part of their heritage the same way that it is in Cuba, and yet, the people here have adopted it.
Bobbie and Luis Cespedes: Founders of Conjunto Cespedes
WBR: But I find that a big plus. At minimum, it sets up an opportunity for the emergence of a brand of Salsa bearing the Bay Area=s own regional stamp.
SANTOS: That=s always been the case. Salsa=s not brand new here. Going back as early as the >40s, there were musicians establishing that music here like Benny Velarde, Merced Gallegos, Carlos Federico and others. Before the word Salsa was used to describe the music, they were playing the music, and the West Coast has always been known for its flavor of Latin Jazz and Salsa. But Salsa is really a Caribbean and East Coast phenomenon, although it has been adopted here which, as you say, gives it a certain uniqueness also.
But going back to your question, the music that we played in my grandfather=s band was a combination of Puerto Rican and Cuban dance music. Those were like a training ground for myself and other young musicians. I was the youngest one on the set, in that group.
WBR: You mentioned Charanga and I=ve noticed that a local group, Charanga Tumbao y Cuerdas, is making a third appearance in the clubs again after twice before having circulated and then faded away. How does Charanga compare with the Son?
SANTOS: The Son that we know developed around the time coinciding with the end of slavery in Cuba, which is around the 1870s, 1880s. From that point, there was a large influx of black influence into Cuba=s mainstream culture. The culture changed drastically and the music reflects that. The Son originally came from a rural area, that used to be known as Oriente, Cuba=s eastern-most province. It came to Havana, some 50 years after it had begun to be played in Oriente, in the rural areas, maybe around 1910. By the >20s it was the rage of the capital. It eventually blossomed into the Salsa of today.
The Charanga has a parallel development. Charanga is a style of music identified by instrumentation: violins, flute, timbales, conga, guiro (a gourd scrapper), piano, bass and vocals. The Charanga orchestras derived from groups that used to be called Orquestas Tipicas,@ which were heavily steeped in the Western European classical music tradition and that=s where the instrumentation comes in. The Charangas developed this instrumentation without the woodwinds or brass, with the exception of the flute. Nowadays, the horns are being brought back in. Tumbao y Cuerdas uses a trombone also, which is a more recent innovation into that style, although the predecessors to the Charanga were bands that had woodwinds and brass and string instruments. It=s kind of a reversion to the old style.
This was happening before the Afro-Cuban Son, from the end of the 18th and into the 19th century. At that period, these groups were interpreting forms such as Contradanza, the Danza, the Habanera, and the Danzón. They interpreted this music with a combination of strings, woodwind and bass, timpani, and the guiro. Around the turn of the 20th century, up until the World War I period, the Orquesta Tipica conceded popularity to the Charanga, which dropped the woodwinds and brass and highlighted the flute and violins. And there was the creation of the timbales. The timbales are derived from the timpani. They are like the black version of the timpani. The Orquesta Tipica got into more of this chamber music type of group, a small ensemble to interpret very classically oriented music.
These groups have a very interesting relationship with the early Jazz bands from New Orleans, because they=re all part of the Caribbean community. There=s a great deal of common ground between the Jazz bands of New Orleans and the early Orquestas Tipicas. The instrumentation was basically the same, except that the bass drum and/or field drums were sometimes used in New Orleans instead of timpani and guiro. Other than that, they also used violins, woodwinds and brass. They were like marching bands, very much related to military bands. There were the black brass bands of New Orleans, which are the predecessors of the Jazz bands. All of that is related to the beginning of what came to be known as Charanga in Cuba.
The people who differentiate between Salsa and Charanga would say that Salsa is more related to the Son because it evolved more directly from the Son instrumentation, expanding to include trumpets, conga drums, piano, bass, and eventually all the horns, moving into a big band Mambo sound and into Latin Jazz. The typical Salsa band is a band that has horns in it. But that overlaps so much with the Charanga that over the years people have done both. That=s why they can=t be separated entirely. Orquesta Tumbao y Cuerdas is directed by Burrel, one of its founding members. They=re carrying the tradition of what they=ve always done, which is the Charanga tradition, that kind of instrumentation, with the violins, flute, playing a basic charanga kind of repertoire. So they played traditional Cuban music.
Burrell, joined by singer Fito Reinoso, leads the Bay Area
Charanga, Orquesta Tumbao y Cuerdas
WBR: Outside your family, were there other local figures who played a significant role in your musical development, not just musicians, but, say, people like Bill Rodriguez of Discolandia on 24th Street?
SANTOS: Bill=s role was important for me personally because he and his wife Sylvia established Discolandia about 25 years ago, maybe a little less. I was 13 or 14 years old and really into collecting records. There were little stores, little shops all over the Mission, and also used record storesC not even record stores, used stores, stores that had used stuff, old junk stores, where you=d always find a section of used 78s. We found gems all over, myself and a few friends.
But when Discolandia opened a few years later, it was like a big central place where you could get great music. Every dollar we had we splurged on that stuff. We=d go in every week and spend every penny we had on records. So they were important in being that kind of a resource. Then I started doing radio in the late 70s. I had my own show for six years on KPOO and I had a show on KPFA, so I really got into buying records. I had a good relationship with Bill and Sylvia because I was in Discolandia every week for years and years and years buying records. Over the years, Bill and Sylvia became a good resource and knowledgeable about what records came from where. Unfortunately, Bill passed away last year. He was a very humble and generous man. Sylvia continues to run the business.
But getting back to your question, who are the people I really looked up to? Benny Velarde. Benny is still around playing with his group. He is just an institution here. Benny went to Mission High School, with my father. So they are old friends from way back. I was very young when I met him. I couldn=t even think about going into clubs, but I saw Benny play a few times. Benny was a dj and had a radio show in the 60s that was on late at night. Every week, my dad would stay up and tape his show and we=d be listening to that show, on tape, all week long. Benny played some great music from his own collection of Cuban music, Cuban, Puerto Rican, stuff from New York and Panama, where he=s from originally. We learned a great deal listening to Benny=s show.
So he was a figure who was very important for that radio show and for the recordings he made with Cal Tjader, and with his own band. Then he played with Cesar=s band for many years. Cesar=s first club was on Green Street down in North Beach. Cesar had a great band and Benny was part of that band, with Francisco Aguabella. Carmelo Garcia was part of that band; Armando Peraza often played with them. The horn section was Hadley Caliman, Forest Buchtal, Jules Rowell, with Rudy Calzado singing. Harold Martin was the bassist . . . some great players. Luis Gasca played there a lot. That was a wonderful place. Some percussionist friends of mine and I would stand outside in the streets, and listen, >cause we were too young to get in. Eventually we got to come in and sit in and play. We used to hang out in North Beach a lot, because there was a strong Latin Jazz scene there, several clubs that had Latin Jazz.
My dad knew a lot of wonderful Jazz and Latin Jazz musicians. He went to high school with Benny Velarde, but Carlos Federico was also part of that clique. The Duran brothers, Manny and Eddy and Carlos Duran, all played Latin Jazz in the area, including with Cal Tjader=s group. The late Jesse Torres, the trumpet player who died last year, a really wonderful vocalist and trumpet player, had his own group. My dad knew all those guys. And once I became interested in the conga drum, he would take me around to where they were playing. They played these little lounges and restaurants and clubs around the City. I was probably 12 or 13 years old at this time, and he would take me in tow and we=d watch them play. I=d get to watch these good veteran players play conga, what have you, and they=s always let me sit in. So I had a wonderful experience there also, looking up to these musicians and getting a chance to play with them when I was quite young.
WBR: Do Velarde and Federico antedate Pete Escovedo, who=s widely known as the Godfather of the local Latin Jazz community?
SANTOS: Yes, they do. I think Benny=s the oldest. Pete=s career here dates from the mid to late 50s, in which he was starting as a young man to play the Latin music. During the 60s, he started to become more known, along with his brother, Coke Escovedo, in particular, who passed away more than twenty years ago. And, of course, Pete=s daughter Sheila has played an important role in bringing Salsa percussion to the attention of a wider and much younger audience.
WBR: At what point do you transit to beginning to lead your own groups?
SANTOS: That happened in the early 70s. From the late 60s, I started collecting any recordings that had drumming. That automatically pulled me into the Cuban music, because the Puerto Rican tradition doesn=t quite have the rich tradition of drumming that Cuba has. It has a rich drumming tradition, but Cuba, by far and away, is the place if you=re into Latin American drumming. So I naturally gravitated to that and found myself collecting stuff, all the great Cuban percussionists who had recorded, Patato, Candido, Chano Pozo, Armando Peraza, Francisco Aguabella, Mongo Santamaria, Julito Collazo, all these great, great Cuban drummers, whose music was out there. They recorded with a lot of Jazz artists. They put out their own records. Family members and friends saw that I was consumed by this music thing and helped me. They=d bring stuff to me. Any time they traveled, they=d bring me books and literature on the stuff, books from Cuba, from Puerto Rico, from New York, from other parts of Latin America.
That was part of the thing about leading a group. I gravitated into that because I started studying and learning and collecting a great deal of information. A lot of people wanted me to share it, asked me to make presentations, other than just sitting down and making cassette tapes for everybody I ran into. In 1972, along with my friend Raul Rekow, I got invited to teach a course at Mission High School, while I was in high school myself, at that time. It was a survey course, where we played recorded music to sample the roots of popular Latin music, and there was a percussion class, too. For the last 25 years, of course, Raul Rekow has been the conga drummer with the Santana band, which is a whole other aspect of my road, because I joined the Santana band the same time he did. I stayed there three weeks and he stayed ever since. Our paths, you know, took different directions. That was destiny. I mean, it worked out fine for both of us.
Around that same time, Raul, José Flores, a few other colleagues and I formed a study group, but it became a performing group called Yambu. I co-directed that group and then gravitated into the directorship. We performed folkloric music. We had all percussionists and vocalists in that group and we did Afro-Cuban, Afro-Carribean, Afro-Brazilian music. We studied, rehearsed, and then presented that music up in Dolores Park, or in the street, at rallies and different settings like that.
Then in high school I played in a little group where it became established that I was the group leader. I never left that post. What happened next was that in 1976 Raúl and I both were playing with a popular Salsa group called La Banda. I was playing timbales and Raúl was playing conga. We came out of this group when we were hired by Santana. When we left La Banda, the group dissolved. Its members were all top-notch, professional players. And boom!, they just went off into other groups and they didn=t bother trying to save this La Banda. When Santana fired me three weeks later, there was no group to come back to.
But I got an offer to join a group called Tipica Cienfuegos. Cienfuegos asked me to come by and, to make a long story short, I joined that group. They were playing some typical Cuban music, which was really my interest, but they were very unorganized. They didn=t have a leader. They were arguing and the rehearsals were not very fruitful. But I saw the potential of it and I proposed to them that I=d assume the leadership of the group and that I had a plan. I wanted to make tapes for everybody. We=ll work off these tapes. We=ll study the tapes for as long as it takes before we ever do a gig. We=ll get in shape, because right now, obviously, we=re not ready. But whatever it takes. If it takes a year, we=ll rehearse for a year.
Half the group said no, no way, and they went off. But the core group stayed together. For 10 months or so, we rehearsed without ever accepting a gig. I made a series of more than a dozen tapes from my collection of every style of music I was interested in. That included Danzónes and Rumbas, Sones, Mambos, some five hundred different selections that I made a list of. Title number 123 is this type of rhythm by such and such. Then I copied all those tapes for the ten members of the group. It was a big job. And everybody had this tape collection and we decided we were going to learn tune number 225, number 492, and number 17, those three tunes, for next week=s rehearsal. Rehearsal happened once or twice a week for all those months. And the group really got tight.
About the beginning of 1977, when we came out, the group instantly got very popular, started working all over the place, and getting really great response, getting a following. Tipica Cienfuegos was really the first locally formed Charanga and was very popular here until its demise in 1980. We stretched the definition and boundaries of Charanga a little bit. We weren=t a straight-up Charanga because we were incorporated several other styles of music. We used horns, bongos, batás, tres, Puerto Rican cuatro, electric guitar and other things that are not necessarily typical of a Charanga. So we were a Charanga, but also other things. The Charanga tradition in the Bay Area has an interesting history, too, but it=s not that well known. Probably the first Charanga around here was led by Mongo Santamaria. Mongo had a Charanga which he organized in Chicago. The nucleus of the group came with him to San Francisco around 1960-61. He made a couple of recordings, with local hired guns, Benny Velarde and Pete Escovedo, as vocalists on some tracks. But that group was short-lived. It was based here only for a few months.
Then there was a group called Rene del Mar in the late 70s that came up after Cienfuegos. That was the first group that Rebeca Mauleón played with. It was more of a traditional Charanga. Orquesta Batachanga was the next Charanga band. Batachanga was the first Charanga from the Bay Area to release a recording. We released two albums, La Nueva Tradición in 1982, and Mañana Para Los Niños in 1985. In the Tipica Cienfuegos tradition, Batachanga was also somewhat experimental for a Charanga. No other Charanga from the Bay Area ever recorded before or after, until Fito Reynoso=s Ritmo y Harmonia released Lo Que me Gusta, Dinero in the mid-90s. It, too, was not a straight-up Charanga. Roberto Borrell=s current group, Orquesta La Moderna Tradición is a straight-ahead Charanga. They have one cd out and another that=s been recorded. I think there are four Charangas in the Bay Area now, which is unprecedented. There=s Tumbao y Cuerdas, Orquesta La Moderna Tradición, Charanson, and Ritmo y Harmonia.
WBR: But about that time, weren=t you appearing with Ritmo 74?
SANTOS: I was a member of Ritmo 74 , but I wasn=t a leader of that group, which is why I didn=t mention them as far as your question was concerned. Ritmo 74 was an important group because that was the most popular local Salsa band. It was a big group, about 14 of us. And we played Salsa, very typical kind of Puerto Rican, New York style of Salsa. Four singers in front. I was actually in the front, singing background mainly and playing hand percussion. Once in a while we would play some folkloric stuff. Then I=d play some drums. But the majority of the material was danceable Salsa, and I was in front playing the guido or claves or maracas at the time. It was a fun group. We gained a lot of experience. We opened for all the big groups that came in from Puerto Rico and New York: Celia Cruz, Willie Colon, Ray Barretto, Larry Harlow.
WBR: What would be the venues that someone Celia Cruz=s stature would play?
SANTOS: Mainly hotel ballrooms. The Saint Francis Hotel, the Jack Tar Hotel, which is on Van Ness and now called Cathedral Hill I believe. There were a lot of dances there. The Palace Hotel, down at the Hyatt, at the California Hall on Polk. So we had big halls like that.
WBR: After Tipica Cienfuegos, you emerged as the leader of Orquesta Batachanga?
SANTOS: OK, I had a thing happen to me at the end of the 70s. Cienfuegos played for about four years, and played a lot. The group got to the point where we didn=t have a record contract, we didn=t have any possibility to record, and there were key members of the group who were leaving. In particular, violinist Anthony Blea (currently the director of Charanson) and John Calloway, the flautist. They were going to New York, spreading their wings. The band broke up. Also, I had a basketball injury on my hand where I hyper-extended the fingers and pulled some tendons and I never let the injury heal. I was playing a lot at the time, especially bongos, batá, and conga. I traumatized my hand and a cyst formed that I eventually had to have surgically removed. People were leaving the group and I needed to stop playing, so the band came to a halt. We did our last gig in 1980, which was a very memorable gig. It was the first time I tried something that I=ve since done periodically over the years, which is to produce a big kind of show, showing the roots of Salsa. The show was called AThe Chronological History of Salsa.@ We did it at the Victoria Theater, on 16th and Mission. It was a one-shot deal. We played all kinds of folkloric music and popular music, a panorama of Salsa and Cuban and Puerto Rican music. We had Armando Peraza as a guest on that event. So it was a big event, a big good-bye party for the group.
In the meantime, some members of the group branched off and formed Batachanga. At the time I was kind of on theirAinjured reserve@ list, so although they invited me, I had to refuse and so I wasn=t part of the original incarnation of the group. What happened was that after playing the better part of a year, they got a record deal. It wasn=t really a company, but a local guy who wanted to invest some money and record the band. So they called me and asked me to produce the record and be part of the recording project, which I gladly accepted. I co-produced that record with Michael Spiro, who was an original member of the group and who is also a major cog in the local scene now. He plays with a lot of groups locally. That was my first experience producing a recordCthat happened in 1981 and the record came out in >82. Then they asked me to stay with the band and I assumed the role of leader-director. That was in >81-=82. That band went until about >85 and then broke up for many of the same reasons as Cienfuegos. We did as much as we could locally, played all the clubs and festivals. Also, we had a couple of members who came into the group that were likeCthis is a very common thing now; it wasn=t as common thenCbut they were mercenaries, so to speak. They were with a lot of different groups. It came to the point where we=d have a gig and they=d say, AI can=t make that gig; you have to get a sub.@ That was really foreign to me. I didn=t like the idea at all. I didn=t want to become that kind of a band. So I refused to accept that.
For all those reasons, I decided to leave the group. But I wanted to record the group before as a parting shot, because the group had developed a lot. We had played together for several years and had improved a great deal. And we had one record to show from the beginning of the group. So we should record. All the work we=ve done for the past few years goes to naught if we don=t document it. Half the group was against the idea: well, what if we=re going to break up, why make a record? In the end, it was left like this: ok, I=m going to do it. So if you want to do it, the recording dates are such and such. You=re welcome to do it. If not, ok, you don=t do it. Of course, everybody showed up for the recording session. We recorded a really wonderful record, our second, called Manaña Para Los Niños. We recorded, played a big record release party, and disbanded the group. That was it.
WBR: Around that time, you were also affiliated with the group Sabor?
SANTOS: Sabor was a group that had its heyday for a couple of years in the mid 80s and then dissolved. It also was made up of several musicians from other Bay Area groups, hand-picked by Art Jackson. It was an excellent group. For me, Sabor was definitely one of the top Salsa bands. And that=s for Salsa purists: not a Charanga, no violins. They had a horn section, very danceable music, very much based in the New York and Puerto Rican approach to interpreting Salsa. Although I=m biased, having been a member, I really feel that it was one of the finest groups in the Bay Area. The members were all top flight musicians, good Jazz players, good improvisors, well rehearsed, a very polished sound. Sabor usually worked with a four or five piece horn section and three vocalists. That separated it from the conjuntos that usually work with two or three horns and one or two vocalists.
WBR: We haven=t discussed Aconjuntos@ so far. What have we got in the Bay Area?
SANTOS: I described them briefly when I mentioned the development and evolution of the Son. Conjuntos are the groups that evolved out of the Cuban Son. I mentioned the instrumentation of the Son. Around the late>30s and especially in the decade of the >40s, the conjuntos emerged as groups that had a trumpet section of two, three or four trumpets, tres, guitar, piano, bass, conga, bongos and vocals. The timbales were not an integral part of the conjuntos in that period.
Nowadays, what we call the conjunto is the compact Salsa band. They may have two or three trumpets and a>bone. That=s why lots of people say conjunto this or that, like Aconjunto Salsa Caliente,@ since they have two or three trumpets and a >bone. Sabor would go under the name Aorquesta,@ and never Aconjunto,@ because it had five horns. That=s what makes it an orquesta , as opposed to a conjunto, which is like a smaller ensemble. That is the main difference, although once again, we=re speaking very generally.
WBR: Since Batachanga, you=ve become multi-faceted in that you belong to more than one group simultaneously . . .
SANTOS: Well, not really . . .
WBR: . . . you have Coro Folklorico Kindembo and The Machete Ensemble. I have recordings released by both groups.
SANTOS: Kindembo is not an actual group. Ever since>72, I=ve maintained a folklore group on the side, because that=s my passion, the folkloric music from Cuba and Puerto Rico. That=s really been my love, which has informed my whole musical formation from the beginning. For example, Sexteto León. That was a group that we had at the time of Cienfuegos. It was not really a working band. It was a project we put together to do a certain type of typical, traditional Cuban-based music, the Sones. So we formed that group and we did a couple of gigs under that name but it was really a special thing. It was kind of an offshoot of Cienfuegos but not a group that did a great deal of work. .
I never abandoned that, always during the time I was in Ritmo 74, during the time I was in La Banda, during the time that I went through the Santana band, my whole stint with Cienfuegos, my entire stint with Batachanga, I maintained a folklore group to study. The name changed and some of the personnel changed over the years, but I always maintained a folklore group. We=d do a few performances, but it wasn=t a popular group in that we were playing gigs all the time. It was more something we did for our own satisfaction. And we would incorporate it into the Cienfuegos and Batachanga gigs once in a while because several of the members of Cienfuegos and Batachanga were part of the folkloric group.
But after I went to Cuba for the first time, in 1990, I came back was very inspired and wrote some music. I recorded it with Kindembo, on the one record we put out. But even at that time, that group also disbanded. The lead singer, Maribel García Soto, the main singer on that record, was a doctor who never recorded before or since, who was not a professional musician but had a beautiful, incredible voice. Then she went to New York where she still works today in a hospital. And the male lead singer, Willie Ludwig, moved to Vera Cruz, so that group came to an end.
WBR: But you=ve also been affiliated with Trio America. Is that in the same category?
SANTOS: This was also kind of a little side project. These were not groups that worked a great deal. These are groups that did special projects. Sometimes you get together with other artists and friends and say, man, we should do a gig together. So what are we going to do? We have to come up with a concept, or a name. And so that=s what it was. Trio America performed what=s known as the ANueva Canción@ or ANueva Trova.@ That=s what=s known as the New Song Movement throughout Latin America. Although it=s called ANew Song,@ it=s also steeped in a very old style that is called Atrova.@ Trova comes from trovador. The trovadores were people who traveled around the countryside and cities, accompanying themselves on guitar and singing their own lyrics. Originally, the themes were loveCa lot of love Songs, very romanticCand protest type Songs, political Songs.
The New Song Movement nowadays is heavily based on the artists= and poets= expression of the political and social situations in which we live. That=s a very important music because it places a high importance on the Song lyrics and a lot of major composers have emerged in that style. It=s also universally appealing because it=s a very simple form. It=s a form that appeals to your feelings, directly to your heart. There=s no big instrumentation, orchestration, or dance. It=s not about any of that. It=s more getting a message across. So it=s a very pure form, like any culture=s folk music.
WBR: And are there local figures who stand out here?
SANTOS: Yes, there are many. To name just a couple, Rafael Manriquez. He=s originally from Chile and lives in the Bay Area now. He=s a wonderful composer and vocalist. He has a very special voice and accompanies himself on string instruments from Latin America. He=s a very important part of that movement here. Claudia Gomez was also in Trio America. She is another phenomenal talent with a beautiful voice and great musicianship on the guitar and other string instruments. She=s from Colombia and lives in Madrid now. I=ve had the pleasure of working with her many times. Also María Márquez from Venezuela, Lichi Fuentes from Chile, and Jose Luis Orozco from México are great local artists who pertain to that movement. You don=t hear of them unless you=re really connected into the community because they=re not commercial groups. They are not into this for the money at all. They make a lot of sacrifices. They play at benefits. They play at festivals. They play in the streets. They tour by car and by bus. They play in the fields. They=re the workers of the Latin Song Movement. Trio America did, maybe, a half a dozen gigs under that name. It wasn=t like it was a steady thing. And we put out a little bit of publicity, of propaganda around that name >cause we wanted to get more work. But it was never a real working group. It was just a special project that we put together to play once or twice a year over a few years.
I=m also with a group called Trio Diaspora, with Linda Tillery and Jackie Rago. But, again, we work once or maybe twice a year at the most. So it=s not really the same thing as playing in more than one group.
WBR: Ok, then what happens after Batachanga?
SANTOS: When Batachanga broke up in 1985 I joined the Pete Escovedo Orchestra. I played with Pete=s band for about three years, as a steady, regular member of his group. And I recorded a few albums with Pete. I did some free-lancing. I had the honor of recording three albums with the late maestro Tito Puente. Also at that time, I started to formulate my next project, which was Machete. That happened right around the same time, >85-=86. I hand-picked the people I wanted to work with, which, again, was a core of people I had been working with already over the years. We started to work. We did our first album. We recorded it in >87; it came out in >88. For the past 15 years that=s been my one and only band, The Machete Ensemble.
Pete Escovedo: his popular orquesta
once featured Santos in the line-up
A lot of the cats . . . that mercenary movement I was talking about, playing with 10 or 12 groups simultaneously and they=re a member of all those groups. Where there=s a conflicting schedule, they play with whoever calls them first, or in some cases, whoever pays them the most, and they send a sub to the other gig. So there=s all this inter-subbing going on, which I=m still not crazy about. I=m glad to say that our group, Machete, does the least of that of any of the local groups. Because Machete doesn=t play as often, that allows us to maintain the integrity of the group. All the members of our group do play with other groups. But they tend to give priority to us. Once in a great while we do have to sub out a position, but it doesn=t happen too often.
WBR: But from your grandfather=s band forward to the founding of Machete, all the while your interest in history and study and gathering information is keeping you in close touch with other styles of Latin music finding audiences in the Bay Area. Cumbia?
SANTOS: Cumbia is originally a black Colombian form. It=s an African form: drums, percussion and voices. The Pacific Coast of Colombia is a very heavily steeped African area. Cumbia came from there and the original Cumbia is different from anything you=ll hear nowadays around here. It has changed so much over the years that now what=s equated with Cumbia is this commercial form which is usually not too sophisticated, musically speaking.
Cumbia, in its popular fashion throughout Latin America, as well as the way it is interpreted here, is very commercialized, very stylized, and very simplistic, so much so that it=s not often a favorite music for people who have sophisticated musical taste. Now, I=m not saying that as a put-down. All I mean to say is that it=s changed a great deal from the original Cumbia. People have kept the name and the basic feel of the rhythm, and incorporated American pop music by instrumentation, by using electric guitar and electric piano and trap set drums, and playing almost like a disco style. In a way, it=s the same difference as Jazz music compared to pop music. The pop music is directed at the kids. Pop music is normally not very deepCalthough there are some great interpreters of pop music; it can be done well. There are groups interpreting Cumbia that are made up of excellent musicians. And the Cumbia certainly can be interpreted in a creative way. But, in general terms, it=s been commercialized greatly.
For that reason, I=m probably not the best person to talk about Cumbia. I can=t tell you who the best groups are that play around the Bay Area or where they play. However, I know that it=s a large phenomenon here because I see posters for Cumbia dances all the time. And I hear radio announcements for Cumbia dances. When the Cumbia bands play the clubs, the clubs are packed. When they rent a hall and throw a big dance, the hall is packed. They bring groups from South America and Central America to play for this audience and they always make a killing. Cumbia is an important part of the pop music of Mexico and the rest of Central and South America, and by far and away, that=s what the Latin population is here.
I know some excellent musicians who play in Cumbia groups to make money. The more popular Cumbia groups make a great deal more money than the Salsa bands because they=re usually much smaller as a rule. They often have four to six or seven pieces. Salsa bands average about ten to fourteen members. Even though I=m not a part of that community, I have to recognize Cumbia as very much part of the Latin music expression here in the Bay Area.
WBR: And haven=t some Venezuelan folk styles found their way here as well?
SANTOS: That=s a recent development in the Bay Area. There=s Jackeline Rago, Diamora Diaz, Carlos Horta, Ray Davis, and Kristina Papania, and several other excellent musicians who are or have been members of Trio Arepa, Bahia y Tambor, and Campana which are Venezuelan folk groups. These folks are wonderful vocalists and musicians on a variety of Venezuelan instruments. María Márquez, a vocalist with a hauntingly beautiful voice, also works and has recorded in the Bay Area. They=ve all brought a great deal of Venezuelan music to the Bay Area, which has been a welcome addition.
SANTOS: Brasilian music has to be considered different in some respects from other Latin music, mainly because of the cultural and language differencesCPortuguese as opposed to Spanish. Brazilian music is a wonder in itself and has developed separately from the influence of Cuban music, although there is some overlapping. Brasilian music stands next to Cuban music as the most influential music from Latin America on a worldwide level.
In general terms, Brasilian musicians have had a more advanced harmonic approach to music, which they=ve had for many years, which is one reason why their music has blended so wonderfully with Jazz. And their rhythmic structure is different. The main rhythmic structure is based on the samba, which is more universally appealing because the samba is a real straight-ahead pulse of two. Although they do a lot of intricate things around that, the basic pulse is always there and that=s what you dance to.
Cuban music has a more syncopated feel, which is not easy to recognize and lock into. The average listener can relate more to the samba than to the Son and the Cuban forms.
In the Bay Area, the Brasilian music is alive and well, although, as usual, it=s a struggle for musicians.
We have to give a lot of credit to Viva Brasil. Viva Brasil was here at a time when there were really no other Brasilian groups here. The leader of the group, Claudio Amaral, has been around for, I believe, 25 years or more. Claudio has been very consistent about it. He came in with Brasilian music and has been working a lot. Viva Brasil has certainly been one of the most working bands. I don=t think they=ve ever taken a break. They=ve worked consistently over the years, bringing the music to new audiences all the time, always cultivating a wider audience.
Viva Brasil has a contemporaryApop@ Brasilian sound. Brasilian music also has a folkloric side, which was originated here by Jose Lorenzo and Batucaje. That whole aspect of Brazilian music is very, very rich and diverse, with all the Afro-Brasilian dances, rhythms, forms and instruments. And then there=s the carnaval music. The Carnaval, of course, is a phenomenon which has done a great deal to give that music a root in the Bay Area. We=ve had our Carnaval in San Francisco for over twenty years now.
And new Brasilian blood is always coming through because there is somewhat of a demand for that music and that culture. The great work that Chalo Eduardo and Josephine Morada (co-director of Escola Nova de Samba), Carlos Azeituno with Fogo Na Roupa, Conceiçao Damasceno with Ginga Brasil, and several others did and have done for many years is a continuation of what Jose Lorenzo and Batucaje initiated, which is to give classes, to make presentations, participate in Carnaval, and generally raise the local awareness. Then there are tons of individual Brasilian musicians and groups such as Bira Almeida & Corpo Santo, Ricardo Peixoto, Carlinhos Oliveira, Claudio Bebiano, Celso Alberti, Benny Duarte, Celia Malheiros, Carlinhos Gonçalves, Weber Drummond, Claudia Villela, Lo, Mestre Preguiça, Marcelo, Marcia, and Marquinho Brasil as well as non-Brazilians like Joyce Cooling, Jay Wagner, Gary Brown, Kent Middleton, Dennis Broughton, Michael Spiro, Paul Van Wageningen, Phil Thompson and many others who have brought a great deal of wonderful music to the area.
WBR: So Jose Lorenzo is fairly important here?
SANTOS: Jose is very important here! He had the first Afro-Brasilian folkloric group. He came here from the National Folklore Troupe of Bahia. He=s very steeped in the tradition of Afro-Brasilian music, dance, and drumming. A lot of people who have learned Brasilian music in the Bay Area have been influenced by him, either having been a part of his group at one time or having taken lessons from him. I=m included in that bunch. I was a member of his first group. Later, Chalo Eduardo was also a member of Jose=s group Batucaje, before he and Josephine formed the Escola Nova de Samba and the Brasilian Beat.
Jose Lorenzo: Leader of the Afro-Brasilian Batucaje
WBR: But, inevitably, not every group worth remembering has benefited from a longevity comparable to Viva Brasil. Cañoneo?
SANTOS: Cañoneo was an excellent group made up of some very fine, versatile musicians. It was one of the groups that cropped up because of love of the music. Its members were very well versed in Jazz, as well as Brasilian and Latin music. They were fusion players in a very true sense of the word. Odd meter timings were their specialty, kind of their trademark. No other group around here, that I know of, played much odd meter. They never worked all that much. It was always like a hobby for them; that is, they all made money in other groups, every one of them. And they got together as Cañoneo so that they could play that music. They released two excellent albums. Their music was kind of eclectic and there was not a huge audience for it. People couldn=t dance to their music because of the odd meter time. It was music for Jazz fans. You had to go there and really listen and, if you appreciate music in that way, you=d love it.
SANTOS: Bandido is a Latin rock group along the lines of Santana and Malo. That=s another important part of the development of Latin music here in the Bay Area because the Latin rock started a lot of commotion and got a lot of attention for Latin music. Santana=s emergence around 1968 was followed shortly thereafter by Malo and Azteca, which came up with another aspect of the big band thing, putting funk, rock, Jazz and Latin together.
Bandido's rhythm section ablaze at San Francisco's Carnaval
WBR: Chalo Eduardo?
SANTOS: Chalo is a native San Franciscan who played around here for a long time as a multi-percussionist who really found his calling when he hooked up with Batucaje and became familiar with Brazilian music. He traveled to Brasil and became bitten by the samba bug. The rest is history. He taught himself and surrounded himself with Brasilian culture and became, in my opinion, the best Brasilian percussionist in the Bay Area. He=s very adept at performing on the Brasilian percussive instruments. He=s done a great deal. He gave a lot of classes and performed a lot of Brasilian music, especially at Carnaval.
Chalo Eduardo and Josephine Morada, of Brasilian Beat
WBR: Would I be right in thinking that we=ve had a flowering of orquestas here, like Candela, Orquesta La Moderna Tradición. Cubanacan, Los Compas, and others over the past several years?
SANTOS: Yes. The Bay Area has always been a wonderful, creative musical spot and a place that encourages diversity. But it has gradually just become a powerhouse as more and more people have come here. This is like a paradise where artists want to come. And as such there is a proliferation of good bands. In the last 25 years, I would say, certain communities have established themselves and either been created or grown to the point that now, almost any style of Afro-Latin or African drumming or traditions, extending beyond Africa into Asia or what have you, there=re communities here to do and support it. So as a result, groups that play music and dance of Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Brasil, Puerto Rico, The Dominican Republic, Haiti, Senegal, Central Africa, and many other locales, have proliferated.
WBR: You mentioned a trip to Cuba. How does that story unfold?
SANTOS: I went to Cuba for the first time in 1990. I had already been spending a lifetime studying Cuban culture and music and musical history and had amassed quite a bit of information. So when I went there, I felt like I had been there a million times before. I didn=t feel like it was my first time at all. I was familiar with the look of the place, from all the photos and videos, and record covers and other things I have. So all of that was quite natural for me. The people were very nice. I found them very warm. Cuba has the same look, the same feel, the same climate, the same type of food, the same Creole kind of culture, the same rainbow colors of people as Puerto Rico.
It so happened that in 1989 I had been in London. I was working in Germany. And while I was in Germany, I got word that Irakere and Orquesta Revé, two of my favorite Cuban groups, were playing in London. It happened to coincide with a break in my schedule. So I went to London. I saw these two groups; we met them and got to hang out with them. And I made some friends who remain friends to this day, including Chucho Valdés and members of both Irakere and Revé. The tres player with Revé was Papi Oviedo, very well known in Cuban music circles and the son of legendary tresero, Isaac Oviedo. He=s a great player, made some wonderful recordings. He was super surprised finding me knowing anything about who he was. I went right up to him when I saw him. He was very stand-offish at first because a lot of times when Cuban musicians travel, they run into other Cubans and there are political issues. So he didn=t know where I was coming from at first, and a lot of times it takes them a moment to figure out if I=m a Cuban, if I=m an expatriate, where I=m coming from. So he was very stand-offish at first. But as I started talking to him, it became very clear to him that I=m not Cuban and that I=m very enthusiastic. Then I started telling him about these recordings I have. I said, I know your work from these recordings with Estrellas de Chocolate. That opened his eyes up. Then I told him, I also have some recordings of your dad playing in 1929 with the Sexteto Matancero, I have some recordings of that. At that point he lost it. His eyebrows raised and he lit up. He said, my God!, I=ve never even heard those recordings. And I said, well, I=ve got them and I have friends who go to Cuba all the time. I=d be glad to send you a copy; just give me your address.
So he gave me his address. I made tapes for him, of his dad, playing in 1929. Little did I know at the time that the following year, in 1990, I was going to be in Cuba myself. I didn=t know it at the time, but that=s what happened. When I went to Cuba in 1990, I went with those tapes. I took a two-week course with the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional, the national folklore troupe, then I stayed in Cuba another two weeks. The wonderful part about the Conjunto Folklorico= courses is that you learn all these dance styles, popular and folk, but it=s all done to live accompaniment. When you learn to dance the Danzón, you learn with a real Danzón orchestra playing for you. The Danzón orchestra had a singer, who I recognized immediately as being the brother of the guy I had met the year before. I recognized him from a video I have. I went up to him, told him my story, who I am, and that I had met his brother the year before, and had this recording of his dad=s music. He said, you want to meet the old man? I said I was dying to meet the old man. He said, ok, he doesn=t live far from here, so tomorrow after the course I=ll take you there. So we went. He took me right over to the old man=s house. And I met him and I gave him the tape.
His whole family was there, his sister, several brothers, they were all there. The old guy said, ok, let me hear it. It was quiet and he started listening. Man, it just took him right back. He got very nostalgic; he began to cry. Then he asked for his tres, which apparently he hadn=t played for about three years, because he had arthritis in his hands. He was about 88 years old at the time. So they brought him his instrument and he started playing along with the tape. And they started singing and it became this incredible experience.
So, I was a bit of an angel to their family, and they took me under their wing and they treated me like a family member. They took me all over. They saw that I was very dedicated to what I was doing, so they asked me who else I wanted to meet. I mentioned musicians who I wanted to meet. They said, oh yeah, this guy lives around the corner; I=ll take you over here. They explained to me about anybody I asked about. They knew everybody. So I formed a wonderful relationship with these folks and that just one of many experiences I had like that in Cuba, where I met old musicians and got to form a relationship with them.
I met a great many musicians there whose music I had been studying for years. And they were amazed with me, because I was a young Puerto Rican guy from the United States who knew who they are. But not only knows who they are but knows about their history and what they=ve done and is able to rattle back some stuff that they forgot about. Because, in most cases, my record collection had recordings that they did not have, in some cases were not even aware of. Stuff that they recorded back in the >50s, or >40s, or >30s= in some cases. And just forgot about. So I had a wonderful experience in Cuba. It was just amazing.
I came back very inspired. One more story. Another thing that happened on that level that was very influential for me was that during the time I was there, the Conjunto Folklorico celebrated their 27h anniversary. They had a show to celebrate it; I think it was in the Karl Marx Theater. For the celebration, they and several other folklore groups were going to perform. So I=m in this theater, just taking it in, this incredible concert of Afro-Cuban folklore music. At one point this group comes on, the Conjunto de Clavey Guaguancó, and I recognized some of the players from videos that I have. They had an intermission after these guys played. I went up to this one guy, who I recognized from a video. I introduced myself, told him who I am, I=m a fan, and I know your music from a video I have that someone taped for me from Cuban television and it=s from the >60s. I said, I have a little folklore study group and we actually learned the Song that you sang on that television program. We do it as part of our repertoire. He said, what Song? And I started to sing it to him: AA la hora de cantar la rumba no hay....@ It=s this whole Rumba, very beautiful. And his jaw dropped. He goes, my God!, come here. And he took me to the rest of the members of the group. He didn=t introduce me yet. First he had me sing this Rumba with him as a duo. And they listened, and they said, Acool,@ but they thought I was a Cuban. But the guy says, Ano, he=s a foreigner; this is his first time in Cuba.@ Then they said, Wow !, and made a big deal about me. They said, come, Awe got all these activities; we=re playing over here in this neighborhood.@ And I followed them. I went with their group and they let me sit in, play with them and sing. I got to meet and play with Merceditas Valdés, a very famous Afro-Cuban vocalist.
So when I came back, I was just so inspired and blown away. I started writing a letter to thank them. As I got halfway through the letter, I realized this is a Song, this is a Rumba. And I converted it into a Song, Una Carta Abierta. I recorded it; it=s on that Kindembo release. It=s a letter to them on my return, trying to express to them how I felt, how grateful that I was. I wrote that letter to them, inspired by these people. So they=re all named in that Song.
I returned to Cuba one more time, in 1997, for only a week. I went with my group, Machete to play the Havana Jazz Festival. That was an incredible experience, too, but it really didn=t compare with my first experience, >cause in 1990 I met all these people, had these transcendental experiences. When I went with Machete, it was kind of draining because the Jazz festival thereCI found out the hard wayCis notoriously terribly organized. I went there with a group of 12 people and it was a nightmare, because all the conditions were wrong. There was no equipment. There was no room to rehearse. There were constant time changes for the gigs. Everything was in flux constantly. There was no itinerary. It changed every five minutes. And I=m dealing with 10 different people from the festival Aorganization.@ There=s not even one person to deal with me. So I=m constantly arguing, trying to badger, trying to get stuff done, and get answers. And then I=m on the phone tracking down all my band members; trying to keep them informed. By the third day I lost my voice. It was a big job. We still managed to have a wonderful time there. We got to do some great things, and playing there, once it happens, is always wonderful. But it was a whole different ball game. And that was it: those were my only two times going to Cuba.
WBR: In addition to a lifetime of work with various Afro-Latin and Afro-Carribean idioms, over the years you=ve occasionally shared the stage with ensembles from other world music traditions that have found a place in the Bay Area. Could you describe some of those activities?
SANTOS: Yes, one of the real joys of my work is the opportunity to collaborate with wonderful folks from all over. Collaborating with visiting artists is especially rewarding for everyone involved. I=ve worked with poets, visual artists, dancers and choreographers, vocalists and instrumentalists of all types in performance pieces, installations, commissions or in the studio. Some of the more memorable local collaborations have been with Dizzy Gillespie, Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente, Cachao, Pancho Quinto, Patato Valdés, Piri Thomas, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Chocolate Armenteros, The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, Sonia Sanchez, Ginny Lim, Jon Jang, Kate Connell, Max Roach, the Oberlin Dance Collective, Bobby Hutcherson, Lalo Schifrin, Francisco Aguabella, Cubanismo, C.K. Ladzekpo, Vince Delgado, Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Ensemble, Eddie Marshall, Vince Lateano, Bruce Forman, Omar Sosa, the Oakland Ballet (a commissioned composition performed live to the choreography of Robert Moses at the historic Paramount Theater), and of course with the stellar members of Machete: Orestes Vilato, John Calloway, Wayne Wallace, Melecio Magdaluyo, David Belove, Paul Van Wageningen, Ron Stallings and Orlando Torriente.