It’s hard to overstate John Santos’s ongoing influence on the Bay Area music scene. Credit: Courtesy of SF JAZZ

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It seemed like an unlikely move at first. John Santos’ music has always been deeply political. His newest album, however, is coming out on a federally funded record label that explicitly forbids content that might affect an election campaign.

But upon reflection, Santos’ choice feels utterly right. “Art of the Descarga” will be released August 7 on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. In addition to being a government-backed label, Smithsonian Folkways also happens to be a repository for a mind-bogglingly vast and varied swath of the nation’s sonic heritage. 

While the Oakland percussionist, bandleader, educator, historian, and activist is a comfortingly ubiquitous presence around the Bay Area, the non-profit label provides a welcome opportunity for Santos to reach a much wider audience. The fact that he’s using a government-supported megaphone to continue his musical struggle against colonialism and “out-of-control capitalism,” as he writes in the liner notes, only makes the message resonate more loudly. 

Santos has reflected some on the odd-bedfellows nature of his alliance with Smithsonian. “In the contract it says you can’t have any content that might directly affect a political campaign,” he said. “But the Smithsonian is this giant institution that’s not at all a monolith. There are a bunch of people who are super hip, who do that right thing, and are dedicated to documenting what America really represents. I’m grateful to be affiliated with them.”

Santos’s mission has long been to showcase the extraordinary rhythmic diversity and underlying kinship of Afro-Caribbean musical traditions, with a particular focus on Cuba and Puerto Rico (his patrilineal homeland). His new album is built on his working sextet with pianist Marco Diaz, bassist Saul Sierra, flutist Dr. John Calloway, saxophonist Melecio Magdaluyo, and drummer David Flores. (The same group is featured Aug. 7 as part of SFJAZZ’s Fridays at Five series, which will include a broadcast premiere of the 2015 concert celebrating Santos’ 60th birthday). 

“Art of the Descarga” focuses on the loose, conversational, jazz-infused format that emerged in Havana in the 1950s. As is so often the case with Santos, he worked closely with one of the idiom’s foundational figures, Israel “Cachao” López (1918 –2008), touring with the legendary Cuban bassist in Europe and on the East Coast during his late-career resurgence. 

“He’s the grandpappy of descarga and I learned so much from him,” Santos said in an interview. “He’s key to our whole thing, along with other pioneers like Bebo Valdés, Generoso Jiménez, and Tito Puente, who carried it forward in New York. I got a chance to play with all of them, and that’s a connection that’s really close.”

The bulk of the album features pieces commissioned by the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival in 2014. While Santos showcases his stellar band, he also casts a wide net, roping in Bay Area-based Latin music luminaries like powerhouse vocalist Orlando Torriente, Puerto Rican cuatro expert Pedro Pastrana, and Cuban timbales maestro Orestes Vilató (“He’s been on almost all of my albums,” Santos said). But it’s the roster of guest stars who speak to the expansive nature of his musical family.

Santos has been producing his own albums for his Machete label for more than two decades, and even when funds run too low to release a project he’s made a practice of recording with out-of-town friends and colleagues when they come through the Bay Area. “Art of the Descarga” captures some of those fortuitous encounters, like Cuban flute star Orlando “Maraca” Valle’s caressing line on “Bernal Heights,” a simmering danzón-mambo shoutout to the neighborhood where Santos grew up.

The late, revered Fort Apache trumpeter Jerry González, who was living in Spain at the time, adds some soulful savor on the Puerto Rican bomba “Lo Tuyo No Va.” And Puerto Rican percussion expert Tito Matos provides the polyrhythmic pulse on “Plena Vida,” a track that Santos describes in the notes as “an ode to the resilience and love of Puerto Ricans, who have been so steadily tested by colonialism, capitalism, and ignorance throughout the island’s history.”

These far-flung friendships and collaborations reflect Santos’s singular position on the West Coast as a bridge between an array of scenes and traditions involving jazz, Latin jazz, and the entire Afro-Latin rhythmic continuum. His unusually catholic vision was what initially brought him to the Smithsonian, which hired him to write liner notes for a series of Cuban music anthologies. He also wrote the notes for 2005’s Grammy-nominated Para Todos Ustedes (For All of You) by the storied Nuyorican ensemble Los Pleneros de la 21 (whose founder, Juan “Juango” Gutiérrez, also contributes to Art of the Descarga). It’s not surprising he has strong supporters within the organization.

“John is a beautiful force of nature, a great musician and organizer but so much more than that,” said Daniel Sheehy, an Oakland native who served as Smithsonian Folkways’ director and curator from 2000-2015. He played a key role in transforming Santos’s relationship with the label from scholar to recording artist. And he’s got his eye on Santos’s Machete discography. 

“My hope is to find a way to do more albums in the future and frankly I’d love to see the whole Machete Records collection become part of the national museum,” Sheehy said. “It is a national treasure and the Smithsonian is in the forever business.”

While the majority of his recordings are state-of-the-art Latin jazz rather than the kind of traditional music associated with Smithsonian Folkways, Santos also sees the match as a good fit. “It makes sense,” he said. “My whole career has been based on folkloric music. I’ve studied those rhythmic roots and it informs everything I do. Smithsonian Folkways recognizes that these traditions evolve, and they’re looking for who are the artists maintaining those traditions.”

When it comes to fostering evolution it’s hard to overstate Santos’s ongoing influence on the Bay Area music scene. He is the curator for Freight and Salvage’s Raices series. From SFJAZZ’s earliest incarnation he helped shape the organization’s vision so that it encompassed both Latin jazz and familial African diasporic idioms. He’s held faculty positions at more than half a dozen institutions, while serving as an essential presence at the California Jazz Conservatory, Jazz Camp West, and the Oaktown Jazz Workshop. 

While closely identified with San Francisco’s Mission District, Santos has now spent half of his life as an Oakland resident, and a recent epiphany made him confront his geographic allegiances. Asked to record a promo spot for a group from Santiago de Cuba, “I said in Spanish ‘I’m a Puerto Rican percussionist from San Francisco,’ which is how I’ve always done it,” Santos said. “But after thinking about it I re-recorded the spot and said Oakland, which I’d never done before. I realized I don’t relate to San Francisco anymore and I decided that it’s Oakland from here forward.”

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