John Santos in “Santos – Skin to Skin”
John Santos is a famous Latin jazz musician, bandleader, seven-time Grammy nominee and one of the directors of the San Francisco Jazz Center. In addition to being a highly accomplished musician, he is also an academic and community and political activist who uses Afro-Latin music to educate others about his heritage and the historical roots of the genre. In summere living and musical documentary Santos – skin to skinwe learn all about John Santos and his lifelong dedication to championing and celebrating music.
Sitting in front of the camera, in addition to being followed through different parts of his life (wearable cameras allow us to follow him everywhere), Santos shares his story directly with us. As soon as he speaks – in a soft yet spiritually grounded voice – you can feel his inner warmth and wisdom coming through. It’s amazing to hear the way John talks about music as well as life, making the connection that when he plays, he “wake up the ancestors”.
Originally from Oakland, Calif., Santos grew up in the progressive lifestyle that 1960s San Francisco offered, including the many races and sexual orientations that lived within his community. This, along with the legendary rock bands that became famous in the area (including Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana) inspired John to pursue music, art and love, learning to play congas and timpani (even playing in Santana’s band for a short time).
But Santos was not drawn to the pursuit of classic rock stardom and fame. Instead, as Santos – skin to skin watch, he followed his curiosity to know more about the musical roots of his people: Afro-Cuban and Afro-Caribbean music. He learned about music’s connection to the history of its peoples, and more specifically its connection to colonial history. Specifically, the drums – the instrument he was drawn to – was an expression of the pain felt by oppression, slavery and injustice.
It’s powerful to hear the connection that John makes between the two types of “skin” in music: both the human body and the impact of its different skin colors, as well as the material that envelops the drums. When conga players strike these drums with their hands, a beautiful and direct connection between the skins occurs. Conga players channel the struggle and struggle that ancestors experienced and express themselves today to new audiences.
This deeply felt connection is what shaped Santos not only as a musician, but also as a activist. In concerts and in classrooms, he talks about the conflicts that exist in so many societies, even within the world of Afro-Latin music among LatinX and African-American bands. As Santos says, “Drums and rhythms are a beautiful mix that shows how music can unite people.”
Santos’ life feels like pure musical magic, but we also learn about the personal pains he endured too. We learn of the death of his young daughter at one month. As his wife shares, Santos transferred his grief into music, researching folklore and his ancestry to better understand the relationship between life and death. It’s a touching sentiment that he passed on to his family, including a young son and daughter.
Besides learning the art, spirituality and philosophy that Santos shares, what makes Santos – skin to skin a film so gratifying is that it celebrates a figure who has done so much for the community and the world without seeking personal recognition. Santos is candid that his decision to give up his business aspirations in order to champion political issues has also left him with lesser fame and financial success. A scene of him and his family packing CDs into letters to be sent to various news outlets reveals that he is also the person who promotes the music of his people, having devoted thousands of hours in his career to nurturing the Afro-Caribbean flame. .
Santos – skin to skin is a celebratory portrait of John Santos, whose role in music is as important as its documentation. This is how we learn “who we are” and “the basics of life”. This music and portraiture documentary is sure to inspire you to learn more about international music or, at the very least, to get up and dance.