John Santos has been nominated for a GRAMMY award seven-times, and in the process elevated Afro-Latino beats, jazz, and lived a remarkable life as an artist from San Francisco to Puerto Rico.


[by Jesse “Chuy” Varela; with courtesy photos]

In the beginning, John Santos aspired to be a baseball player, but destiny dealt him another hand. Today Santos is a highly regarded percussionist, bandleader, producer, and educator, with seven Grammy Award nominations to his name, and countless awards for his musical accomplishments. He is also the subject of a new film documentary titled, “Santos – Skin To Skin,” produced by Ashley James and Kathryn Golden for Searchlight Films.     

“I’m flabbergasted and highly honored to think about anybody wanting to do a film about what I do,” commented Santos in a recent interview. “It took over 10 years to make. The filmmakers Ashley James and Kathryn Golden have been coming to concerts, to our home, and when we went to Puerto Rico, they went to Puerto Rico with us. They’ve documented a lot of the stuff that I’ve done that’s been close to me and I really appreciate it. They did a beautiful job.”

“Santos – Skin To Skin” premiered in the Bay Area at the Mill Valley Film Festival recently with three showings in Mill Valley, Berkeley, and The Roxie Theater in San Francisco. It is also slated for presentation on Oct. 30 at the SFJAZZ Center, with a live performance by the John Santos Sextet and special guests, but don’t rush to get tickets as the event is sold out. 

The 75-minute film is a carefully curated series of segments that unfurls with footage from live musical performances, interviews, and archival photographs and graphics from the career of John Santos. A well-spoken personality, Santos narrates his own story as visuals of family photos weave his childhood in Bernal Heights and illuminate the faces of his Puerto Rican and Cape Verdean grandparents as well as his parents and the multicultural rainbow of friends like John Calloway, Anthony Blea, and his best buddy Raul Rekow. Heartwarming testaments to the film’s overarching theme documenting the rise and survival of a keeper of the Afro-Caribbean flame.  

The film is engaging throughout with skilled cinematography and sensitive editing that complement the storyline without clogging it. It was the noted ethnomusicologist, Roberta Singer, who suggested to James and Golden that they consider doing a documentary on John Santos. Fresh from producing the acclaimed documentary, “Bomba – Dancing The Drum,” a portrait of the Cepeda Family, the first family of Bomba y Plena in Puerto Rico, they dove in with clear vision and enthusiasm in assembling the life of a humble but complex artist.  

Interview subjects like cultural activist and producer, Linda Lucero, outline the organic rise of Santos as a community educator with his groundbreaking, “Roots Of Salsa” class at La Raza Silkscreen Center/La Raza Graphics. Musical luminaries like Eddie Palmieri, Orestes Vilato, Ernesto Oviedo, and Omar Sosa as well as scholars like the late Robert Farris Thompson, the noted art historian at Yale University, attest to Santos’ highly attuned level of musicality, scholarship, passion for research, and talent as a communicator.   

How director Kathryn Golden chose to articulate the love between John and his wife, Aida Salazar, the acclaimed children’s author, and their children, Avelina and João, is a highlight. The grief of the loss of their first child, Amaly Celeste, is delicately presented and adds depth to the emotion of the film. Their journey to Puerto Rico, pronounces the deep spirituality the Santos family possesses as they sing to Yemaya, the goddess of the ocean and motherhood in the Yoruba pantheon, in remembrance of Amaly Celeste. 

Not neglected is Santos’ passion for social and cultural activism. From the 2011 fight against NARAS — The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences — for dropping the Latin Jazz category to his fight against numerous international and local causes (many expressed by the stickers on his congas), the outspoken Santos articulates how he uses his music to make a positive change against colonialism and racial inequality. 

Overall, “Santos – Skin To Skin,” is a film that you wish wouldn’t end. It’s a beautiful portrait of a transcendent artiste born and raised in the streets and schools of San Francisco. Santos – Skin To Skin is excellently summarized with state-of-the-art cinematography by two champions of documentary film and a soundtrack that’s a discographic biography. As an educational tool, Santos’ story needs to be seen and heard as an inspiring example of how art can influence life and bring positive change to a troubled planet.    

“The music has this role,” says Santos as the film closes, “of documenting our history in our own words and educating young people, kids, and people of all ages, as to who we are, what is our history, and the basics about life.” 


Title: Santos – Skin To Skin 

Director: Kathryn Golden

Film Distributor:  Searchlight Films

Producers: Kathryn Golden & Ashley James 

Cast: John Santos, The John Santos Sextet, Dr. John Calloway, Marco Diaz, Saul Sierra, David Flores, Melecio Magdaluyo, Aida Salazar, Aveline Salazar Santos, João Salazar Santos, and numerous special guests.    

Length: 75 minutes

Jesse “Chuy” Varela currently serves as Music Director and Co-Program Director at KCSM JAZZ 91, the Bay Area Jazz Station. He has written for the SF Chronicle, Bay Guardian, Latin Magazine, Jazz Times Magazine, and numerous other publications.