Exploring the Latin roots of American music with John Santos
John Santos is a five-time Grammy-nominated percussionist in the Afro-Latin tradition. He’s a San Francisco native, who chose to explore his family’s roots in Puerto Rico and Cape Verdean Islands through his music. His career as an educator, composer, writer, and performer spans 35 years.
When it comes to exploring how Latinos have influenced American music, he first asks us to consider how we use the word “American.”
JOHN SANTOS: Because what we call American music, you know it’s skewed by how we grew up being taught that the United States equals America, and it’s the music more than anything I know that proves that to be totally false.
You know, North America, Central America, South America, the Caribbean are all equally American. We have a common history, we have a common colonial history, and it’s not pretty. It deals with the genocide of indigenous people, and slavery, so it’s not something that’s comfortable for people to talk about or deal with, but it’s certainly a huge part of what unites us as Americans in the true sense of the word.
So the music you know doesn’t have those kinds of boundaries. And again though, I have to emphasize that the history is not a marriage, sometimes you read it’s a marriage of African and indigenous and Spanish and Latin and Europe, and it’s not really a marriage – it’s a shotgun wedding…
It’s a history that is a clash of cultures, but here we are, we are together, and our bloodlines have been mixed forcibly, but yet we represent really I think the potential and the future of not only the Americas but of the world, of people coming together and, how can we draw lines that are so clearly based on race and class when our look and our makeup is the ultimate advertisement for tolerance and for having a more open attitude towards human beings and human rights for everyone.
John Santos says to really appreciate the influence Latinos have had on American music you need to focus on the music. And he tells KALW’s Martina Castro that the best place to start is with Jazz.
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JOHN SANTOS: When we talk about jazz we generally talk about the roots of jazz being the blues, and rightfully so; and spiritual music from the southern part of our country, also rightfully so; and some work songs and things that came from the fields and out of the tradition of, the horrible tradition of slavery – and those are all legitimate roots of jazz, as well as western European classical music.
So that’s all good but the conversation generally stops there and doesn’t consider that probably the strongest roots of jazz are the Afro-Caribbean roots of jazz. And I say that because New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz. And New Orleans is as Caribbean a place as San Juan, or Havana, or Cartagena, or Veracruz, or Kingston, or Port au Prince, or any of the major ports in the Caribbean. And it’s connected with those ports for hundreds of years throughout the colonial period. So economically, and socially and culturally, it’s totally connected and there’s always been movement – ships going in between all those ports and workers going to follow the harvest season to work. And of course there were many musicians among those workers.
And that’s why, the Caribbean area has this kind of a trademark, or, maybe that’s not the right word… But one of the key elements of the Caribbean is this Creole, Creole-ness, this Creole atmosphere that New Orleans of course, is the epitome of that in our country, but that’s common throughout the Caribbean. And that’s the environment in which jazz was born.
You know, we can look at any type of American music and trace back and find the Afro-Latino, Afro-Caribbean, and Latino roots in the music.
MARTINA CASTRO: Are there any particular artists or songs that pop out in your mind that you could say, “Listen. Listen to this rhythm section, listen to how this artist is doing this.”
SANTOS: Tons of stuff. For example, if we look at hip hop music and we look at the basis of hip hop music, the basis has a lot to do with a rhyth. That is very Afro-Caribbean; that is called clave, the clave rhythm. And that rhythm is something that comes to the Americas with enslaved Africans and their descendents and that is a very African concept that has influenced all of the African Diaspora music from jazz to samba, to rumba, to son, to plena, to meringue, to calypso, to tango, to Argentina – to all up and down the Americas. The music has this concept as part of the music.
Now, in hip hop music, the connection is that hip hop is based on this kind of beat box type of rhythm where it’s imitating the sound of the kit drum and the snare drum. Of course there are many variations. But that rhythm itself is a composite of the clave. Many variations of it but there’s this feel of a clave. Hip-hop music is rooted in that.
Then we could look in rock and roll, which is born out of rhythm and blues. And rhythm and blues is another New Orleans invention and New Orleans is a place where the clave is super big. It is the most common rhythm that unites New Orleans music.
So in the second line music that’s played in Mardi Gras in the carnival in the streets they use that rhythm and it’s played on the snare drum with the base, base drum, and you hear that accent of the clave. So it’s the same feel. It’s very pan-Caribbean/African influence.
So, from New Orleans, that goes into rhythm and blues. In rhythm and blues you can think of some people in the audience are probably will remember Bo Diddley who was one of the pioneers of rhythm and blues; he was a New Orleans musicia, and people would call it the Bo Diddley rhythm, and it was the clave. He would play it though, this was indicative to what would happen in the states is that the African element was so cut off and alienated in the states that those African-isms evolved on European instruments. So they would play it on the base or on the guitar and he had a rhythm. For example he had a song – I can’t remember all the words – but it was… totally based on the clave. And that is part and parcel of rhythm and blues
And they would play those rhythms on the saxophone or different instruments and that gave birth to rock and roll. So all of the early rock and roll artists from Chuck Berry to Elvis Presley – they all used that rhythm and used that clave for the basis of what they do.
And then as we come further, if we look at Motown for example, 90% of the time all the Motown music had conga drums in it. They used conga and the conga is the epitome of African, central African in particular, music and rhythm. So if you go back and listen to all the hits of the Supremes and The Temptations, The Four Tops, the beginning of the funk thing, James Brown always had a conga drummer’s band, they always had congas.
So, through jazz it comes from New Orleans; through rhythm and blues it comes from New Orleans. And the rock and roll that was born out of that rhythm and blues… It really has to do with a great group of American music in the states.
“Louie Louie” – it’s a very Latino thing and actually that base line comes directly from a piece that was written by René Touzet, a Cuban bandleader who had a tune called the “Loco Cha Cha” and the “Loco Cha Cha” had the same baseline and that was just lifted directly out of that from the bassist of “Louie Louie.” If you say Latin music, you couldn’t say anything more general, there’s nothing specific about that and it’s similar to saying jazz. You say jazz and there’s many kinds of jazz.
Jazz is not a specific thing by any means. It’s more of a state of mind than anything else because there’s specific styles of music: There’s ragtime, there’s swing, there’s bebop, there’s Dixieland, and those are styles of music and they are all types of jazz and it’s evolved a lot. There’s Latin jazz, there’s contemporary jazz, and all kinds of things. And the art teaches us and it teaches us that we need to be open about this because we can’t discuss honestly the roots of the music at all, if we’re not going to be honest about the history and what it represents.
Indicative of the dilemma and problem in our country is something that happened recently the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences has recently eliminated 31 categories from Grammy consideration. And among the categories that were eliminated are contemporary jazz, Latin jazz, a category of rhythm and blues, a category of gospel music, Native American music, Cajun music, Zydeco, instrumental rock, and some of the most important roots and creative music forms that we have in this country – and this is a non-profit organization whose mission is to showcase and honor
American music in the United States and represent all the creativity; it’s a peer award. It’s supposed to be not like “American Idol,” not a popularity contest, and yet, they have become that. It’s part of the battle that’s important for us to fight and we can’t let them get away with it.