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Rhythm & rhyme

By Jane Yin
Friday October 11, 2002

It is said that our natural gravitation toward music comes from the first sounds we ever hear – the rhythmic beating of our mother’s heart. If this is true, world-renowned percussion master John Santos must have heard his mother’s heart beating loud and clear. Tonight, the founder and director of the critically acclaimed Machete Ensemble will take his band to the stage of La Pena Cultural Center. In collaboration with four Bay Area poets, the 10-piece group will perform a truly unique combination of Afro-Cuban music and spoken word. 

“We are simply part of the movement to bring more recognition to the growing Latin jazz scene in San Francisco,” said Santos. And in many ways, the group has already achieved this, frequently being hailed as one of the few groups outside of Cuba to perform this type of music with such creativity and expertise. 

The message of tonight’s show parallels the title of the band’s new CD “SF Bay:” celebrating art by local San Francisco performers. Sparked by a similar program La Pena Cultural Center put on last year combining the works of musicians and poets, Santos conceived of the idea to collaborate again with four local spoken word talents more than six months ago. The performers have since created a show with political, educational and emotionally expressive undertones. The diverse troupe of poets that joins the band tonight includes Piri Thomas, Genny Lim, Bamuthi Joseph and Paul Flores. 

The show not only marks the Machete Ensemble’s 17th anniversary as a group, but as being annual performers at the cultural center as well.  

“People love [John Santo’s] group. Because [Santos] is from the Bay Area, people know him as a homegrown artist. He has had a solid public following locally, as well as nationally, since his teenage years,” said Sylvia Sherman, development director of La Pena Cultural Center. 

Santos, the leading man of the collaborative show, demonstrates his expertise in Afro-Cuban music as an ethnomusicologist, historian, musician, teacher, and lecturer on stage and on the new CD. 

“All our recordings are original, allowing the group complete freedom of musical expression,” said Santos. “Since we are all from different backgrounds, our music is a conglomeration of jazz, folk, Afro-Caribbean styles of music.” 

Santos and the Machete Ensemble came together almost two decades ago, when Santos wanted to form a group to perform Afro-Cuban Latin jazz music. Among those he chose are musical greats, such as John Calloway and Wayne Wallace. Together, they have taken Afro-Cuban music, which once existed only in Cuba and Puerto Rico and transformed it into their own explosive, contagious sound, which resonates with an intricate montage of drum sequences, instrumental riffs and genius improvisations.  

Santos was raised in a family of musicians. His grandfather would often play music of his homeland Cape Verde with his friends. He recruited Santos to play the Congas professionally in his group when the young boy was 13 years old. This later led him to experiment and play in many other groups and eventually form a couple of his own. Santos graces performance stages all around the world, from the birthplace of Latin music, Cuba and all across the United States. 

“All of the musicians are teachers,” said the percussionist extraordinaire. In hope of educating the public about the “real roots” of Latin jazz music, Santos and the Machete Ensemble take their knowledge to the road, educating students around the U.S., from the elementary to the university level. “It is little known that that Afro-Caribbean music has significantly influenced the jazz music, America’s national art form,” exclaimed Santos. 

Since it’s inception, the influence and artistry of Machete has risen to great heights. It is a much applauded and frequently the most highly anticipated act in numerous jazz festivals, including the San Francisco Jazz Festival and Mellon Jazz Festival in Philadelphia. 

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