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John Santos is one of the foremost exponents of Afro-Latin music in the world today. He has performed, recorded and studied with masters such as Cachao, Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente, Lazaro Ros, Armando Peraza, Patato Valdes, Francisco Aguabella, Orestes Vilato and Max Roach. Widely respected as a writer, educator and historian in the field, Santos is a member of the Latin Jazz Advisory Committee of the Smithsonian Institution. He leads the Grammy nominated ensemble Machete.

The following interview with John Santos was especially conducted for my Master of Philosophy in Music [By Research] thesis titled The Conga Drum: Development, Technique, Styles, Improvisations and the contribution of Master Drummer Ramon ‘Mongo’ Santamaria which I completed in 2008 at the ANU in Canberra. The thesis documents the conga drum’s historical development, investigates basic hand techniques and current technical hand developments, as well as the enormous contribution of master drummer Ramon 'Mongo' Santamaria, arguably the most influential player in the history of the instrument, exploring his percussive output as well as his ensemble, composition and arranging proficiency. I conducted this interview with John Santos via telephone.

PERTOUT: In terms of your background, I know you come from a Puerto Rican background, but were you born and always based in San Francisco?


PERTOUT: How did you get involved in Afro-Cuban drumming?

SANTOS: It still came from my Puerto Rican side, although as you are probably aware the Puerto Rican tradition is not nearly as drum heavy as the Cuban, but through Puerto Rican music I first started to become aware of those drums, bongos and congas.

PERTOUT: So at the time were you involved in Puerto Rican folkloric drumming like plena and bomba?

SANTOS: The first band I ever played in was my grandfather's band. He was from Puerto Rico and I played conga in that band at the age of twelve. We played some bomba and some plena but it wasn't really a folkloric band. It was a band to play dance music and so we played a lot of Cuban music. We played guarachas and sones, cha cha cha, bolero and mambo as well as bomba, plena and musica jibara, the kind of typical Puerto Rican music. So from those roots, it brought my attention to the drum and the drums themselves are what brought me to the Afro-Cuban music tradition. I started looking for recordings, anything with those instruments on it.

PERTOUT: And so once you found the conga, how did you develop on the instrument? Did you have a teacher?

SANTOS: A friend of my dad was a Puerto Rican, his name was Rene Rivera, he was a merchant seaman. He played conga and he came over one day and he gave me one lesson on a conga drum and he had to leave on business and he was going to come back and teach me but sadly he was killed while away. So I only had that one lesson, that was the only lesson that I ever had, that was when I was twelve years old. There was another guy, a conga drummer by the name of Richie Giraldez. He was a person who had some daemons to deal with, he had a hard time dealing with drugs and he didn't go as far as he could or should of. He was very talented. He was also a composer he wrote a tune which El Gran Combo recorded and had a big hit with. He was from Puerto Rico and had been in New York before he arrived in San Francisco. When I met him here he was playing conga in my grandfather's band and gave me a few tips. I use to go and watch him play.

PERTOUT: When was that?

SANTOS: That was in the late 1960s, I am talking about 1967 which is when I started playing but of course I had spent my whole childhood watching my grandfather's band with these musicians playing all those rhythms. Also one of the elements that is important is that my grandparents and my parents all had really great record collections and so did my uncle. They had a lot of folkloric music as well as Cuban, and so I got to hear some great stuff. Once my drumming interests started to develop I started searching for those records in the record stores and so I naturally went to the recordings that had Mongo, Patato, Armando Peraza, Aguabella and tapped into the whole world of Afro Cuban music. This also included the religious music, records like Yambu and other santeria associated music, all of that because of the drumming I was really attracted to and I started collecting.

PERTOUT: So you were listening to these master drummers on record at the time, did you get to see them in live performances at all?

SANTOS: As soon as I became aware of who they were I did get to see Armando and Francisco a lot because they lived in the Bay Area. Of course I was too young to get into the clubs and so I saw them as much as I could see them. I would see them at festivals, and you know here as teenagers we use to go to the North Beach district and stand outside the clubs just to listen to the music, as we were too young we couldn't get in, but the music would come blasting out of the windows and we would listen.

PERTOUT: Who was Francisco playing with at the time?

SANTOS: Francisco was playing around here with Cesar Ascarruz and also played in Benny Velarde's group.

PERTOUT: So he was playing in dance bands?

SANTOS: Yes the bands were geared towards a dance audience, this was also around the time that he started playing with Malo.

PERTOUT: And what about Armando?

SANTOS: When I saw Armando he had left Cal Tjader, but those recordings he made with Tjader was what we really listened to a lot. A lot of that material was recorded right here in San Francisco and it was very popular here.

PERTOUT: Raul Rekow mentioned to me years ago that you guys use to get together daily to transcribe, study recordings and play.

SANTOS: Yes that is true. Once I met Raul which was round 1971 or 1972, he was in Malo at the time, we formed a relationship that was like that. We use to get together and play all the time, and do a lot of studying and playing the park together for several years.

PERTOUT: So were you developing your skills by transcribing or were you able to get lessons with Armando, Francisco or Mongo when he was in town?

SANTOS: Well none of those guys would teach, we use to ask them all the time, they just wouldn't teach, I think it was a combination of them not being comfortable with teaching and also the fact that they didn't need to teach. In the case of Armando at first and then eventually also with Francisco we learned a great deal just hanging out with them. Once they got comfortable with us and allowed us to be in their circle and became friends with us, then they would just share things with us. And so we learned a great deal just been around them and asking questions, listening to their stories, and playing with them, because with Armando as we spent a lot of time with Armando we would go to his house and he would just sit down and play with us.

PERTOUT: And Mongo?

SANTOS: I was never that close with Mongo. I met him Mongo a few times, I use to see him in clubs when he toured the Bay Area and like everybody learned a great deal from his recordings. You know my band Machete opened for Mongo a few times. One of our first gigs which was in 1988 was as an opener for Mongo and since that time we became a little bit closer but I never got to spend that much time around him because he was always on the East Coast.

PERTOUT: How do you see his legacy? In your eyes how influential was Mongo Santamaria?

SANTOS: I don't think there is much argument that Mongo Santamaria is probably the most influential conga player, I don't see how anybody could be more so. It’s the length of time that he was doing it, the amount of records that he made as a bandleader and sideman and the importance of those recordings. Some of the greatest recordings of that kind of music and that kind of drumming are by Mongo. So many people were influenced by those recordings, generations, they cross over into r&b, funk, jazz, all of that.

PERTOUT: How do you see players like Tata Güines in that respect?

SANTOS: Tata for me holds a special place as well, Tata to me is the beginning of the whole revolution of technique. To me it starts with Tata. It goes from Tata to Changuito and from Changuito to Giovanni. That's kind of the way I see that because Giovanni to me is the greatest of the new generation of conga drummers. Giovanni is the product of studying all those masters. And Giovanni was already playing incredibly at ten years of age!

PERTOUT: When do you think Giovanni started thinking about the rudimental material he has incorporated to the conga technique? Do you think he was already thinking about at ten years of age?

SANTOS: Oh most certainly. His dad is a great drummer from Puerto Rico ‘Mañengue’ and his dad started him with that, so he was already playing it. When I saw him play at the age of ten he was already doing a lot of that stuff.

PERTOUT: So in which way do you think Changuito helped him then?

SANTOS: Changuito has some specific things that he developed which you can apply to conga technique and in particular to the left hand for the right handed player. But see Tata had already started that technique with the left hand that to me is like the ultimate, the concept of the left hand, and Changuito took that concept and developed it further, then passed it to Giovanni. And Giovanni does it with both hands. Giovanni is completely ambidextrous.

PERTOUT: Where do you see Mongo in that equation?

SANTOS: Mongo to me is not so much coming from that. His legacy to me is not coming from the technique. Mongo was a hard hitting player with a beautiful sound. He came from an open hard hitting style, which is very important and very influential, but in terms of refining the technique to the modern sound, the modern concept, the way to play today, Tata is the one that I think is the starting point, the turning point for that.

PERTOUT: So how do you see new players such as Richie Flores, Anga and others, are they coming from the Changuito-Giovanni development?

SANTOS: I think so. I think is Tata first, because all of them have studied Tata. But it's a little tricky because is hard to place them in order because they all hold a very high place next to each other as opposed to one on top of the other. You know when it comes to those masters all those drummers you mentioned have of course studied all of them. The thing is in Cuba a lot of that new generation did not have any access to players like Armando, Francisco or Mongo they have Tata. Tata is the one. Over here though, we have Tata plus all these other masters. And Giovanni has studied all of them. See if you ask Giovanni he can imitate anyone of them, Candido, Patato, with their sound and their licks.

PERTOUT: Where do you see Candido there?

SANTOS: Candido is super important, he is another guy with great technique. Actually Candido you know in a lot of ways is the first one. Candido was in New York before the others arrived and he still here. That's something that is really important, he has done a lot of wonderful playing. He has also done a lot of pop and more commercial recordings, but there are certain recordings you can really hear Candido, the real root of what he plays, in particular you must know that record called Brujerias De Candido, that's one of my favourites.

PERTOUT: What about Patato?

SANTOS: Patato's legacy is with the tuning, but also his sound. When Patato was in his prime, he had an incredible sound, if you listen to the old recordings of him with Machito and with Los Cachimbos and his concept of playing rumba, as although he was not a strict type of rumbero like some of the other guys we know about, his concept of rumba like on that Patato Y Totico record is really, really advanced.

PERTOUT: I spoke with Victor Pantoja recently and he mentioned the fact that he was one of the first guys to incorporate four drums in the 1970s in San Francisco, do you recall that at all?

SANTOS: That's right, I saw him playing those drums with Azteca, and he sounded beautiful. I have not seeing him for a long time but I remember been very influenced by his melodic playing with Azteca. It was along the lines of Patato which is logical because Patato lived in Puerto Rico, he still has a home there and Victor who is from Puerto Rico use to see Patato a lot I think was influenced a lot by Patato the way he plays four drums. Victor's style and sound I think is similar to Patato.

PERTOUT: Is Victor a little younger? Different generation to Patato?

SANTOS: No, not totally, he is younger but not that much younger.

PERTOUT: Francisco on the other hand is coming from the bata tradition?

SANTOS: Most certainly. Francisco's main thing is the bata. Francisco is to me the most important one out of all of those guys in terms of the folklore.

PERTOUT: This takes me to the film Sworn To The Drum, I always wondered how is it that they were able to film Francisco in what looked like religious ceremonies?

SANTOS: I think that things are not exactly the way they were you know fifty years ago and sometimes you know allowances are made. And those occasions when they are playing are not just done for the film. Usually it is not possible to film, but it depends, who you ask, who is in charge.

PERTOUT: When I was in New York in 1994 I studied with Milton Cardona and he would say “oh the drums are here but I can't show you, they only come out for ceremonies,” and so on.

SANTOS: Oh yes and that's very real. There are still many people that feel that way and you know it is one of those things. Is like the whole thing of filming, cameras, is still a very modern thing in relation with the tradition of the drums and ceremonies. A lot of people hold on to those traditions and feel that it is not correct to film them and they won't allow you to film them. But some areas are loosening up. As times goes on that loosens up. Maybe if they had approached Francisco to film ten years before maybe it would not have been possible.

PERTOUT: In Sworn To The Drum Francisco is the leader of the bata ensemble playing the iya, is that his usual role?

SANTOS: Francisco is a master of bata and several other religious traditions. He really is the foremost of the folkloric drummers here in the United States. He has been here since the mid 1950s and so he is the first one to come that is that complete of a drummer. He taught a lot of people since then.

PERTOUT: Is his bata tradition Havana or Matanzas?

SANTOS: Matanzas which is different to the Havana style, although most of the drummers that play bata tradition are learning both areas. He has studied both but he is from Matanzas and that's mainly what he plays, plus is an old style Matanzero. It’s like everything is evolving and he plays from his era. Francisco also plays other drumming traditions like arara, abacua, iyesa, congo, all these things that he is a master of.

PERTOUT: In his iya playing does he improvise a lot? How open is that style in terms of improvisation?

SANTOS: Well it depends on the rhythm and also what you would call improvisation there is a degree of that but is not necessarily completely free. In other words there are certain things parameters and certain indications of the clave, certain things that they have to keep in mind while they are improvising. What appears to be improvisations often times are actual traditional phrases that are played at randomly or to reach or achieve a certain result like you might be trying to bring the presence of a certain deity in the ceremony. There is a lot of grey area in what is improvisation and what is not and you know again is part of the evolution of the tradition because a lot of the things that are played now that were not played twenty years ago are the result of improvisation and have became part of the style.

PERTOUT: In terms of conga drums what heads do you like?

SANTOS: You know I am kind of in a funny phase with that. I've always played cueros and been against the plastic but in the past couple of years I've been messing around with the plastic heads by Remo and I am starting to like them. I am enjoying it, I resisted it because I couldn't get a sound, and it took me a while. What finally convinced me is I would see players getting a beautiful sound out of the plastic and I started working with them again and I realised that you have to adjust. I am using the Remo Fiberskin III. You know I found that a lot of it has to do with playing lighter, playing softer, they have a lot of projection a lot of sound, if you approach it the same way as the cueros, you will end up overplaying it and pass the threshold where the sound is sweet.

PERTOUT: What do you think of the thicker heads that were around when Gon Bops were in vogue?

SANTOS: Well is up to the player, a lot of Cubans like the thick heads, Tata plays thick heads, so does Papin who plays super thick heads, it’s kind of interesting also because with someone like Papin he is a muscle player, he plays hard, but Tata is not that kind of player. I always thought that the muscle guys would use the thick heads like Raul too, he use to play this incredibly thick heads when he was playing with Malo, he plays hard, like reaching up from the sky, so I always thought if you were a more lighter player you would go into thin heads, that was my assumption by I am proved wrong by Tata. Tata plays the thick heads with this beautiful technique. Changuito also likes the heads kind of thick. I over the years have used thinner heads, Milton likes the thinner heads and he got me playing the thinner heads.

PERTOUT: And what drums do you like, fibreglass, wooden?

SANTOS: I don't really have a preference it depends on the situation. The fibreglass drums are louder, they tend to have a little more of an overtone ring, that's the thing about the plastic heads too they have a ring, that you really need to adjust to. You need to play more seco, more dry, have to hold your hands on the head more in order to control the ring. And you have to do that with the plastic heads as well as with the fibreglass drums. And so if you are playing in a real acoustic setting then I prefer the wooden drums. But if you are playing in a setting where is loud and you have to really project then I enjoy the fibreglass.

Telephone Interview. 18 May 2005.

© Alex Pertout. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without prior written permission from the author. This article forms part of the thesis ‘The Conga Drum: Development, Technique, Styles, Improvisations and the contribution of Master Drummer Ramon ‘Mongo’ Santamaria’ which was submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the degree of Master of Philosophy in Music [by Research] Faculty of Arts, Australian National University.

© Alex Pertout. All Rights Reserved.