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John Santos Finds His Groove

By Published: May 13, 2003
AAJ: Getting back to Omar Sosa for a moment, you and he have a new duo album out. How did that come together?

JS: Well, starting with the group itself, Omar lived in Oakland for a few years; it was about six years ago when he moved here. And when he got here, he really did a lot to make people take notice, he's such a special player. He did a lot of collaborating with different artists, and just by chance he and I ended up on the same gig one day'we were both subbing for somebody else. But we enjoyed each other's playing, and then we both had the idea at the same time that we should get together and play, just the two of us. I had never done that before, playing in a duo, and he hadn't either. But for some reason we both felt that it could work, so we got together and soon we had booked our first gig. We had a great time, and we wound up doing that for about three years. We did a live album at La Pe'a Cultural Center at that time, and we also did a lot of touring: in Europe, and the Virgin Islands, and up the East Coast.

Now this second album, the one that just came out, that's been a work in progress for the past four years. Instead of doing a live album, we wanted to do one in the studio. So we did it piece by piece. I didn't have a label, so we got into the studios when we could. We used a couple of guest artists, some people visiting from Cuba, and Maria M'rquez, a wonderful artist who lives in the Bay Area. But we put it together little by little. Then finally, after trying to shop it around and waiting for a deal, I couldn't wait any more. So I released it myself at the same time as the Machete record.

AAJ: So what's that vibe like, with only two people?

JS: It's great. It's like being in a big lake, where you can swim in any direction you want, any way you want: on your back, or you can go under the water. You can do anything. It's much more free than playing with a large group. When you're one of ten people, you have a role to play. And that has its own beauty, but also its own restrictions. In the duo, there's no rules, there's nothing. It's like running out there naked. It's a blast, especially if you're with someone who you trust and feel comfortable with. We're just constantly jumping off the cliff, knowing that the other person will be there to catch us.

It's really an unusual situation for me as a percussionist, especially as a Latin percussionist, because the vast majority of the time we're called upon to keep time and to accompany other soloists, or play time for the dancers. To be able to play this way, especially with Omar, since he's a drummer first of all'he studied percussion before he became a pianist'it's like playing with another drummer. He's very rhythmically sure of himself, and we share a background in the same traditions. We've both studied Afro-Cuban ritual music a great deal, so that's like our safety net. And we're both really into experimenting and using different sounds. So it's something I look forward to every time.

AAJ: One more question'what's in your CD player right now?

JS: Ella Fitzgerald, Love Songs: Best of the Verve Songbooks.

AAJ: Cool. Very cool.

Photo Credit: Martin Cohen

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