Santos – Skin to Skin Image

Writer/director Kathryn Golden’s feature documentary, Santos – Skin to Skin, opens a window into the life of percussionist and community activist John Santos. While he was raised in San Francisco, his family came from Puerto Rico, so he explores and expresses his deep connection to Latin culture through Afro-Caribbean Latin Jazz. This passion for Afro-Caribbean Latin Jazz musical tradition keeps the music alive and well for future generations.

The blend of influences in Afro-Caribbean Latin Jazz is the result of centuries of global migration, some of it involuntary. The music heavily focuses on rhythm and percussion and lyrically features folk songs of agrarian life under the Caribbean sun. The very fabric of the music calls back to a time when Afro-Caribbean people were enslaved. Santos brilliantly deploys these beats to raise awareness of issues around identity and injustice. The music is also an on-ramp to the politics of culture. An early Santos band was called The Machete Ensemble to honor machete-wielding sugar cane cutters in his ancestry.

Santos is a well-loved figure in San Francisco Latin culture and is widely respected by Latin Jazz writers, teachers, and historians, who speak of his work in talking-head interviews. He is currently on the Jazz School Institute at Berkeley and the College of San Mateo faculty. Santos teaches percussion and the cultural history behind the rhythms, as well as being active in protests for housing rights. Interviews with his wife lead to their personal stories of the highs and lows of a relationship, dealing with tragedy, and raising a family.

“…[Santos] explores and expresses his deep connection to Latin culture through Afro-Caribbean Latin Jazz.”

Santos – Skin to Skin takes an honored place beside other documentaries of Afro-Caribbean life and music, such as Buena Vista Social Club and The Mali-Cuba Connection. The music of Latin Jazz has been thrilling North American listeners for a long time. In pop music, Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66 brought Brazilian Jazz to the pop charts with songs like Mas Que Nada.

Music documentaries reward the viewer with learnings about the experiences of people and places but also delight with the soundtrack. Even if you don’t find the story of John Santos compelling (unlikely), you can just turn the volume up and luxuriate in the music. Latin Jazz, like the film, can be enjoyed on many levels. The lyrics largely come from folk songs speaking of hard times and the oppression of slavery and poverty. But, despite all the darkness, the music is transcendent and hypnotic and always filled with the joy of life. The listener can choose just to float away, losing themselves in the rhythm.

In Santos – Skin to Skin, Golden weaves Santos’ colorful life story around Afro-Caribbean music to engaging effect. She includes concert performances from Santos, his band, and an assortment of Latin Jazz stars from around the world. Now, get up and move to that undeniable pulse.

For more information, visit the Santos – Skin to Skin official website.

Santos - Skin to Skin (2022)

Directed and Written: Kathryn Golden

Starring: John Santos, Eddie Palmieri, John Calloway, etc.

Movie score: 8/10

Santos - Skin to Skin Image

"…the music is transcendent and hypnotic..."

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