Communicating through Music and the Power of Drums with John Santos
By Lateisha Howe
Marching to the beat of his own drum is something John Santos does well, as I sit down with the seven time Grammy nominated Afro Latin music artist as he takes us on a journey through time to discuss the deeper meaning behind the drums and his documentary Skin to Skin.
Drums are more than just an instrument; they are a way to communicate messages between people “The drums were used to communicate and the drums in Africa are used because the sound of certain drums travels long distances. They can use coded language to coordinate uprisings,” Santos says.
Starting at the age of 12, John Santos became one with the drum, but it probably happened before that, growing up around his grandfather’s band. Since then, Santos has gone on to become a five time grammy nominated percussionist and an international artist in Afro Latin music.
“The African drum was not allowed during the entire period of colonialism and slavery. One of the old colonies, I don’t know if it was South Carolina, but one of the old colonies there was an uprising by enslaved peoples that was organized around a drum, a mortar. A mortar, it’s a wooden implement that’s shaped like an hourglass. It’s basically carved out of a piece of wood, like a bowl, they pound the grain in. Now If you put a skin over the top of it, that’s a djembe drum, so that’s what these slaves did. They took a mortar and they put a skin over it. And they used it as a drum to communicate and coordinate an uprising, where several colonists were killed. And so at that point the colonialists outlawed the drum permanently in the United States.”
In the modern day age, while we may not be communicating uprisings by taking a mortar, art is political. “Our art is born out of our political reality. Our political history is what gave birth to our art. So it’s political. we cannot de-politicize it. It’s political,” Santos said.
Santo’s family hails from Puerto Rico, a country that has been under colonial rule from the Spanish to the United States. “Puerto Rico is a country. I mean, I have to emphasize that the colonial status of Puerto Rico, is the United States perspective on it. The majority of Puerto Ricans are divided, but that’s the insidious nature of colonialism. So that doesn’t mean that it’s not a country anymore, because the United States says, well, you’re ours ‘Now you are our colony’. It’s just unfathomable what’s being done in Puerto Rico.They’re trying to privatize beaches, they’re closing schools and selling the schools to corporations,” Santos said.
Through the film we learn that Santo’s great grandparents migrated to Hawaii. “They were brought to Hawaii by US companies for sugar plantations. They scooped up people who had experienced cutting cane in Puerto Rico, including my great grandparents. They became indentured servants, because they were made to sign contracts that they did not understand. They were not bilingual, they didn’t read English,” Santos said.
“Our grandparents, our ancestors, sacrificed so much so that their children would have it better than they had. And they were successful in doing that, they worked really hard. But part of what they had to do, a lot of them came here, and were forced to conform to assimilate, the colonial frame of mind that, okay, we’re gonna let you in, we’re gonna let you be part of this community, but you gotta let go of your language, your sacred traditions, your music, your cultural stuff, all that stuff, gotta let it go. You got to talk like us, you got to adopt our religion, you got to come into our system,” Santos continued.
Through art we can connect to the roots of our ancestors, however art education has been steadily declining in the U.S. for quite some time now due to budget cuts. “The arts being extracted out of school has done our community a great disservice. Children are born with creativity. They learn how to see before they learn how to talk, they learn how to dance, move. As soon as they can walk, they’re off moving, they’re dancing. The arts are crucial to development. If the arts are not in your school, then you ain’t gonna learn you’re not going to nurture that creative side, that ability to think outside of the box. Those are all connected to the movement of knowing who we are, and claiming it and documenting it and celebrating it and expressing through the arts,” Santos said
“Everything that you’re exposed to, it’s to make money off you. It’s not to celebrate who you are, or to tell you the truth about your own history. It’s to make money off you, whether it’s healthcare, education, housing, food, all this stuff that should not be for profit industries, they are. And that’s all something again through the arts. It’s the arts that illuminate this stuff for our communities and always has been. The way we educate our children is through the arts,” Santos said.
The way the drum had been outlawed in the US during colonial times, it can be likened to the repression of arts in the public school system. “The power that that drum has, that even though there was a very concerted attempt to eliminate the drum, the drums were not allowed. But the drum, they could not repress it. The spirit of a drum, took root like a phoenix out of the ashes, rises up. The power and the history that it contains, cannot be contained.” Santos said.
John Santo’s film, “Skin to Skin” was at the 2022 Mill Valley Film Festival. While John Santos music can be found on streaming services such as Spotify, it’s still best to support your local artist in ways that give the money directly to them. “All my stuff could play on Spotify, I don’t see a penny, oh my gosh. So what I want to make sure people understand that, if they want to support the artists, go to a live concert, buy the CDs, buy the merchandise directly from the artist, or if you can order right from the artist’s website, then you’re supporting the artists,” Santos said.