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April 2009

John Santos y El Coro Folklórico Kindembo
La Guerra No
Machete
John Santos Quintet
Perspectiva Fragmentada
Machete

Bay Area percussionist and ex-Machete leader John Santos doesn’t just beat on things and call it a day. He’s spent a goodly amount of time considering the cultural, historical, spiritual and, of course, musical origins of Latin jazz, honoring its creators and traditions and linking the then to the now. The simultaneously released La Guerra No and Perspectiva Fragmentada take that examination to opposite extremes, each paying tribute in its own way to the communal experiences that birthed Afro-Caribbean music.

La Guerra No, credited to John Santos y El Coro Folklórico Kindembo, is largely a stark work built atop massed vocals (the coro) and Santos’ overlaid Caribbean polyrhythms. Lead vocals and the occasional stringed instrument and reed find their way into the mix, but this is primarily primal: a drum-and-voice-driven recording that owes as much, if not more, to Africa as to the islands. There are breakaway tracks though: Santos’ “Ella No Quiere” is one of the more adventurous, a guaguancó that rises from an opening melody that’s a ringer for the old “Red River Valley,” allowing in trombone and soprano saxophone, all of its voices, horns and beats ultimately vying, albeit cooperatively, for attention. And the teeming “El Tamalero” is a traditional bata rumba that features three lead vocalists (including Santos) and a swift tres solo. Santos is, throughout, the anchor, utilizing several percussion instruments: claves, cajón, cowbell, tumbadoras, djembe, chekeré, etc.

Santos also supplies the percussive backbone of Perspectiva Fragmentada, though here he takes a decidedly more contemporary route. With his basic quintet—piano, flute, bass and a warehouse of percussion—augmented by an array of lead and coro vocalists and all manner of horns, stringed instruments and more percussion, Santos, as the album title implies, is all about suggesting perspectives here. “No Te Hundes” is a funky bomba with an NYC Puerto Rican vibe. Jerry Medina’s elevating lead vocal scales a solid wall of drum-struck clangor, and the clashing interplay of piano, saxophone, trumpet, bass, voice and various other bangables makes for a wild ride. “Chiquita”’s high-note piano tinkling and worldly violin suggest what might have been had Cuba floated away to classical-era Europe. But it’s the bluesy, Katrina-inspired “Not in Our Name” that uplifts highest. Its melancholy melody relies on counterpoint flute and tenor saxophone, hand drums, timbales and bells to state its simple and elegant message. Inviting and soulful, it nonetheless exudes loneliness and sadness.

Originally published in April 2009
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