What an incredible honor for me and my bandmates to receive this commission from the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival to compose several compositions for “The Art of the Descarga,” which will be premiered on Saturday afternoon, June 14th, 2014 in a free concert there at the beautiful Gardens in downtown San Francisco! HUGE thanks to Linda Lucero, Ray, Raul, Steve, Alice, and all the YBG Festival staff for making it possible and facilitating the fruition of this project which is very close to my heart. Linda is a long time Mission District and greater San Francisco Bay Area activist and supporter of the arts for whom I have tremendous respect. I owe her a great debt for the inspirational example she sets as well as for the myriad ways in which she has supported my own personal projects and development. Our friendship goes back to the ’70s and our working relationship has been ongoing since the mid ’80s. I cannot possibly thank her enough.
The Gardens are a magical place for me, as I have so many memories associated with the space and the neighborhood. I’ve seen a vast array of incredible concerts there, spent a lot of time with my kids and family enjoying the stellar family programming, and I’ve also had the pleasure of performing at the YBG Festival with a variety of groups over the years. I am a San Francisco native. Both my parents were also born here. My dad grew up in that same South of Market neighborhood and was an altar boy across the street from the Gardens at St. Patrick’s church. My paternal grandfather lived for many years a few blocks away from the Gardens on Freelon Alley, off of 4th Street. From the time I was born in 1955 until the late ’60s, I spent a great deal of time with him, walking the neighborhood countless times. He was my best friend. His funeral services were also held at St. Patrick’s. So it is a double honor for me to be presented by the Festival in that spot.
As for the commissioned compositions, I am sharing that honor with the outstanding members of my Sextet, Saul Sierra, Dr. John Calloway, Melecio Magdaluyo, Marco Diaz, and David Flores, all of whom are preparing original pieces for this world premiere on June 14th. It’s exciting because it is so rare to receive this kind of financial support specifically to write. We, like everyone else, get caught up in the worsening day-to-day struggle of making ends meet, getting pulled away from the joys of composing and from the creative process that pulled us into becoming musicians in the first place. So sadly, composing has just about become a luxury that we cannot afford to spend as much time on as in the past.
We are just beginning to rehearse the new compositions and it is a marvelous process to hear the first notes, chords and rhythms and feel the initial expression of the composer’s intentions as we, as respectfully as possible, attempt to honor the great tradition of the descarga, while adding a personal element that tastefully adds to the evolution and continuum of this grand art form. When I think of the historical role of the descarga, I think of the innovators like Bebo Valdés, Cachao, Tata Güines, Guillermo Barreto, Yeyito Iglesias, Orestes Lopez, Julio Gutierrez, Peruchín, Gustavo Tamayo, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Patato, Willie Bobo and so many more who elevated the role of the instrumental soloist in Latin Music, particularly among the percussionists, bringing us even closer to the jazz tradition. Then in 1960s New York, the genre was embraced by several record companies producing a slew of great descarga recordings by the Alegre All Stars, the Fania All Stars, the Tico All Stars, the Cesta All Stars, and the SAR All Stars. One of the founders and pioneers of the Fania All Stars, who were so instrumental in the birth of the NY Salsa movement of the ’60s and ’70s, is none other than Orestes Vilató who will be a special guest on some of the compositions of “The Art of the Descarga.” Percussionist extraordinaire, Javier Navarrette will also be a special guest. Can’t wait!!!
~ John Santos