Since the 1970s, percussionist/bandleader/arranger/producer John Santos has been one of the San Francisco Bay Area's strongest proponents of salsa/Afro-Cuban music and Latin jazz (mainly Afro-Cuban jazz). The Bay Area, like most of California, has a large Hispanic population; millions of people of Mexican descent live in Northern California, where regional Mexican music (mariachi, ranchera, norteño, banda, tejano, duranguense, tierra caliente, grupero, sierreño) has been extremely popular for many years. But the Bay Area has also had a community of musicians who specialize in the Afro-Cuban/tropical realm of Latin music rather than the regional Mexican realm of Latin music — and Santos (not to be confused with alternative rock singer Johnny Santos of Spineshank and Basic Enigma fame) has long been a part of that community (which, over the years, has given us heavyweights like Latin jazz vibist Cal Tjader and percussionist Pete Escovedo, father of Sheila Escovedo, aka Sheila E.). The term "tropical" is used to describe the forms of Spanish-language Latin music (as opposed to Latin music from Brazil, where Portuguese is spoken) that have a major African influence, including Afro-Cuban salsa, Dominican meringue and bachata, Puerto Rican plena and bomba, and Colombian cumbia; Santos' approach has been heavily tropical, and the percussionist has long been interested in the relationship between drumming in Sub-Saharan Africa and African-influenced drumming in parts of Latin America. Santos plays a variety of Afro-Cuban percussion, and his influences have included, among others, Tito Puente, Ray Barretto, Mongo Santamaria, Chano Pozo (who is best remembered for his legendary collaborations with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie in the 1940s), and Candido Camero. Although most of Santos' Afro-Latin work has been of the Afro-Cuban variety, Santos has also experimented with some traditional Puerto Rican rhythms (including plena and bomba, both of which found their way to the New York City/Fania Records version of salsa even though the majority of rhythms heard in salsa originated in Cuba).
Born in San Francisco on November 1, 1955, Santos was in his late teens when he started to make his presence felt on the Bay Area's Afro-Cuban/salsa/Latin jazz scene. At 20, Santos became the director of la Orquesta Tipica Cienfuegos, staying with that band from 1976-1980. From 1981-1985, Santos directed Orquesta Batachanga — and after leaving that band in 1985, he founded the Latin jazz-oriented Machete Ensemble, which was still active in the late 2000s. Santos has led some other groups as well in the 21st century (including the John Santos Quintet), and he has recorded some CDs with El Coro Folklórico Kindembo (which has a very spiritual outlook and specializes in folkloric Afro-Cuban music, all of it heavily percussive). Santos has released many of his albums on his own independent label, Machete Records, which should not be confused with the Universal Music Group-affiliated Machete Music (a label that has recorded a lot of well-known reggaetón artists, including Daddy Yankee, Ivy Queen, La Factoría, and Don Omar). Santos turned 53 on November 1, 2008.