Grammy-nominated percussionist, VCU Jazz Studies program “Salsa for Change”

Seven-time Grammy-nominated percussionist John Santos is spending three days at VCU. Photo courtesy of John Santos.
Seven-time Grammy-nominated percussionist John Santos is spending three days at VCU. Photo courtesy of John Santos.
Seven-time Grammy-nominated percussionist John Santos is spending three days at VCU. Photo courtesy of John Santos.
Seven-time Grammy-nominated percussionist John Santos is spending three days at VCU. Photo courtesy of John Santos.

The VCU Department of Music’s Jazz Studies program and VCUarts is hosting Grammy-nominated percussionist John Santos for a three day artist residency from March 19-21.

Santos’s residency, titled “Salsa for Social Change,” will focus on his expansive knowledge of Afro-Latin music, Salsa and how Latin jazz can be a gateway to understanding systems of racial oppression and disenfranchisement.

“Music is the international language,” said Director of the Jazz Studies program Antonio García. “It doesn’t take the understanding of a spoken word to appreciate great music.”

On Sunday, VCU jazz students had the opportunity to meet with Santos. Today, “Salsa for Social Change,” will feature an open lecture from 12-1:20 p.m. and two percussionist workshops open to students regardless of major.

Tomorrow evening the Jazz Studies program is hosting a concert in the Vlahcevic Concert Hall at VCU’s W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts.

Santos normally features small group charts with combo, but at Tuesday evening’s concert the VCU Jazz Orchestra II will perform with Santos on big band charts arranged by four VCU alumni and based on Santos’s existing combo charts. Three vocalists, two from VCU, will also perform at Tuesday’s concert.

“These big band versions will continue to live not only in VCU’s library but with John Santos as he continues to tour,” García said. “This will be another opportunity, and I believe part of our mission, for Santos to expand his outreach.”

García and Santos performed together around 20 years ago for an all-star, high school regional Latin jazz group in Chicago. García said he remembers being extremely impressed by Santos, who had already started to develop a name for himself.

“He had already formalized presentations on issues of Hispanics in America and had music and material which appropriately representing these issues,” García said. “It was chance intersection 20 years ago, and then after looking into him I realized he was already focusing on issues I wanted to discuss.”

García said the opportunity to bring Santos to VCU emerged when he applied for a grant through the VCUarts Inclusion Infusion Initiative.

The grant is designed to focus on issues such as oppression, diversity and representation through the arts. García said he finds music is the most accessible form of understanding cultures and creating avenues for discussion on topics of oppression and inclusion.

Since the 1980’s, Santos has explored and expanded on the traditions of Afro-Latin music. García said the fast-paced percussion rhythms of Santos’s pieces, as well as the inclusion of vocals, makes Afro-Latin jazz more appealing and accessible.

Afro-Latin music acknowledges, studies and embraces the strong historical intersection of the African, indigenous and Spanish cultures which have created what identify as Hispanic and Latin cultures today.

García said Santos’s celebration of these elements create a lively, hypnotizing experience where listeners are fully immersed in music and history — something García said he thinks the VCU and Richmond communities benefit from.

“For many people music is something they can appreciate and be a doorway of understanding someone is that different than them,” García said. “When tragedy occurs, music is what people turn to — whether privately in their own collection or collectively in large gatherings.”

García grew up with a Puerto Rican father and a mother from Iowa and said he was rarely exposed to Spanish language or culture until he studied Latin jazz. He said music served as a way for him to understand his own culture and he said he hopes “Salsa for Social Change” will do the same for others.

“Richmond has more art per square inch than any town its size, including my own home town,” García said.

García trained in his hometown of New Orleans. He later moved to Chicago, where he taught for 14 years, before moving to Richmond to teach at VCU in 2001.

“The VCU artists are motivated to understand culture to better understand the art — it’s related to oppression of an race, gender or culture or religious belief,” García said. “I use this quote carefully, ‘the only positive thing that comes out of oppression in any case is the art of oppressed.’”


Siona Peterous. Photo by Julie TrippSiona Peterous
Siona is a senior majoring in political science with a concentration in international relations and a double minor in media studies and Arabic and Middle Eastern studies. She is heavily influenced by her family’s immigrant background and often writes about the intersection of politics with identity. Siona is an advocate for grassroots activism and political movements, and her dream job involves multimedia-based investigative journalism. She has a plethora of life goals but is only focusing on two right now: learning as many languages as possible and perfecting her Instagram aesthetic. [email protected]

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