John Santos Photo: John Ehrlich
John Santos: playing Berkeley’s Casa de Cultura on Saturday. Photo: John Ehrlich

Complete artistic freedom often comes with a cost. For Oakland percussion maestro John Santos, the price of running his own musical realm to pursue a sweeping pan-Caribbean musical vision means accepting the financial burden of producing and distributing his own recordings. On Saturday, Santos celebrates the 30th anniversary of his label Machete Records at Berkeley’s Casa de Cultura at 8 p.m. Saturday with a concert benefiting the venue and its parent Brazilian arts non-profit BrasArte.

His primary creative outlet since disbanding the celebrated Machete Ensemble in 2006, Santos’s sextet features a stellar cast of musicians, including veteran saxophonist Melecio Magdaluyo, arranger/composer Dr. John Calloway on flute, piano and percussion, bassist Saul Sierra, drummer David Flores, and Marco Diaz on piano and trumpet. The event is made possible by support from the Zellerbach Family Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlit Foundation.

“Casa de Cultura is a wonderful place that we’re strongly connected to,” Santos says. “Our kids take classes there, and I’ve known Conceição Damasceno,” the founder of BrasArte, “since she arrived here. We got some funding to pay the musicians, so all the proceeds from the concert go to Casa de Cultura.”

One of the highest profile Latino musicians in the Bay Area, Santos is an educator, Grammy-nominated bandleader, and prolific recording artist who was tapped as a Resident Artist Director by SFJAZZ during the new center’s first two seasons. But he long ago decided to take matters into his own hands when it comes to documenting and disseminating the his music, which ranges from cutting edge Latin jazz and searing salsa to folkloric Afro-Caribbean chants and Puerto Rican bomba and plena.

“It’s part of the status quo around here that you create your own events,” says Santos, whose 60th birthday in November is being marked by SFJAZZ with a retrospective concert. “Going through Machete CDs I store in my garage it dawned on me that it’s been 30 years since the first record. On the one hand, it’s terrible that we haven’t been able to get backing or make it successful from a business view, but it’s great to produce recordings with no one telling you what to do. It’s our music, our compositions and arrangements, featuring all kinds of artists.”

Santos has made a point of grabbing traveling musicians from New York City, Cuba, Puerto Rico and beyond when they come through the Bay Area to record with his cast of resident collaborators. The albums he’s released on Machete feature a dazzling cross section of Latino and Latin American talent, from rising stars like Cuban pianist Elio Villafranca and Berkeley High flutist/vocalist Elena Pinderhughes to bona fide legends like Cachao, Francisco Aguabella, and Chocolate Armenteros. The latest Machete release, Siempre Clásico, features the great Cuban balladeer Ernesto Oviedo with Santos and his sextet.

In keeping with Machete’s more-the-merrier sensibility, Santos has invited a bevy of special guests to join the party at Casa de Cultura, including violinist Anthony Blea, vocalist Orlando Torriente, and Cuban-born timbales legend Orestes Vilató, who played a central role in the creation of New York salsa in the 1960s and 70s through his work with Ray Barretto, Típica 73, Los Kimbos, and the Fania All-Stars before moving to the Bay Area and helping found the Machete Ensemble.

“We’re going to feature Orestes prominently,” Santos says. “He’s a big part of what we’ve done, from that very first record.”

Always looking for new ways to present music, Santos has developed a concept billed as Unusual Standards featuring vocalists steeped in either the Latin American or American Songbook (and sometimes both, like Jackie Ryan). Introduced during his tenure as an SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director, he next presents the program at the Stanford Jazz Festival on Aug. 1 with powerhouse Oakland blues singer Terrie Odabi and LA-based soul singer Destani Wolf, who graduated from Berkeley High in 1994.

“I’m constantly trying to cook up angles and themes, trying to be creative and attract other artists to collaborate with,” Santos says. “We love to mix it up genre-wise, to show a wide range of what we consider Latin jazz, which can mean Cuban standards with a jazz perspective for jazz standards with a little or a lot of Latin influence. We’ve included some wonderful vocalists that we love via Unusual Standards. It opens up the palette for us, makes it more interesting.”

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Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....