Percussionist John Santos is one of the main exponents of the San Francisco Bay area’s Afro-Latin jazz scene. Born into a Cape Verdean–Puerto Rican family of musicians, at age thirteen Santos played the congas in his step-grandfather’s Latino tropical band. In the 1970s he plunged into the study of Afro-Cuban music and eventually led the Orquesta Típica Cienfuegos (1976–80), the award-winning Batachanga Orchestra (1981–85), and the Machete Ensemble (1985–2006). Known for his experimental blend of contemporary and traditional musical forms from the African diaspora, Santos is also widely respected as a composer, producer, and teacher.
Photographer Frank Espada and Santos met in the mid-1980s and became close friends. This portrait became part of Espada’s Puerto Rican Diaspora Documentary Project, an effort he began the 1960s; by the 1980s it had blossomed into a touring exhibition and a book.