John Santos & The John Santos Sextet in Santos — Skin to Skin (Photos: Searchlight Films)

★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Kathryn Golden
STARS John Santos, Aida Salazar

It would be absurd to expect a person whose surname translates to “saints” to always act accordingly, but if there’s one thing that the documentary Santos — Skin to Skin makes clear, it’s that Afro-Latin musician John Santos nevertheless does the moniker proud.

A “percussionist extraordinaire” (as tagged by a radio host) who’s been nominated for seven Grammy Awards over the course of his career, Santos is presented in a wholly positive light in director Kathryn Golden’s entertaining nonfiction feature. Yet there’s no indication that sordid and unseemly details have been squashed to build this portrayal (an unfortunate happenstance in less accomplished docs). On the contrary, one gets the impression that folks were jockeying for position in their attempts to appear before the camera to sing the man’s praises.

A San Francisco native with Puerto Rican roots, Santos explains how the Latin rock scene was born in his hometown. And not only had he come out of the same neighborhood where legendary Mexican-American guitarist Carlos Santana had grown up, his block was home to a veritable melting pot that doubtless informed his complete acceptance of different races and cultures. As he explains, “We had a gay couple, Filipinos, Cubans, Chinese next door, black Americans, one Caucasian family, Mexicans, indigenous American Indian … I mean, like the world was on that one little block.”

Santos charts his own musical origins and growth (“The drum called me. The sound of the drum called me. And then I got so pulled in.”) and touches upon his initial exposure to both Afro-Cuban and Afro-Caribbean sounds. His facility with understanding and combining various forms of music proved to be one of his greatest strengths — as more than one interviewee notes, he had the ability to bypass tensions between various ethnicities and connect disparate cultures through his music.

Santos’ numerous other contributions are noted — he’s an educator, an activist, and, as he proudly mentions, “one of only five resident artistic directors at the San Francisco Jazz Center” — but it always comes back to the music. Not surprisingly, it’s during the exhilarating musical numbers when the movie soars highest, as Santos is repeatedly shown performing with his peers in rehearsals or in actual concerts.

John Santos and Aida Salazar with their children

The only harrowing portion of the film arrives midway through, when focus shifts to when he and his wife, author and producer Aida Salazar, were expecting their first child. When the baby was born, it turned out she had not been receiving enough oxygen to her brain, and she passed away within the month. It was an excruciating period for the couple, but Salazar reveals that while she sank into her grief, Santos was “able to immediately transfer his grief into music.”

“You do crumble and lose it,” admits Santos, “but you can’t stay in that position.” His philosophical outlook — acknowledging the inexorable link between life and death as well as reflecting on the privilege of having known their daughter even for such a brief period — helped the couple survive the tragedy, as did the subsequent births of two other children (“They’ve allowed us to lift ourselves up,” says Salazar). Even today, with their two kids at their side, they continue to annually celebrate the birth and death of their daughter through what Santos calls “the spirit of the ocean,” gathering seaside to lay out flowers and fruit and partake in soothing songs.

This sense of a life-embracing attitude is what shines through Santos — Skin to Skin and further explains why so many of his friends and colleagues gravitate toward him. As musician and bandleader Eddie Palmieri confides, “John Santos lives in my heart and pays no rent.”

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