Conga lion 

It’s Saturday afternoon and thunder is closing in. Sleep surrenders to something bigger than this ridiculously sized hangover. A horrific beat-pound double-tracks the alcohol-induced drum loop that’s already revolving in my skull. But the cadenced racket isn’t coming from the outside; it’s coming up through the floorboards. Someone downstairs is generating a raging squall.

In these dizzy waning minutes of slumber, disturbing visions come to mind: Ringo wielding machine guns and screeching in tongues; Tommy Lee stalking children in Bowie platforms; Keith Moon shouting instructions to leap from the bed and wreak havoc.

I listen to Moonie.

People who let their aural hallucinations bully them have been known to drive sharpened drumsticks through the hearts of their neighbors. Or crank through their stereos the loudest pile of rockist bombast imaginable.

I do the latter. I put on the Wildhearts’ “My Baby is a Headfuck,” a big salty slice of guitar-pushed testosterone. It goes up loud. Things vibrate.

The perp downstairs counters with a bigger rumpus. I hear rapid-fire blows to conga drums and sharp, percussive tones from something that sounds like a cowbell. The floor vibrates, tickles the bottoms of my feet. The Wildhearts go up to 110 decibels. This is crazy loud, a mess of nonsense in all directions.

The noise below stops.

Not a minute later there’s a pounding at my door.

The cops? A soon-to-be-impaled neighbor, perhaps? I swing the door open.

Standing there in a discernible aura of rankle and furrowed brow is a big African-American guy. His hands are clinched and he has large fists. Instincts say a punch is forthcoming. I brace. No punch comes.

The guy breaks the silence. “It sounds like you’re gonna come through the ceiling, man!” he half-barks, feigning politeness. “Is everything OK up here?”


Turns out this slumber-killing annoyance from below is Juma Santos, a guy who played percussion and congas on what many consider to be one of the most influential records in history, Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, a disc that changed perceptions of jazz. Santos earned a gold record for that one.

Here’s a guy considered to be in the pantheon of originators when it comes to bringing African sensibilities of rhythm and sounds into post-modern pop. He is considered an expert in the drumming traditions of Ghana, Nigeria, Cuba and Haiti. Down Beat magazine called Santos “an innovator.”

This guy from downstairs has played with everyone, both on tour and record. From Babatunde Olatunji to Tito Puente and Trini Lopez, from the Four Tops to Freddie Hubbard. He’s done tours of Africa and the world with Taj Mahal and others. He has studied in Africa and Cuba. It’s good to meet him. He’s an easy cat to hang out with.

Santos is also an educator. A teacher “by choice,” he says, and refers to himself as an “Afro-Caribbean, Latin-jazz music expert and world musician.” For 35 years Santos has managed to earn a living playing music.

“I’ve worked in public schools in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Been an artist in residence here and there.”

He pauses, and shakes his head. “I’m still a broke-ass musician, man. I’ll always be a broke-ass musician.”

A good portion of Santos’ living is made in the public schools, bringing the instruments and sounds of Africa to children and adults. Santos has as many distractions as he has drum skins. A day in the life often sees multiple gigs and lectures. His only steady paycheck comes from Nsoroma Institute Public School Academy, where Santos is an artist-in-residence.

School system budget cuts are recurring themes in conversation with Santos. The first hit are the music/art departments.

“The budget cuts are slicing me,” Santos says after borrowing five bucks to put gas in his tank. “It’s getting harder and harder to pay the musicians.

“It’s a real drag, I mean a d-r-a-g drag, because there isn’t real diversity in terms of distribution of funds for the arts here. I see really talented kids leaving Detroit for New York because the funding is not here. Even the intellectual attitude toward the arts in general is not here.”

Still, from the outside, one could venture that Santos is simply working a hustle, parading as a kind musical vicar/do-gooder for what would appear to be an easy paycheck in music.

“Listen,” he says, “I could be doing so much better financially if I was in LA, so much better in New York City. It is very rewarding for me to share what I have with the kids. I don’t know how I’m gonna pay my July rent. But it’s about education. It’s about making kids understand that they can play music too, that they can make a living as an artist, that it isn’t separated from things like family and home.”

In 1998, the Massachusetts-born skinsman relocated to Ann Arbor from New York City on a independent fellowship grant. Now he lives in a loft in downtown Detroit.

His father was a sax-playing auto mechanic. His mother made bomb detonators during the Vietnam War. He has three adult children of his own and is surrogate father to six others. One, 13-year-old Frederick, has leukemia. Santos tells me the boy just had a bone-marrow transplant.

Though Santos never graduated high school, he has an honorary Ph.D. in performance education from the International Institute of African and African American Studies. He has a master’s degree in African studies from UCLA. He’s taught drumming in prisons, bars, retirement homes and elementary schools. He’s lectured at Yale and taught for the San Francisco Unified School District. He brought jazz to impoverished schools in the Bronx. The drummer is also an accomplished painter and photographer.

Santos’ conga playing has a studied purity that doesn’t co-opt multiculturalism and pass it off as a kind of world music, Mickey Hart-style. This authenticity, he says, is born of study, years spent around the world.

Prior to a performance at northwest Detroit’s Harding Elementary School, Santos’ mood swings from good-natured tutor to drill sergeant. He nearly comes undone with his six-person crew. His band — the African and Caribbean Dance Ensemble — is, it seems, underrehearsed.

“This is a performance,” Santos snaps, his warm timbre lifting. “I take this very seriously … I can’t write you out a check and keep going through this.”

When the small auditorium fills, the African rhythms create a metrical pocket that shoots from the stage and simply attaches itself to the kids. The 150 or so react with a wide-eyed cheerfulness. They gyrate in their seats; faces beam, hands go into the air, heads rotate; some can barely contain themselves. The only melody coming off the stage is from an alto sax (Motown vet Phil Lasley). Once the musicians step out into the audience the music becomes interactive. The children form a Pied Piper-esque line and follow the musicians around the room.

“I call this ‘edutainment,’” Santos says later. “Bringing children into the reality of music and showing them how it affects every aspect of their lives. How music is the magic carpet.”

Later in the day, Santos and a slimmed-down version of his ensemble are performing for New Detroit’s May Immersion session at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. As Santos mans the congas, his rapport with the audience is rife with witty banter. Next to him is Mbulwa, a percussionist who recently relocated from Kenya, and Craig Huckaby, a charismatic front man playing a shekere (a gourd covered with woven, beaded webbing) and gankoqui double bells.

What’s astonishing is how the trio manages to get the 60 or so in the mostly middle-aged crowd — all of whom seem drowsy after polishing off a substantial lunch of African fare — on their feet. And this is in the sterile, fluorescent confines of a conference room. The crowd is not only standing up, but actively participating. It goes beyond simple movement and dance; the bunch is moved by this mélange of Cuban and traditional African chants and songs. The tunes become a musical lesson in African history, in communication through storytelling, spirit and song.

“In Detroit I’m running on spiritual vibration,” laughs Santos. “The kids are the answer to the future. Fuck the academics, it’s the children that matter.”

Brian Smith is Metro Times’ music editor. E-mail him at

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