In a few beats, Santero can evoke the flatbed truck sonidero DJs of his native Guatemalan mountain village, his father’s cumbia band, and the memories of multiple family deportations. His rhymes are informed by running away from home at thirteen, rough times on the Bronx streets, and the neo-Nazi firebombing in New Orleans that nearly cost him his life (and did take his vinyl collection).
Yet on El Hijo de Obatala (Siete Potencias Trading Co. Distributed by City Hall Records; May 19, 2009), the DJ, MC, and Lukumí (Santería) spirit walker summons the Orishas, or spirits, and deepens hardcore hip-hop and reggaeton street cred, into the world of violin-loving river spirits, the great mother who protects and yet rules death, and the light-filled divine father of humanity.
Meeting the spirits wasn’t easy. Santero was rooted in family traditions, including mesa blanca, a hybrid form of spiritualism passed down through his mother’s line that blends Catholicism, indigenous, and African elements. He had learned from Rastafarians in New York, from sitting in on classes with friends who were both punks and divinity students, from living in a book-filled church basement thanks to a kindly Maryland deacon. He took cues from Buddhist and Hindu teachings.
But it wasn’t until he joined a class led by a dancer from the Ballet Folklórico Nacional de Cuba that Santero began to have close encounters of the Orisha kind. “During class, I started manifesting spirits. I would get the shakes and regain consciousness three or four hours later. During that time an array of spirits would have come through my body. They speak and heal. It started getting really out of hand,” Santero recalls. “I’d be sitting at dinner somewhere and someone’s grandparents would manifest. When something like that starts happening to you, it makes you question your whole reality, your sanity. I started looking for answers.”
The answers—or “at least the right questions”—came in Havana, Cuba, where Santero initially went for more dance training. There, he began to meet spiritual elders who gave him insight into his troubling experiences and a new vocabulary for grasping what from Haiti to Brazil to Cuba is a completely normal occurrence: someone being taken by spirits or ancestors. He was initiated as a Lukumí priest and has never looked back.
This new vision, as well as the songs and rhythms of Lukumí, was transformed by Santero’s hard-hitting love of rap, funk, cumbia, and Brazilian batucada to become El Hijo de Obatala. “All the tracks are transposed traditional batá drumming,” Santero explains. “The way we speak with our ancestors, the way we call them down, is dance and song, but mostly through rhythm and batá drums. We turned it into kick drums and snares and high hats.” Santero called on Grammy-nominated producer Greg Landau (Patato Valdes, Susana Baca, Maldita Vecindad, Quetzal) and legendary One Drop Scott (E-40, Scarface, Mac Dre, Luniz) to mix rhythmic tradition with urban beats, using the code of the ancestors on the youth of today.
Long before Santero got into the groove of the spirits, he learned the power of the big beat. As a kid in small-town Guatemala, he had his first brush with sonidero DJs, homemade mobile sound systems mounted on flatbed trucks that were the heart of every village festival, along with hand-cranked carousels and hard partying. "They changed my life. They saved my life,” Santero recalls. “They showed me there was something other than military service or going to the U.S. to clean people’s toilets. Me, just a street kid, I could aspire to something without an education, without resources. When you are a six or seven year old kid and you hear James Brown or Bob Marley pumping out of speakers, you have no idea what they are saying, but they change you forever.”
Like the sonideros, Santero’s childhood was spent traveling around Central America, sometimes with his father’s touring cumbia or salsa bands, sometimes fleeing the violence and natural disasters that wracked the region. From Guatemala to El Salvador and back, and finally to the U.S., Santero’s family faced several harrowing border crossings as they made their way north from Mexico, as well as multiple miserable deportations.
Once in the U.S., life remained difficult. The family rarely stayed put for long, and struggled to make a living in rough neighborhoods from the Bronx to New Orleans. But music continued to bring both pride and hope to an otherwise grim situation. “I remember when we got a TV for the first time and my dad was playing salsa on a Univision show showcasing new artists,” Santero recounts. “I was sitting with my brother and cousins, this huge family, sitting in front of this tiny TV in this tiny apartment. That changed everything. I was so proud of his accomplishment. He came from a dirt-poor family in Central America, and through his music he was able to fulfill one of his dreams. ‘OK,’ I thought, ‘I can do this, too.’”
An incredibly independent teenager, Santero spent more time DJing late at night for local radio and playing gigs with impromptu punk, funk, and reggae groups than in school. During his years in racially fraught New Orleans, he helped put out a paper called The Red Army and basically “refused to keep my mouth shut,” even when his views condemning segregation and David Duke-style politics got him on the KKK’s black list. When one of many neo-Nazi attacks destroyed his home, a VW minibus, and his record collection, he hopped a Greyhound, and eventually made a new start in Oakland, with a new vision for his music.
“My ideal goal is to expose people to the Lukumí tradition in a non-judgmental way. Especially young Latinos. The traditional isn’t as strong and I just want to make sure there is a whole new generation exposed to it. I was exposed through traditional dance. But there’s never really been something that speaks to my generation with the kind of music they love, the big urban beats,” Santero says.
El Hijo de Obatala opens like all ceremonies or major undertakings with “Abre Camino,” a dance floor-friendly prayer to Eshu who opens the path and watches the crossroads, and moves on to hard-hitting praise of the Orishas from the great father of all, Obatala (“Baba Ade”) and the thunderous creating and destroying mother (“Madre de 9”), to Ogun (“Machete”) and Ochosi, the iron spirit of warfare and industry and the warrior spirit of justice.
Santero feels the need for the energy of spirits like Ochosi in the police shootings and tensions that dominate his Oakland community, and for the message spoken by the darker aspect of the female ocean spirit Yemaya, the sea devastated by pollution and neglect. “In ‘Agua del Mar’ I ask, at what point do we drop so much filth into the ocean that she cannot deal with us,” Santero reflects. “I ask what happens to the fountain that we turn to, to cleanse ourselves, when we find it is so dirty it can’t cleanse anymore.”
Tracks like “Agua del Rio” capture the lush beauty and unexpected hybrids found in Santería traditions. When addressing the sensual patron spirit of Cuba, Ochun, you’re as likely to hear violins as drums. “Sometimes during ceremonies with homage to Ochun, the drumming will stop, and some cats will pull out their classical strings,” Santero smiles. “Whatever it takes to get the spirit to respond and be present, to manifest.”
“Everybody in the community has a role. Some prepare food. Some are diviners who use shells to read your energy and destiny. Some play drums. My role has always been channeling Orisha energy. Either making music for them or manifesting them through me. I’m a spirit walker. That’s my role.”