Iyoel Santiago: Drummer in Three Genres

The list of musicians who come from musical families is long, even within our own Baltimore jazz community. Another local musician who arose from a musical family and has been gaining visibility on the Baltimore jazz scene is drummer, percussionist, guitarist and singer Iyoel (EE-YOH-EL) Santiago. His Concord Jazz Project is featured in this issue of the BJA newsletter. Besides jazz, he is also active in Latin music and reggae.

The Santiago home was awash in music of many genres. His dad, Carlos, pastor and music director at an evangelical church in Adelphi, recorded two albums of contemporary Christian music in Spanish. Latin music from both parents’ home countries (Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic) filled the home. Iyoel Santiago’s first instrument was the bongos, and at age twelve, while on a family trip to Puerto Rico, he met and played with Willie Colón, a prominent Nyuorican salsa musician. Colón made a recording to teach Santiago some basic Latin rhythms. And now Santiago performs regularly with the Alfredo Mojica salsa ensemble at Bossa Bistro in DC. He is currently forming a new Latin ensemble to play salsa and bachata in Baltimore.

Then there was reggae, courtesy of his brother’s Bob Marley CD collection. Santiago discovered Rastafarianism during his mid-twenties, when he was wandering in a spiritual no man’s land and living through a musical hiatus. That philosophical terrain led him to begin playing guitar on the roots reggae circuit for about two years. He has played with a reggae group led by I’la Vibez and also with Ethio-Jazz artist Mulatu Astatke in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Santiago is now the leader, guitarist and vocalist of the reggae band Vital Soundz. And he creates reggae productions in his basement recording studio (see “You Are,” a reggae music video originally composed, orchestrated, and recorded by Santiago with choreography by the San Copra dancers, at www.Santiagomusic.com).

And then of course there is jazz. His dad was formally trained in both classical music and jazz and used to play GRP jazz recordings from the 1970s. At Victor Litz School of Music in Gaithersburg, where he took lessons as a youngster, Santiago studied jazz with drummer John Zidar and with pianist Terry Marshall—who actually got him some gigs, at age 13. This preparation helped him get into the Duke Ellington School of Music in tenth grade. As a freelance jazz drummer, Santiago has played in DC at Twins Jazz (with Pepe Gonzáles), at Bohemian Caverns, The Islander, HR 57, and Columbia Station; in Baltimore, he has performed at Ottobar, Windup Space and Artscape.

Here in Baltimore, he has formed his Concord Jazz Project (CJP) to play straight-ahead jazz. Santiago envisions CJP as a collective to bring together some of the best jazz musicians in Baltimore. These include his keyboard sidekick Thomas James, bassists Jeron White and Michael Graham Jr., trumpeters Theljon Allen and Clarence Ward III. The CJP had a run hosting a Thursday night jam session at Terra Café; lately Santiago has been playing with White on Thursdays at Poets Lounge in the Hotel Indigo. The group is scheduled to perform at Motor House for a once-a-month jam session of all originals and a quarterly event called “Colorful Sounds,” in which the musical ensemble will play improvised jazz while an artist paints a piece on the spot. The last such event, in April, featured Khalid Johnson, who created an abstract piece that beautifully reflected the densely textured, richly hued character of the jazz improvisation that inspired him. The next event is scheduled for July 14th. 

As “Ras Santiago” on the Vital Soundz website, he writes: “Music is not a philosophy. . . . It is how you receive the inspiration to believe again that you are who you want to be.” For Santiago, all music is produced not just from the head. Sure, there is a phase where the intellect must be a part of the formation, but that gets you only part of the way. The music has to come from the whole self, “all the way from the crotch up to the chin.” Anyone who has witnessed Santiago’s exuberant and heartfelt drumming can see that he is living his own maxim. See more at www.Santiagomusic.com.

Liz Fixsen is a jazz pianist, jazz vocalist, and jazz enthusiast. She has written numerous articles and reviews for BJA over the years and has served for several years on the board of the BJA. She teaches Professional Writing at the University of MD and also works for The Phillips Agency and Jazz Beyond Borders doing promotions of jazz and world music artists