Oakland's Santero, a Santeria Priest, Beckons Spirits With His Beats

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Tanit Sakakini
Santero

​Erick Santero, the Latino musician & DJ, will bring what he calls a "multimedia and multidisciplinary performance" to the upcoming All Shook Down Festival in North Beach on July 25. Recently added to the lineup, Santero's hip-hop & reggaeton stylings share an aesthetic with the likes of Don Omar and Daddy Yankee, but they also contain fossils of traditional African drumming. That's appropriate, since Santero believes in the power of music and dancing for spiritual emancipation. Perhaps it's because he's an ordained priest in the Santeria religion, or because he accompanied his father on a trip performing music throughout Central America, but Santero has an unusually strong concern for affecting people positively through music -- whether his audience is half-listening while throwing back cocktails at the club, or dropping sweat on a dance floor to his beats. We got to know to the Oakland musician a little better before his upcoming All Shook Down festival appearance, and found out why you don't have to practice Santeria to get the broader message in Santero's music.

How did you begin your music career?

I grew up making music with my dad, then broke away and studied classical Afro-Cuban folkloric dance. Later, I went to Cuba, where I was initiated into the Santeria religion. That's when I got the bug to make music again. I wanted to integrate two halves of myself: the club / hip-hop / reggae / dance music, and the spiritual tradition. I bridged that gap by bringing spirituality to the dance floor.

How do you infuse your music with spirituality?

The rhythms come from traditional African drumming. In the Santeria tradition, we call the ancestors and spirits down to the earth through drums. I try to transpose these rhythms onto what we know as hip-hop/pop/dance music. I took the intent and spiritual communication of traditional songs and chants and phrased it in a rap, emcee idiom.

Your hip-hop/club music naturally makes people dance. Do the suggestive movements provoked by your music ever conflict with its spiritual intent?

In the Western tradition, sexuality is divorced from spirituality. In every other tradition, sexuality is a regular part of life, and something we celebrate. God is sound and we are the manifestation of God's voice. Our heartbeat is a vibration. The atoms in our bodies are constantly in motion. We are the motion of elements coming together. I manifest this energy with drums. When people dance, they are expressing themselves in the music.

What do you hope people take away from your music?

In my spiritual tradition, everybody has a role. Some people prepare the sacred food, some build alters for ancestors. My role is to channel spiritual energy through music. When I perform, I create a harmonic convergence between myself, the dancers, and the people listening. We are all in the same frequency. If everyone in the planets could be at that same frequency at the same time, something beautiful would manifest. I make music that uplifts the spirit. When people are in that zone, there's something magical that happens: for a brief moment, everyone is connected by an alternation of consciousness, including me. The grand mystery is feeling that connection to the world and people around you, and we can do that through music.

Can people who aren't part of Santeria relate to the themes expressed in your music?

A lot of what I sing is in Spanish and West African Afro-Cuban dialect. I don't expect a lot of people to necessarily understand what I'm saying. But they can unconsciously feel those ancient energies that go back to the first woman banging on the first drum. We have a common ancestor in Africa, and we all feel that primal urge to move to a rhythm. Not to dance has to be a conscious choice. So whether you're there to do shots and pick up somebody at the bar, or to see the performance, you can't help being affected by this kind of music.

You are a priest and a lyricist. Do you write books on how to be spiritual?

In the West, spirituality is something you do: "I'm going to burning Man." But where I'm from, spirituality is something you are: It is in how you carry yourself and what you say. Even bicycling to work and baking bread is a spiritual act. You don't pay a $200 ticket to be spiritual. Back in the day, I paid my rent competing in slam poetry competitions. Spoken word is sacred to me, but I feel like I can reach people more through music. I'm working on a book now that I'd describe as semi-autobiographical metaphysical fiction; it's a teaching story, not the ABC's on spirituality.

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