World Arts West
SF Ethnic Dance Festival


Alayo Dance Company and the John Santos Sextet

ARTISTIC DIRECTORS: Ramón Ramos Alayo, John Santos
First appearance in SF EDF: 2017

Ramón Ramos Alayo founded Alayo Dance Company in 2002 to articulate his creative vision through a synthesis of Afro-Cuban modern, folkloric, and popular Cuban dance. The company has received both critical and popular acclaim. Alayo was featured in National Geographic Magazine in 2006 and in 2010 was the first American company to perform at the prestigious Annual Festival del Fuego in Santiago de Cuba at Teatro Martí. In 2016, their piece Goodbye was nominated as one of the five Best Premieres of the Year by
Dance Europe Magazine.

Multi-Grammy nominee John Santos has a 40+ year career as a bandleader, composer, producer, percussionist, and educator in Afro-Latin music. Known for contemporary innovations with traditional forms and instruments, he’s performed and/or recorded with luminaries such as Tito Puente, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Cachao, Eddie Palmieri, Patato Valdés, McCoy Tyner, Bebo Valdés, and Carlos Santana. He lectures and teaches widely, and currently teaches at Berkeley Jazz School, College of San Mateo, and Jazz Camp West. Founding director (1985-2006) of Grammy-nominated Machete Ensemble, he now directs the Cubadisco-nominated John Santos Sextet and two-time Grammy-nominee Coro Folklorico Kindembo.


GENRE: Afro-Cuban Modern, Cuban Rumba, Cuban Salsa, Conga
TITLE: Festejos Caribeños
CHOREOGRAPHER: Ramón Ramos Alayo
ASSOCIATE CHOREOGRAPHERS: Denmis Bain Savigne, Yismari Ramos Tellez
DANCERS: Ramón Ramos Alayo, Royland Mora Fernandez, Felice Gomez, Fredrika Keefer, Yeni Lucero, Denmis Bain Savigne, Yismari Ramos Tellez, Judith Vandsburger
MUSICIANS: The John Santos Sextet & Friends: John Calloway (flute, percussion), Marco Diaz (piano), David Flores (drums), Melecio Magdaluyo (saxophone), Adriana Marrero (vocals), Javier Navarrette (percussion), Ruben Sandoval (trombone), John Santos (congas, percussion), Saul Sierra (bass)


Festejos Caribeños is a Cuban street party, where dance and music keep heritage alive, and a community gathers in friendship and joyful celebration. The piece is a world premiere, a collaboration between choreographer Ramón Ramos Alayo and renowned musician John Santos. The performance highlights secular popular Cuban dance forms, and Cuba’s historic connections with Africa and Spain. It also pays tribute to the connections between the human world, worlds of the divine, and the deceased. As the piece begins, a procession carries in coffins, and three ancestors leave their beds, summoned (of course!) by the music to join the party.

The dancers celebrate, in this order, four popular forms:

Afro-Cuban modern dance, a hybrid of ballet, North American modern from Lester Horton, José Limón, and Martha Graham, Afro-Cuban folkloric, and Cuban cabaret—a national form created after the 1959 Cuban revolution by Ramiro Guerra from Teatro Nacional in Havana and Danza Contemporánea;

Rumba, a form traced back to Western Central Africa, a uniquely Cuban improvised onversation between dancer and drummer developed in colonial barrios and ports of Havana and Matanzas, where percussionists played wooden boxes. There are three forms: yambú, guaguancó, and columbia. Here we see the fast-paced guaguancó that amplifies courtship, with dancers as rooster and hen, and the (historically censored) gesticulated movements representing sexual conquest;

Salsa Cubana-casino, the popular Cuban dance originating in 1960s New York City, mainly based on the Cuban son, a folk song form;

And Cuban comparsa, a Carnival ensemble fueled by conga music originating in eastern Cuba in 1800’s Afro-Cuban working-class communities. Performers take to the streets with costumes, choreography, and lots of percussion.

The John Santos Sextet and friends are the joyful melodic force for Festejos Caribeños. The musicians follow a New Orleans funeral dirge and piano interlude. Then the music builds to an all-out rumba with sung verses and a brilliant call and response from the horns, and a dense, spirited salsa and street-style Cuban Carnaval rhythm, Conga de Comparsa—convincing the dead to dance, bringing a crowd to its feet.

This collaboration emerged as an invitation from San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival Artistic Director CK Ladzekpo, as Cuban tradition and culture are where the worlds of Alayo and Santos intersect. Santos served on the first SF Carnaval committee and—with dance legend Blanche Brown—was 2017 Parade Marshal. The music is his medley of original and traditional music: a trombone, percussion, and vocalist join the sextet’s bass, piano, drums, percussion, sax, and flute.

Carnaval has been delightfully adopted into American culture as a celebration that takes back the streets. Its music links us to New Orleans origins of American jazz, and to Carnaval traditions in Trinidad, Brazil, and Cuba. Rumba is Cuba’s seminal music and dance, an old expression of the people’s voice and also a contemporary expression of unity, as rhythm, melody, and movement speak of Afro-Cuban and Afro-Latino identity.

Santos tells us, “The form has strong, long roots in Congo, Yoruba, and Abakuá societies. It expresses Cuba’s violent colonial history and carries the courage of Africans and Afro-Cubans who dared play the outlawed African rhythms, and it continues to evolve as vibrant expression and living resistance. Growing up here, I know life can get homogenized, gentrified, digitized, sterilized. Music plays such an important role in the Bay Area community, in the fabric of who we are as Afro-Latinos. These art forms represent who we are in a real and visceral way: documenting our culture and our reality; carrying voices onward from ancestors who lived the history; communicating our values of community, family, humanity, and commonality with all people. They are more important than ever, given our current administration.”

Photo of John Santos by Tom Ehrlich

Back to top