LEAF is almost here — the festival’s 40th iteration runs Thursday-Sunday, May 7-10. In advance, Xpress is talking to performers about what they have planned and why being part of LEAF’s 20th anniversary is so special.
Singer-songwriter Jonathan Santos is community activist as well as a musician. This year, instead of performing his own set, he’ll be working with LEAF Schools & Streets students at the festival.
Mountain Xpress: Asheville is an open and artistic community but at LEAF — at least to an observer — it seems like that openness and creativity is concentrated and intensified. What is the festival’s vibe as a performer?
Jonathan Santos: As a local artist, LEAF is the place to be! My first LEAF, and introduction to festival culture period, was four years ago performing with Secret Agent 23 Skidoo. As a LEAF Schools & Streets teaching artist, I’ve been empowering local middle schoolers to compose and perform their own original poetry, rhymes and songs each spring and fall, so I’ve been in a different mindset.
It wasn’t until last year that I performed a full set of my own original music with the Seraphim Arkistra. I guess I never paid attention to how much it’s a local musician’s dream to play LEAF. You get to cross-pollinate with lots of top-notch artists. Some are local and some are from around the country and [world]. It feels great to musically meet really great artists you see around town all the time, as well as to be inspired by and chat with world-class artists. Depending on the act, the ego veil is thinner and collaboration happens more freely.
Your music is about peace and positive change. What does the idea of “Collective Change through Self Change” mean, and how are you working toward that?
Well the title of my first project and later my first full-band EP recorded in Asheville is titled Changing the World by Changing Me. For me, peace is this constant elusive state I pursue, seeking harmony of the contradictions within myself and in society. Music and meditation help me out a lot with that. My intent is to highlight that everything starts with the self, the individual. I really believe that collective social change can only happen when we’re all keeping alive the constant work of individual self-transformation. Organizations, households, communities, cities, etc. are all made up of individuals. If we spent more time living centered in our own core values, with the intent to radiate that to others, the headlines would look a lot different!
Working towards this is my life’s work. This all hit me via transmission from the late master Sunyata Saraswati with whom I studied tai chi, gung fu and kriya yoga for more than 10 years. He would constantly remind my ambitious youthful self that, “You can’t change people, man!” as I went from cause to cause on fire, trying to create awareness on how to solve all of the world’s problems. I finally buckled down into self-cultivation. I still have a very strong passion for social justice, so I stay connected to what’s happening. I’ve got a lifetime or two of stuff to work out, but I’m superhumbled and am grateful to work with youths who are learning themselves and also have a passion to change the world.
Lately I’ve been working mostly on contracting as an “Edutainer” with LEAF, Asheville Writers in the Schools & Community and a few other community-based organizations to explore ways to inspire people to analyze and take action within self and comm-Unity. I’m just growing into and redefining fatherhood, so I got lots of motivation to get my stuff straight. It’s slow and steady! I’m a Taurus.
What are some current music projects you’ve been involved in?
Focusing on family and being an entrepreneur with Santos Edutainment are a few full plates in themselves. I haven’t recorded much aside from Changing the World by Changing Me, produced by Josh Blake and featuring members of the Booty Band and a host of Asheville’s finest. Outside of that, you’ll catch me occasionally performing with the Seraphim Arkistra. I’m exploring how to work my technology and effects into my sets.
I’m working out of the Burton Street 1 Mic Studio (a LEAF, GO! and Asheville Parks & Rec initiative) with my Lyrics to Life: Poetry, Rhyme, and Songwriting classes. I really want to be a part of the cultural shift to make the music and arts scene in Asheville more diverse and inclusive, and to give young artists opportunities and a platform to explore and refine their crafts. One of my highlights for sure was working through the Asheville City Schools TAPAS program to write, record and perform a song with 100 second graders from Isaac Dixon Elementary at The Orange Peel for the Moog Foundation’s Sound School program. It was amazing! The students and teachers were great and I learned so much about my own and teaching the creative process!
Tell us about the performance you’ll be doing with the LEAF Schools & Streets students.
This year I’m back at Owen and Asheville Middle schools. I love leaving things up to the students as to the “how?” but I’m a stickler for keeping pre-teens centered on their passions, interests and dreams. So, in whatever form of authentic self expression, whether poem, rhyme, song, story or stand-up routine, I hope these young people just have fun expressing who they are and what they love, gaining a little more self-confidence. It’s always a surprise. At Asheville Middle, I’ve been working with LEAF teaching artist, emcee and local DJ Nex Millen. It will be fun.
What experience do you hope to take away from LEAF?
I learn a lot each LEAF personally, as an artist and as an educator. LEAF is an escape from Asheville, while also capturing a lot of its essence and ideals. I see LEAF making leaps and bounds, including and intersecting communities locally and internationally that too often get bumped out of the musical margins. In a lot of ways it’s ahead of Asheville and Buncombe County, but there still is so much farther to go.
I hope it doesn’t rain. And I hope to have a great time enjoying music and being inspired from the courage our students muster to get up on stage and be themselves.