There are many ways to enjoy the talents of Sandhi Smalls Santini, taking in one of her cabaret performances or settling in with one of her books. Born on Edisto Island, South Carolina, Sandhi graduated from the Howard University Cathy Hughes School of Communications in Washington, D.C., followed by studies in human rights at the Columbia University Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
Combining her two passions – singing and writing seemed natural for the multi-talented Sandhi. After leaving Edisto, she traveled internationally as a cabaret singer, appearing in storied venues all over the world. While performing in New York’s famed Chelsea Place, Sandhi met, fell in love with, and married the owner, Giancarlo Antonio Santini. Unfortunately, she lost him too soon to cancer.
Sandhi Smalls Santini
Sandhi never forgot where she came from, honoring the Gullah Geechee people in her book, Edisto Island: Seaside Stories from a Geechee Gal. Her new book, Sh+Aguar, The Night Huntress, is a sci-fi thrill ride, introducing a new heroine, Kitt Kougar, named after Sandhi’s inspiration, Eartha Kitt, whose work she celebrates in one of her cabaret shows. Sandhi’s Sh+Aguar, The Night Huntress shows not only Sandhi’s skilled talents as a novelist, but also her attention to research and detail. Because of a DNA infusion, which saves her life during child birth, Kitt transforms into a killing machine, a rare melanistic jaguar. (Marvel take note – you’ve found your next action hero!)
Sandhi took time from her very busy schedule to answer our questions. Click on the cover links to purchase her books and visit her website to see her upcoming performance schedule.
The Geechee Gullah people who live on Edisto Island are fairly isolated. And you wrote your first book, Edisto Island: Seaside Stories from a Geechee Gal, while you were isolated during the pandemic. What was your motivation for tackling that story at that time?
The sudden and severe emergence of the pandemic; the government-mandated orders to shelter-in-place; and that enduring, dystopian-like isolation, collectively motivated me to do some deep soul searching. This search for self, in solitude, took me on an intensely emotional inner journey. That personal journey empowered me, and fueled the writing of my first book about the Gullah Geechee people of Edisto. Interestingly, it was while I was separated from others, that I felt more spiritually connected to the human traumas my ancestors must have experienced during their tormentous transportation from West Africa to a distant and isolated Edisto Island.
Tell us about the people you wrote about in the book. What do you hope people will take away from those stories?
The people I wrote about in Edisto Island: Seaside Stories from A Geechee Gal, are the Gullah Geechee people. We are descendants of West Africans who were enslaved on the rice, Sea Island cotton, and indigo plantations in the southern low country. The people I wrote about are my immediate and extended family, friends, neighbors, the Edisto community that is still, even today, very much a remote village. I hope people will gain a basic understanding of the Gullah Geechee people and our unique, and vibrant culture.
You left Edisto for two big cities, to attend Howard University in Washington, DC., for your B.A. in Journalism and Theatre Arts, and then Columbia University in New York City, for a graduate program. How did you manage that transition?
Yes, I was in a hurry to go out into the world. I graduated from high school a year earlier than I should have. I went from tenth grade, straight to twelfth grade, and graduated class valedictorian, at age sixteen. My parents always said that I got away from them too soon. Leaving the overprotective confines of my family on Edisto, and enrolling at massive Howard University in the heart of Washington, D.C. was quite the leap for me. There were times when I found it quite challenging. Fortunately, in my freshman year, I began writing for THE HILLTOP, the Howard University campus newspaper. I got wonderful assignments that really helped to broaden my scope in life. Overall, the education, training, and experiences I received at Howard University, prepared me for my transition to New York. By the time I enrolled in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at Columbia University in New York, I had already packed a lot of living in. For years, I had traveled internationally as a cabaret singer. I had been happily married, and co- owned a restaurant and nightclub with my husband. And then, I found myself widowed.
Sandhi Smalls Santini and her husband, Giancarlo Antonio Santini
Tell us about your husband. How did you meet, work together? How and when did he die? How did you manage to go on after his death?
My late husband, Giancarlo Antonio Santini was a wildly-spirited and fascinating man. He was born in Parma, Italy. While working as a steward on-board an Italian cruise line, he jumped ship and came to NYC. Giancarlo opened a clothing store, then managed several high-end Italian restaurants before opening Chelsea Place on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan. He had been married and divorced twice, when we met. One evening before going in to sing at Dallas BBQ, my pianist, Douglas Booth and I squeezed in an audition at Chelsea Place. The manager hired us on the spot, and we began performing at Chelsea Place the following night. On my first night singing there, I arrived early and approached a lively group of people who were standing outside on the sidewalk, smoking. Giancarlo was among them. I did not know who he was, and just assumed that he was a customer. I was a nervous wreck— consumed with first-night fears and jitters.
But it turned out to be an amazing night. We performed four sets. Giancarlo and I talked and laughed a lot between sets, but he never once revealed that he was the owner of Chelsea Place. I found out days later who he was. What I remembered most from our first meeting, was his smile, his eyes, and that look in his eyes. He was 28 years my senior, but we were immediately drawn to each other. I fell madly in love with him, and he fell madly in love with me. Two years later, we were married, and we remained blissfully married for almost 10 years. Giancarlo was addicted to cigarettes. He started smoking at age 10, and died from lung cancer on November 12, 1996, at age 64. In the many years since his passing, I’ve met, dated, and enjoyed lasting relationships with several wonderful men. But I’ve never loved anyone with the depth and passion that I felt for Giancarlo. We were truly soulmates. I’ve managed to go on, because I’ve always kept his spirit alive inside of me.
With your B.A. degree, how did you hope to merge your two interests in journalism and theatre arts?
Earning a B.A. degree in journalism and theatre arts, for me, seemed to be a natural pairing. The courses and practicums in both schools supported and enhanced each other. Over the years, writing and performing have collectively provided me with a number of artistic avenues and opportunities.
Sandhi Smalls Santini
How did your singing career begin?
I arrived in New York at a time when live music, piano bars, and jazz lounges were ubiquitous. After working for a while as a singing waitress, I pushed myself to get booked in as many places as possible. Then I auditioned to sing at Chelsea Place, which, at the time, was one of Manhattan’s most popular places for non-stop live music. My pianist and I were booked for three nights a week. Between our pay and tips, we made a lot of money. Giancarlo Santini owned Chelsea Place. He became my manager, and later, my husband. He started booking me in 5-star hotels and resorts abroad.
Eartha Kitt is one of your inspirations and you have put together a show honoring her. How do you connect with her? What reaction do your performances receive?
Yes, I affectionately refer to Eartha Kitt as my “home girl” because she was also born in South Carolina. As a hotel resident singer, it was often my good fortune to perform in many of the same rooms that had previously been graced by the extraordinary Eartha Kitt. What I heard over and over again from people who came to my shows was that I reminded them a lot of Eartha Kitt—a compliment that I certainly relished in, but quietly dismissed, simply because I saw Eartha Kitt as this bigger than life performer who was in a class all by herself. I stayed grounded, realizing that Eartha Kitt was one of a kind.
You’ve traveled all over the world performing cabaret. Can you tell us about some of your memorable performances?
Yes. I have quite a collection of stories. Maybe I’ll write about them someday. During my singing residency at Hilton Budapest in Hungary, the well-known Hungarian director, Sandor Pal came in several times to see my show. One night, between sets, he asked if I’d like to play a bit part in a film he was shooting. The bit part was as Josephine Baker, in a movie called “Miss Arizona”. I did a 3-month singing residency in the Bamboo Bar at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. A regular guest at my show was His Majesty Vajiralongkorn (Rama X) the King from Thailand’s royal family. He was always very quiet and gracious.
Your new book, Sh+Aguar, The Night Huntress, is a sci-fi fantasy novel. How did you come up with the idea?
I’ve always loved sci-fi books because their storylines are usually based on actual scientific theories and facts. I came up with the idea for my book after reading articles about the US Department of Defense creating “Super Soldiers”—genetically enhanced humans. I was intrigued and decided to create a storyline based on the information I’d gathered. I wanted my super soldier to be a Black woman, so I drew from the familiar, my own lived experiences, and people I knew.
How did you do the scientific research for the novel? What sources did you use?
I mainly used the internet. I spent a lot of time reading, taking notes, and finding the most credentialed, current sources that pertained to transgenesis.
The book’s protagonist, Kitt (a tribute to Eartha?) is like you, a singer and several of the characters in the book have names similar to people in your life. What went into creating these characters?
Yes, my protagonist Kitt Kougar is a tribute to Eartha Kitt. I drew from Eartha’s feline persona, as well as from my own personality traits and experiences. My characters are almost always inspired by people I know. I created my characters by mixing and matching personality traits from a number of different people.
The Chelsea nightclub that’s at the center of the story did once exist. Did you ever perform there? Any plans to somehow bring that place back to life?
The real Chelsea Place Restaurant & Nightclub was owned by my late husband Giancarlo Antonio Santini. It was an iconic Manhattan nightspot known for its non-stop live music on two floors, its hidden atrium restaurant with a pond and two white ducks, and a live tree that grew behind the bar. The restaurant was closed many years ago.
Kitt becomes a powerful force in the book and has to work to control her powers. Is this a metaphor for powerful women, that they need to recognize their power and use it wisely?
Precisely. I’ve used metaphors and symbolisms in the book with both eyes planted on powerful women—recognizing and understanding their power; knowing when to harness and use that power, and ultimately, becoming the masters of their powers.
Sandhi Smalls Santini
Your descriptions throughout the book were impressive. What went into writing these sections of the book, whether dealing with Kitt’s transformation, or the violence she rained down on those who were out to do unspeakable things? Did the words just flow, or were there many rewrites?
Thank you. I wanted to create vividly active images. There were sections that I had to think and rethink about, revisiting certain pages, making minor, and sometimes, major changes. I struggled through the violent scenes, but eventually thought they were essential to the storyline. Depicting Kitt’s transformation was one of my most difficult encounters. I wanted to present her metamorphosis as being somewhat akin to birthing—laborious, dangerous, painful, emotionally and physically taxing. I thought it was important to show the struggle between Kitt’s humanity, versus the jaguar’s ruthless, killer instinct.
How do you manage your career between singing and writing? Is it 50-50, or does the amount of time you spend on each vary?
Ideally, I would love to be able to spend my time shared equally between singing and writing. But, due to the nature of both professions, I have learned that, in order to enjoy both, I must always be flexible.
What’s next on your agenda? Any performances? Another book?
Yes to all! I’ve written a television pilot script, an adaptation based on my SH+AGUAR novel. (My TV script was a winner in the 2023 Emerging Screenwriters Sci-Fi & Fantasy Screenplay Competition Quarter Finalists). I am already writing a sequel to SH+AGUAR, The Night Huntress. Kitt still has a lot of crime-fighting to do. And, finally, I’m currently organizing a tour of my one-woman show—“Eartha—From Cotton To Caviar” to be presented in the fall, at several Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCU’s).
All photos courtesy of Sandhi Smalls Santini
For more information, go to Sandhi Smalls Santini’s website.