An Indelible Beginning
Carlos Santana. The name alone is recognized and associated worldwide as a guitarist whose music influence has no boundaries. From his start as a humble street musician in San Francisco in the mid-1960’s playing rock with a Latin influence to the Milagro Foundation, founded in 1998, the name is synonymous with excellence and longevity, a trait lacking in the music industry. The Milagro Foundation supports many of the causes Santana has empathy for and believes in, the latest being the AIDS pandemic in South Africa. Recognized for winning an astonishing twelve Grammy Awards in 1999 for the album Supernatural, and the additional record of the year award for the song “Smooth “, a Grammy Award in 2001 with the song “The Game of Love” and three Latin Grammy Awards in 2004, Santana’s forty plus year career path has seen many side roads and bumps and he’s certainly not the same guitarist that used to play in the park for a predominately Latin-American audience. He’s evolved into not only a wonderful and talented guitarist, but he grew and changed with time. He remains true to his roots, playing the standard Latin-Rock Fusion hits from the early years, yet he was also able to move into the mainstream of the classic rock genre as when he joined with some of today’s most talented artists to create the hit album Supernatural, a feat not mastered by many bands let alone the short list of solo artists who’ve been able to achieve such accomplishments.
He was born in Mexico, the son of a Mariachi violinist and his father’s first choice of instruments for young Carlos was the violin. At the age of eight, Carlos fell under the influence of performers such as B.B. King and John Lee Hooker and put down the violin in favor of the guitar. He moved to San Francisco in 1961 and started the Santana Blues Band, performing at local establishments in the Mission District and The City, the band quickly establishing their reputation. 1968 was a pivotal year for the Santana Blues Band. That was the year they were playing music across the country, the Ed Sullivan show and the counter culture event of the decade, Woodstock. His electrifying and psychedelic performance at Woodstock established the bands reputation nationally and internationally resulting in a record contract with Columbia Records, and the subsequent release of two successful albums. 1972 was his time for jazz. Santana was shifting his musical focus to another genre and this didn’t sit well with keyboardist Greg Rolie, and along with guitarist Neal Schon, they departed, forming the band Journey. During this time, Santana was spiritually influenced by and became a disciple of Sri Chinmoy and with John McLaughlin and Stanley Clarke evoked on a jazz-fusion path. He embarked on a solo career and the album Love, Devotion and Surrender was the first collaboration. He simultaneously maintained the Santana Band for the remainder of the 70’s and into the 80’s. 1999 was another breakout year, collaborating with Wyclef Jean, Dave Matthews, Lauryn Hill and Eric Clapton on the hit album Supernatural. It was number 1 for 12 weeks and outsold all previous albums in Santana’s catalog.
Santana is an anomaly in the industry. To bring so many years of success and influence to the complex and ever changing music industry is nothing short of remarkable. Throughout the successes of the early years, they remained grounded in their roots. I remember in the 1970’s, even though the band and its members were flourishing musically, you might see them around town driving a vehicle and sometimes taking public transportation to their destinations, stopping to give a moment or two for a quick chat. He and the band remain modest and made conscious efforts to remain normal, everyday people, not demanding fancy cars or drivers, huge entourages and photographers following their every move, or bodyguards. Since 1969, Santana’s fame and fortune have taken him literally around the world, concerts in China, Moscow and the Czech Republic are just a few of the international venues they’ve performed and the list of concerts in the United States mind boggling. A member of the Rock and roll Hall of Fame, Carlos Santana has 7 solo albums, the Santana Band has an astounding 34 albums, plus an additional 28 album collaborations with various artists, and multiple videos.
From the early days of the 60’s, in a garage or playing at Precita Park in the Mission District of San Francisco, to Fillmore West and Woodstock when hard partying and drugs were the bill of fare, to a 90’s philanthropist and mentor, Carlos Santana has seen and done nearly all of it. The times have changed, the music has changed, band members have come and gone but Carlos Santana has weathered it all with uncanny grace and character. Over the decades, he’s effectively traversed the boundaries of the universal language of music and song. A legend in his own right, concertgoers from ages sixteen to sixty, nationally and internationally relate to the sound of The Santana Band, the rapid, staccato beat of the conga drums and timbales providing the distinctive Latin infused rhythms, the pulsating and deep rumble of the bass guitar establishing the backbone of the song, the flurries of his fingers as they race up and down the rosewood neck of his custom made guitar, touching each fret gently and deliberately, the distinct wail beckoning the crowd to sway back and forth as if hypnotized, becoming one with the musical genius. The once struggling musician with modest roots has come full circle and his livelihood, sustained through the raw, gut wrenching intensity of Soul Sacrifice at Woodstock to the mesmerizing, sometimes eerie sound of Caravansari, and the smooth and intoxicating melody of Europa, has stood the test of time.
The early days of learning to play a violin in his native Mexico are but a vivid memory to him and he’s now considered by some an international ambassador of music; Carlos Santana, musician and philanthropist, is as different now as he’s the same as he was in those humble beginnings.