Carlos Santana is one of the few guitarists whose sound is instantly identifiable, even after just a single note.
From Tijuana to San Francisco, from playing guitar in venues with dirt floors to some of the finest stages in the world, Santana has lived a life of extremes that have drawn him down a deep spiritual path that helped him to balance the dark and light. Forever a student of his own musical heroes, Santana’s graciousness pours forth in his music and his efforts toward creating global change through the power of positive thought.
Music Maker in Mexico
Born in Autlán de Navarro, Mexico, Santana initially followed in the footsteps of his musical father, a mariachi violinist. In fact, Santana’s first memory is of the joy his father’s music brought to local people. By age five, Santana began learning the violin.
New-found hope was in the air as the Santana family moved north to the border town of Tijuana. There, at age eight, Santana began playing guitar by learning Mexican folk songs. But the harsh reality of poverty meant he also sold Chiclets gum on the streets.
Eventually, he began playing with his father in various clubs around Tijuana, in some of the dirtiest, most undesirable music venues in town. By his early teens, Santana had landed a gig playing in a local strip bar. He played for nine dollars a day, working from late afternoon until early the following morning, a child working in an adult world to help support his family.
Santana’s hard earned money helped finance his family’s move to San Francisco in the early 60s while he remained behind in Tijuana. After a year apart, his mother and older brother made the trip back to Tijuana for him. They returned with him to San Francisco’s Latin district where the family had a small home, and the seven siblings shared two rooms.
In the US, prospects of junior high school did not bode well for Santana. He had become accustomed to life in the clubs, enjoying the freedom of making money and spending time with adults. Although he did attend high school, Santana’s true education would come from exposure to many of his favorite musicians.
San Francisco was the ideal place for Santana to immerse himself in the multicultural arts and music scene. Through the mid to late 60s, he saw some of the most influential musical acts in rock history, including BB King, John Lee Hooker, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and The Doors. He finished high school amidst the height of the civil rights movement.
There’s no doubt that the move from Tijuana to San Francisco provided the fertile environment for his musical gift to fully take form. He found himself surrounded by musical minds, which as many musicians know, can be extremely motivational, leading to collaboration, creation and performance.
The rich cultural exposure offered by San Francisco planted the seeds of Santana’s lifelong love of music and exploration of the human spirit. Santana refers to San Francisco as “the Atlantis of today” and lives in the Bay Area region in the city of San Rafael.
To make ends meet, Santana worked at a local diner, waiting tables and washing dishes. A chance visit from some customers of note who showed up in a limo was the tipping point for Santana. Those customers were the The Grateful Dead and the encounter fueled Santana’s choice to become a full-time musician, and put his heart and focus into the formation and rise of The Santana Blues Band.
By his early 20s, Santana had already etched into history his signature sound of Afro-Latin influenced blues rock.
“You have to learn how to tell a story,” he says. “You have to learn to carry a melody. You have to learn to access the intangible at will. These things will make you a different kind of musician.”
The June 1968 debut of Santana at The Fillmore West was pivotal. The band’s stellar performance and unique sound led to Santana’s historic inclusion at Woodstock in 1969.
One month later, the band, which became known simply as Santana, released its self-titled debut record, followed one year later by the 1970 release of Abraxsas. Widely considered as Santana’s greatest effort, Abraxas brought the band to a new level of success, solidifying the soulfully unique and versatile guitar sound of Carlos Santana.
Spirituality and Jazz
The 70s were an experimental period for Santana in several areas of his life. As he progressed on his musical journey, he received inspiration from jazz greats such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane. He also collaborated on an album called Love, Devotion, Surrender with guitar great John McLaughlin.
Santana discovered an interest in Eastern mysticism and philosophy, eventually studying with Guru Sri Chinmoy. Although Santana found himself opened spiritually, his music began to suffer because of it. At the same time, although Santana managed to sustain his career through loyal fan support and touring, the rapid success of the early albums led the band to deteriorate.
The intensely strict lifestyle imposed on Santana by the teachings of Sri Chinmoy led to his departure from the guru in the early 80s. As it did for many artists, the 80s for Santana proved to be an uninspiring period. Disillusioned by the death of friend Miles Davis, and by Stevie Ray Vaughn’s death in the early 90s, Santana became increasingly frustrated.
The 90s brought Santana full circle in certain respects — issues surrounding his past and his difficult childhood in Tijuana began to surface.
“You have to, like a snake, shed skin,” says Santana. “The skin is guilt, shame, judgment, condemnation, fear. That’s the skin. The new skin is beauty, elegance, excellence, grace, dignity.”
Through Santana’s spiritual trials and tribulations, his inner voice and will pushed him to record his 1999 release, Supernatural. This concept album transpired through the work of Santana and legendary producer Clive Davis at Columbia Records. Since its release, Supernatural has gone on to sell over 25 million albums worldwide. It won nine Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year and Record of the Year. As further testament to his talent, Santana was named by Rolling Stone magazine as #15 on its list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time in 2003.
In 1998, Santana and his wife Deborah (they were divorced in 2007 after 34 years together) launched the nonprofit group The Milagro Foundation as an effort “to support underserved children and youth in the areas of arts, education and health.” Appropriately, milagro means “miracle.”
Recently, Santana formed the media company Architects Of A New Dawn to create a place where positive media can exist.
“It’s the most important thing that you can do on this planet, to elevate, transform and illumine your own consciousness,” Santana says of his philanthropic efforts, which he pursues in hopes of creating global change through inspiration, creativity, love and forgiveness.
Santana is currently finishing a new album due to be released this summer. He is also beginning the Universal Tone Tour in June 2010 with opening act Steve Winwood.
To experience some of Carlos Santana’s music, seek out and have a listen to these select tracks which are standouts in an extraordinary career. These songs are an excellent starting point for new listeners and a glimpse of his large body of work. Below this list, you will find two excellent videos for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy!
“Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen” on Abraxas
“Samba Pa Ti” on Abraxas
“Oye Como Va” on Abraxas
“Evil Ways” on Santana
“Jingo” on Santana
Santana On Video
What Do You Think?
Please feel free to comment and share your thoughts on the music of Carlos Santana. What are some of your favorite songs or albums? How have they affected you? If you have seen Santana in concert, please share some of your comments about the shows.