American Routes Shortcuts: Carlos Santana

Jun 5, 2020

Carlos Santana
Credit American Routes

Carlos Santana began playing mariachi on violin in the streets of Tijuana, but he was soon drawn to blues musicians: BB King, Jimmy Reed, and John Lee Hooker. At age 8, he switched to guitar and began developing his own sound, incorporating blues, rock, jazz, with Latin and African percussion. His father José Santana, a mariachi violinist, was not pleased, but allowed Carlos to follow his passions.  



Carlos Santana: I was born in ’47, so from ’47-’55, I lived in Autlán, Jalisco. It was a very small town. My mom brought us from Autlán to Tijuana. I learned to play the violin to help my dad with the rent and everything. So I learned to play violin in the streets of la Calle Revolución and play all the songs that Americans want to hear. So I used to walk around the streets of Tijuana saying, “Song Mister, 50 cents a song.” 

Nick Spitzer: How was it that the family left Tijuana and ends up in California? 

CS: My mother was always the person who said, “Nos vamos,” we’re going. And we all get into a car and we go. She said the same thing from Tijuana to San Francisco, “nos vamos.” We saved our money, and we paid for a notary person to create the right papers for us to come in legally. My eyes couldn’t believe the plentiness of the Safeways and Sears and Roebucks and toy departments and so much food and everything.

NS: You also were hearing I assume rock and roll, that side of American life, I mean you had some heroes right? 

CS: Yes, BB King, Ray Charles, Little Richard, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, Lightnin’ Hopkins. For some reason I gravitated more to blues. 

NS: What was the appeal of blues to a teenager in Tijuana and then into California? 

CS: Passion. You know when you’re a teenager; you have a lot of passion. You don’t know what to call it or why, but it’s a burning fire that’s in you and it’s got to come out, like John Lee Hooker said. So the blues has that thing that you immediately go, “oh yeah,” and then you start singing your song like, “Oh my god.”

NS: Well it’s the African American music, blues, that appeals to you but how early on do you get hip to all this African percussion? I mean how did you become aware of that whole world of Afro-Latin percussion? 

CS: For me it started in Tijuana because they used to have música tropical, they have different groups, Louie Malone, but not till I heard the combination in San José later on. I went to a picnic in San José, and in one block radius there was three bands: mariachi, rock and roll, and música tropical. But I could hear all of it as one and I said, “Oh, there it is. There it is. There’s Tito Puente and BB King and I’m right in the middle. I heard Tito Puente on the radio at like 12:00 at night. There used to be this disc jockey in San Francisco, and I was living in Potrero Hill at that time, and I heard “Party time, it’s party time, everybody wake up, don’t go to sleep.” And then he put on “Oye Como Va,” and I was like, “Woah, this is rock and roll to me.” I immediately said to the band, “Hey check out this song.” I went and got the record, El Rey Tito Puente, El Rey de Timbales. And they were like, but this is not rock and roll. I said, “I don’t care man we’re playing this music. 


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