Author Archives: Steven Elowe

The culture-blending history of Latin/Afro-Cuban rhythms

The Start of Afro-Latin Fusion

Afro-Latin American music is a blend of African and Latin American styles. Its roots are in the African diaspora, or the movement of African peoples to other parts of the world, primarily due to the slave trade. Cuba is considered one of the most important sources of music in Latin America, along with Brazil and Mexico. 

Cuba is steeped in musical heritage as a result of the rich diversity of its people – a mixture of indigenous peoples, Spanish colonizers, and African slaves that were transported to the country as early as the 1500’s up until the 1880’s. The blending of cultures produced the unique sound that is Cuban music, and today that sound can be heard all over the world.

Breaking Down the Beat

Cuban music, as well as music from other Latin American countries, has deep roots in African rituals and rhythms. Even though the Spanish tried to prevent Africans from expressing their religious, ritualistic, and musical traditions, enslaved people continued to make music using whatever they could find – sticks, crates, their bodies, and their voices. They provided the most important element in Latin/Afro-Cuban music: the clave.

The clave is a percussion instrument, a specific rhythm, and a rhythmic concept that underlies all Latin/Afro-Cuban music. As an instrument, claves are short, wooden sticks that, when struck together, produce a sound that penetrates the rest of a band.

There are many different variations of the clave rhythm but, in general, it revolves around a complete 3:2 or 2:3 rhythmic ratio. As a rhythmic concept, the clave helps to keep a band in time and essentially tells everyone where they are in a song.

There are many subgenres of Latin/Afro-Cuban music, each with its own unique sound and style, but they all share common elements including the use of drums and percussion instruments, as well as call and response. Some of the more common instruments include: congas, bongos, cowbells, various “shakers”, batas, timbales, and, of course, claves.

The Grandfathers of Cubop

Latin/Afro-Cuban music has been popularized by a number of different artists over the past century, but it wasn’t until the post-World War II years that Cuban music really took off in the U.S. with the introduction of Latin jazz fusion, “Cubop”. The prime movers of Cubop were Dizzy Gillespie, Mario Bauza, the Machito Orchestra, and Cuban percussionist, Chano Pozo.

Some of the most famous Latin/Afro-Cuban musicians include Mongo Santamaria, Celia Cruz, and Tito Puente. However, it was Carlos Santana and his band, Santana, who were instrumental in introducing a whole new generation to a fusion of rock, jazz, blues, and Afro-Cuban rhythms with Latin sound at Woodstock in 1969.

After the band’s triumph at Woodstock, they went on to release several hit albums. Each release infused rock with a Latin vibe rooted in Afro-Cuban rhythms, all revolving around Carlos Santana’s remarkable guitar playing.

Carlos Santana – Humanitarian

For more than forty years since his first appearance at Woodstock in the summer of 1969, the iconic sound of Carlos Santana’s guitar has been a part of the global music scene. Carlos Santana has been the creative force behind music that transcends genres as well as cultural, geographical, and even generational boundaries.  

However, the legacy of Carlos Santana is about more than the influence he has had on music for the past four decades. It is also about his dedication to social activism and devotion to humanitarian causes that has made him more than a musical icon. His message of love, hope, and unity have become a powerful force on the world stage.

Throughout the years, the charitable work of Carlos Santana has made a profound difference in the lives of millions of people throughout the world. In 1998, Santana and his first wife, Deborah, created the Milagro Foundation. Its mission is to fund organizations around the world that support under-resourced children in the areas of arts, education, and health. Four hundred and fifty-three organizations in 37 states and 20 countries receive grants that directly help the people they serve.

Let the Children Play

In 2012, Milagro’s philanthropic partner, Hermes Music Foundations, donated 48 beautiful acoustic guitars to Santuario De Luz, a community health clinic in Santana’s hometown of Autlan, Mexico. The guitars were given to students in four junior high schools so that they could remain engaged in their school music programs.

As an extension of his mission to support under-resourced children in the arts, Santana joined David Wish’s Little Kids Rock Foundation in 2002,  the intention being to provide innovative and inclusive music education to children that lack the resources to afford classes or instruments. Today, this program, renamed Music Will in 2022, is the largest nonprofit music program in the U.S. public school system, serving over 500,000 students in more than l00 cities and towns across the U.S.

Love Makes the World Go Round

In 2003, Carlos and his family founded the Amandla AIDS Fund, a grantmaking arm of Artists for a New South Africa, providing urgent and much-needed support to frontline AIDS service organizations. Santana donated $2.5 million to the fund, money that was raised from his twenty-three city “Shaman” tour. Hailed as a landmark event, it was the first time an artist ever donated the net proceeds from an extended concert tour to a charity. 

Over the years, Carlos Santana has supported numerous charities and foundations, and in 2008 he was the recipient of One x One’s Difference Award which recognized his fight against child poverty and suffering. Carlos Santana is the consummate citizen of the world.

The Inspiration Behind a Few of Santana’s Album Titles

Carlos Santana is considered by many to be one of the top guitarists in modern history. The winner of 10 Grammy Awards as well as three Latin Grammys, Rolling Stone magazine has ranked Santana at No. 20 on its list of 100 greatest guitarists of all time.

During his career, Santana and/or his namesake band have released 26 studio albums, 7 live albums, and 23 compilation albums, some of which have unique and unusual names. Where did Santana get his inspiration for some of these titles?

A Literary and Musical Classic

Abraxas was released on September 23, 1970, when Carlos Santana was only 23 years old. The album took its name from a line from Demian, the literary masterpiece written and published in 1919 by German author Herman Hesse. During this period in Hesse’s life he was undergoing therapy from an associate of the famous psychologist, Carl Jung. It was the beginning of the author’s turning to the “inward way”, as well as his discovery of “magical thinking”. 

This line, taken from Hesse’s Demian, is the inspiration for the title of Santana’s second album…”we questioned the painting, berated it, made love to it, prayed to it: We called it mother, we call it whore and slut, called it our beloved, called it Abraxas…”

In Jungian theory, Abraxas represents a being higher than God, something utterly unattainable and impossible to conceptualize, which, according to Santana, is exactly what the album was meant to be, a combining of spirituality and psychedelia, the music full of spirit, sexuality, and soul taking its roots from the percussive sounds of Afro-Caribbean music.

Fusing Genres

Santana’s fourth album was released during a period of transition for the band. Caravanserai is a spiritual blend of jazz, rock, and Latin music, and is considered by many to be the best album made during this period of transition for the band.

The word, “caravanserai” in the Near East means a large courtyard that provides accommodations for traveling caravans. However, Carlos Santana found a different meaning for the term while he was reading a text written by the Indian yogi and guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, “The caravan is the eternal cycle of reincarnation, every soul going into and out of life, from death to life and back again, until you arrive at a place where you can rest and achieve inner peace. That place is the caravanserai.”

According to Santana, this was a most fitting title for this album because it not only represented the personal quest for spirituality that he had embarked upon, but the music created by a band in transition for the album.

Another Stage in the Process

Carlos Santana released his sixth studio album Borboletta in 1974. Borboletta is Portuguese for “butterfly,” as is evident on the beautiful album cover designed by Carlos Santana in collaboration with Ed Lee and Barry Imhoff. In the early ‘70s, Carlos Santana was evolving, both musically and spiritually. The title is a reflection of his “metamorphosis,” but is also a “shout-out” to the contributions of Brazilian musicians Flora Purim and Airto Moreira, significant influences to the music on this album, a combination of jazz-funk-fusion, on this album.

Carlos by Carlos

Carlos Santana has a line of women’s shoes. Huh?

That’s the reaction that I had. That’s the reaction that most people have, when I tell them that Carlos Santana has a line of not just shoes, but women’s shoes. Not just women’s shoes, but hot, sexy women’s shoes.

But when you really look at the Carlos by Carlos shoes line, and think about the reasons behind it, you start to see the logic.

Point 1: Deborah Santana (Carlos’ ex-wife) was probably integral in the concept, initiation, and design of the shoes line. She does wear sexy shoes, so it makes sense.

Point 2: Carlos’ and Deborah Santana’s charity — the Milagro Foundation — benefits from the sale of every Carlos by Carlos shoe. So it’s another way to help children around the world. (If there’s anyone more deserving than disadvantaged children, I’ve yet to hear it. Yea for the Santanas!).

Point 3: Carlos Santana is building himself as a brand. Paul Reed Smith Santana Signature guitars. The Mesa Boogie Amps. The Maria Maria restaurants (I’ll be covering those in a future issue of this blog, and on the Web site.) He plans to introduce a line of handbags.

He’s building an empire. He may not think of it as that — but someone is thinking of it that way. And you can’t blame Carlos. After all, he’s put out dozens of albums, and played thousands of live shows. Why not take advantage of his fame — especially if he’s willing to give back to the community, as he obviously is.

So, it makes sense that he introduced the Carlos by Carlos shoes line. And, to help [male] fans of Carlos Santana, I — with the aid of a talented stylist — have crafted the “Guy’s Guide to Buying Carlos by Carlos Shoes.” This article may actually help men entire uncharted territory, and purchase a pair of shoes for their better halves.

Now that’s progress!

Gregg Rolie

Legendary Vocalist/Keyboardist for Santana and Journey

Santana‘s 1999 Grammy phenomenon, Supernatural, has sold in excess of 25 million copies. It launched a rebirth of Carlos Santana‘s career leading to his artist-as-icon status. More recently, he has lent his name to a line of Santana perfumes and colognes, handbags, wine, Carlos by Carlos women’s shoes, and more.

But this legendary status now enjoyed by Carlos wouldn’t exist were it not for the hits still played on radio: “Evil Ways,” “Black Magic Woman,” “Oye Va,” et al. Most of these songs were included on Santana’s first two albums, Santana (often called Santana by Santana), and Abraxas.

At the heart of the sound of those classic records are the keyboard playing and vocals of a young musician named Gregg Rolie.

Still a teenager when he and Carlos formed what was at one time titled the “Santana Blues Band” and then finally simply “Santana,” Rolie had a distinctive vocal style has been immortalized on those early albums. And he didn’t stop there. He and band mate Neal Schon went on to form Journey, a band which initially achieved a cult status among musicians, and then became one of the world’s leading pop rock groups.

Rolie wasn’t just a vocalist who accompanied himself on keyboards, though. The powerful simplicity of his organ playing is evident in the iconic chord inversions that introduce Oye Como Va, the unusual note (a 9th) that kicks off his solo in Evil Ways, and many other parts. Playing keyboards is something many people do; really good keyboard players is a much smaller group. Creating keyboard parts (both rhythm and lead) that stick in people’s mind is a rare skill indeed, and one at which Rolie excels.

To this day, Rolie can be heard on both keyboards and vocals in his own group, the Gregg Rolie Band. Touring the country and playing hits both old and new, Rolie and his band (which includes original Santana conguero Mike Carabello) embody much of the original sound of the early Santana songs that still resonate with listeners, 40 years later.