Blistering guitar solos that crackle like an open flame! Sledgehammer organ riffs that pound harder than drum beats. Conga percussion that evokes the African tropics and harkens back to the great mambo bands of the 1950s. Gritty, blues-based vocals, performed in both English and Spanish. This is the unmistakeable sound of Latin Rock! This is the fusion sound that took the world by storm in the early 1970s. There's now a book that chronicles the origins and development of this important music: Voices of Latin Rock. Written by music journalist Jim McCarthy in collaboration with promoter/artist manager Ron Sansoe, and designed by award-winning British graphic designer Richard Mann, it's an important addition to Rock 'n' Roll literature. That's clear as soon as you open the book and find a foreword penned by none other than Carlos Santana, the King of Latin Rock himself. Bulging with vintage photos and reproductions of album sleeves and concert posters,Voices of Latin Rock overflows with musical and cultural history, barrio ambiance, West Coast style, behind-the-scenes music industry politics, ethnic pride, nostalgia for the '70s, and men with really big hair!
What came to be known as Latin Rock blossomed in California, specifically San Francisco's Mission District and the Hispanic neighborhoods of East Los Angeles. In LA, the musicians were primarily of Mexican descent, but up the coast you found much more of a Pan-American mix. In SanFran, the players might be immigrants from Guatemala, Nicaragua, Argentina, Perú, Puerto Rico, Cuba or México. Many Euro and Afro-American musicians were part of the scene, too. The San Francisco Bay area was a cauldron of political, cultural and artistic ferment in the late '60s. Latin Rock was a direct byproduct of this potent brew. Although primarily Hispanic in orientation, it was multi-cultural at its core. It was inspired by the Free Speech, Civil Rights and anti-war movements. It was also influenced by hippie drug culture. Unlike East Coast Habanera Rock (reference my three-part Habanera Rock essay), Latin Rock wasn't primarily an invention of studio musicians. It was a sound that came straight out of the barrios and public spaces where young musicians gathered.
Los Angeles was its first hub. Inspired by Ritchie Valens' success with "Donna" and "La Bamba", Latino singers like Chan Romero and Chris Montez, and mostly Latino vocal and instrumental groups like Thee Midnighters, The Romancers, The Blendells, The Premiers, Cannibal and The Headhunters, The Salas Brothers and The Sisters began playing high school mixers, Catholic Youth Association community centers, ballrooms and stadiums. (Recording for small labels, a handful of these acts scored singles on the national Pop charts; Chris Montez's "Let's Dance" and The Headhunters' "Land Of 1,000 Dances" were the most successful.) At first, their music was very derivative of The Beatles, The Temptations, and other popular Rock and R & B bands of the day. With the advent of the Chicano Pride movement, though, East LA musicians began to integrate Latin elements into their sound. The influences came from sources as diverse as Spanish flamenco and pasodoble, Mexican ranchera and huapango, Brazilian samba and bossa nova, Colombian cumbia, Nuyorican (New York Puerto Rican) boogaloo, and Cuban bolero, rhumba, mambo and cha-cha-chá.
The most important Latin Rock band to emerge from Los Angeles was El Chicano. This Jazz/Rock fusion ensemble of frequently-changing membership was led by organist and arranger Bobby Espinoza. El Chicano's enduring hit was the instrumental "Viva Tirado", a Top Thirty Pop and Top Twenty R & B record issued in the Spring of 1970. Other influential acts from LA included Redbone, formed around guitar-playing brothers Pat and Lolly Vegas (their hit "Come And Get Your Love" is a staple of old-school R & B radio); Tierra, featuring the Salas Brothers; Yaqui; and Los Lobos del Este Los Angeles. Los Lobos, as they later came to be known, would make their biggest impact in the 1980s after cutting soundtrack music for the Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba. By the late sixties, the sound of Latin-flavored Rock 'n' Roll was all over East LA. However, by 1970, San Francisco had overshadowed Los Angeles as a Latin Rock hotbed.
Accordingly, authors McCarthy and Sansoe focus most of their attention there. The book mostly tells its fascinating story by tracing the evolution of San Francisco's two most important Latin Rock bands: Santana and Malo. These bands were significant for their inclusion of two brothers with the name Santana; Carlos, who led the former, and Jorge, who featured prominently in the latter. The Santanas were a family of musicians. They emigrated from rural México to the Mission district in 1963. An avid Blues fan, Carlos discovered Jazz, Soul and Afro-Cuban music in San Francisco. All these influences converged in his highly stylized approach to playing guitar. He led a band called The Dynamics at Mission High School. The band quickly fizzled, but Carlos' determination to become a professional guitarist grew. By his senior year, his skills had won him sufficient respect that he occasionally sat in with touring Rock acts. Nearly all of those who came through town played his favorite haunt, the Fillmore Auditorium.
"Being at the Fillmore was the ultimate PhD," Carlos is quoted as saying. "Seeing . . . Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, The Young Rascals, The Doors, Buddy Rich . . . the Fillmore was a real education! If you hung out at the Fillmore for a week, you didn't have to go to the Berklee School of Music . . . that's where I got my main education." When he wasn't schooling himself at the Fillmore, he often could be found displaying his amazing guitar technique at San Francisco street festivals. Around 1968, he incorporated the Santana Blues Band with organist Gregg Rolie, conga player Mike Carabello and other friends. Bill Graham, manager of the Fillmore, became the band's manager. Graham's connections got them booked on the bill of the Woodstock Music Festival, the legendary 1969 Rock event held in upstate New York. Santana's fiery Latin Rock sets destroyed the crowd, and was the runaway hit of the three-day concert. After Columbia Records signed the band, and they scored massive back-to-back hits with "Evil Ways" and "Black Magic Woman," record labels galore descended on the Bay Area in search of similar-sounding groups.
Swept up in the rash of signings was Jorge Santana's group Malo. Led by vocalist Arcelio Garcia, Jr, it had evolved out of a bar band known as The Fabulous Malibus. Compared to Santana, Malo had a more melodic, tropical sound, but it certainly wasn't lightweight. Bassist Pablo Tellez, organist Richard Kermode, trumpet player Louis Gasca, rhythm guitarist Abel Zerate and, of course, Jorge on lead guitar, gave the group's sound a solid Rock foundation. Signed to Warner Brothers Records by producer David Rubinson, the band scored big with "Suavecito", a lush Rock 'n' Roll bolero that quickly became an East LA "lowrider" car club favorite. Drawing a devoted cult following, Malo went on to land four LPs on the Billboard album charts. Of course, Santana was even more successful, with a long string of Gold and Platinum releases.
Other Latin rockers who got national exposure at this time (1970-75) included the aformentioned El Chicano and Redbone; Azteca, the first band ever to feature master percussionist and future R & B star Sheila E; Tower of Power, a horn-driven outfit from Oakland, California, whose soulful smash "You're Still A Young Man" followed "Suavecito" into the "lowrider" Hall of Fame; War, initially featuring British Rock legend Eric Burdon on vocals, whose recordings of "Low Rider", "Cisco Kid" and "Spill The Wine" are definitive Latin Rock tracks; Mandrill, a New York City-based Salsa/Soul outfit led by a quartet of Panamanian brothers; Abel Sanchez and The Prophets; Sapo; and Cold Blood, whose sound blended hot Santana percussion with the hard Blues flavor of bands like Big Brother and The Holding Company. Cold Blood's lead vocalist Lydia Pense and El Chicano's sometime girl singer Ersi Arvizú were the most prominent of a handful of Latinas active in an overwhelmingly male genre.
However, both male and female Latinos benefited from the higher profile Latin Rock groups gave to their music and culture. "When Santana and Malo impacted, it really changed the Mission," an observer of the scene told authors McCarthy and Sansoe. "This (was) our culture, our neighborhood pride. It was such a thrill for (White) people to hear what we were groovin' to every weekend! The fact (that) it was in Spanish validated the language." The fact that it was played by people of Spanish descent proved to be validating, too. As the first Mexican-American superstar of the Rock era, Carlos Santana became a hero not only in México but also throughout the Spanish-speaking world. He and his band are still sources of tremendous pride for the international Latin community. Voices of Latin Rock chronicles Santana's return to commercial heights in recent years, and its 1998 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Along the way, the book takes you to recording sessions for Santana, Abraxas, Santana III, Caravanserai, Malo, Malo Dos, Evolución, Ascención and other best-selling albums by Santana and Malo. It spotlights San Francisco Rock clubs like the Avalon, the Ghetto, the Night-Life and Basin Street East, where the music first emerged and thrived. It stresses that the genre was part of a package that included activist art, music and politics. It documents the connections Latin Rock musicians had to controversial political figures like Angela Davis, George Jackson, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Dolores Huerta and Cesár Chavez. It details how Carlos Santana drew many of his later bandmembers from Malo and other Bay area groups, and identifies the link Santana has with the megahit '80s Rock band Journey. There's a chapter devoted to Brian Rohan, the show business attorney who represented Santana and Malo in record label negotiations. There's even a chapter about Herbie Herbert, Santana's road manager. The book ends by spotlighting the Mission District's latest musical exports. Bands like Ozomatli, Orixa and Los Mocosos have continued Latin Rock's multi-cultural tradition, and have carried its torch into the 21st century.
You'll dig this book big time, no matter whether you're a veteran Latin Rock fan, or somebody like me, who came to an appreciation of the music by way of its bastard cousin, Disco. Not only is it interesting and informative, it's also gorgeous to look at! Richard Mann really did himself proud. Speaking of which, don't be intimidated by the book's emphasis on Chicano Pride. It doesn't matter which side you fall on in the immigration debate; Latin Rock is an Hispanic contribution to our culture whose value everybody can agree on! It's a musical innovation as unique to the United States as Country music or Jazz. Few people can resist its pulsating polyrhythms, scorching riffs and bluesy streetwise attitude. So grab yourself some chips and salsa, pop the cap on a bottle of Tecate beer, cue up "Spill The Wine" on your iPod, and let Voices Of Latin Rock take you back to the golden years of classic '70s Pop. It's a San Francisco treat!
Land Of A Thousand Dances
by David Reyes and Tom Waldman,
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