Of all the surprising developments to come out of San Francisco rock during the Fillmore/Avalon era in the late ’60s, none was richer in cultural wealth than the emergence of Latin rock after the success of Santana.
It was a short, golden moment for young Latino musicians, when things were possible that had not been previously dreamed of, and it coincided with the rise of Chicano culture – Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union and a growing sense of ethnic pride that took root in the Mission District.
Latin rock, like most pop music trends, came and went, but it left a lasting imprint on those who remembered. For the past four years, Mission District dentist Bernardo Gonzalez, also manager of veteran Latin rockers Malo since 1985, has been throwing a remarkable event called Voices of Latin Rock, which will take place Thursday at Bimbo’s 365 Club.
Without advertising or promotion, this annual benefit for autism sells out. Families buy entire tables, and old friends stand in the aisles talking, while a procession of the greatest Latin rock musicians take the stage.
Last year, the surviving members of the original Santana band played together at Bimbo’s for the first time in more than 20 years. The event began in 2004 as a publication party for a book, “Voices of Latin Rock,” by authors Jim McCarthy, a British music journalist, and Ron Sansoe, Gonzalez’s partner in managing Malo.
“We didn’t make any money the first year,” said Gonzalez. “In fact, it cost us a little bit, but the people wanted to have another one. Each year we expected to be the last.”
The original Latin rock bubble didn’t last long – Santana’s first three albums sold millions between 1969 and 1971 – but the effect on young Latin musicians throughout the country was incalculable. Conga player Michael Carabello and timbales samurai Jose “Chepito” Areas of Santana brought the fire of the Aztec gods to their band’s blues-rock foundations. It was flavored with a taste of their parents’ music, the mambo and rumba records by Tito Puente and Willie Bobo they heard growing up.
Gonzalez remembers seeing Santana’s groundbreaking performance in the Woodstock movie when he was 15 years old. “Talk about a life-changing experience,” he said. “When I saw that, I no longer wanted to be a baseball player or a football player. It still gives me goose bumps.”
Jose Simon played in country and western bands before he joined Sapo, the Latin rock band formed by Richard Bean after he left Malo. Bean wrote the Malo hit “Suavecito” when he was an 11th-grader at Mission High.
“Before that, I was just a musician making a living,” Simon said in an interview last year for “American Sabor,” the current exhibition at the Experience Music Project museum in Seattle. “No pride, it was just making a living, a good musician supporting my family, but when I played with Sapo, it was more than that. It was like ‘I’m proud to be Jose Simon playing to my people with my people and other people,’ and the sound, and it made me proud.”
Not since Ritchie Valens, an anomalous ’50s Latino rock ‘n’ roller, had music with a Latino accent been heard at the top of the pop charts. Latino rock musicians found themselves swept up in a cultural movement. The bands all played benefits for Chavez’s United Farm Workers. Chicano artwork decorated the album covers that could have come straight off the murals painted on Mission District walls.
But these young musicians were not just following the Afro-Cuban traditions of their musical forebears. They were fed by distinctly American tributaries. Jorge Santana, lead guitarist of Malo and younger brother of Carlos Santana, grew up with nine people living together in a two-bedroom Mission District apartment after his mariachi musician father moved the family from Tijuana.
“I can go right now to any Mexican restaurant,” said Santana, and “as soon as I hear mariachi, my heart just melts from the experience of having grown up listening to it, as well as my father having played it all his life. It’s built in me. I think it was the circumstances of my sisters, modern radio, Dick Clark and everything else that was taking place at that time – Motown, rhythm and blues, the English Invasion, everything. We had a different ear, or we were listening to this new music that we didn’t get a chance to listen to as much in Tijuana when we were there.”
The Santana band immediately became famous in its neighborhood. Musician and educator John Santos, who will also be honored at Bimbo’s and grew up in the Mission, remembered how inspirational the band was when he was growing up.
“They started talking about Carlos, because he was in high school at Mission High School with my older brothers and my older cousins,” he said, “and they started telling us about, ‘Hey, there’s this electric guitar player that is using timbales and congas.’ And we knew very well what the timbales and congas were because my grandfather’s band used that and we had grown up with those instruments.”
While Latin rock may not be hitting the best-seller charts today, it has never gone away. Musicians like Santos carry the Santana sound in their hearts. Young bands in the area such as La Ventana or Mestizo keep the sound alive. Los Lobos has carried the flag for many years, coming from East Los Angeles, where Latin rock musicians have a lineage going back to ’60s garage bands such as Thee Midnighters or the Premiers.
The people involved in the San Francisco Latin rock scene carried their pride with them. Abel Sanchez, who played in a number of Mission District bands and will head the house band at Bimbo’s, went on to work as an administrator for the Postal Service and eventually played a key role in the campaign to create a Cesar Chavez stamp. Simon of Sapo went to work as a stand-up comic and founded the annual Comedy Day in Golden Gate Park. Malo continues to perform – and will appear this week at Bimbo’s and at the satellite concert Saturday at Redwood City’s Little Fox Theatre – although founder Arcelio Garcia is semi-retired. Santana is still a world-famous brand name, but guitarist Carlos Santana now leads a band that bears little relation to the incendiary outfit that burned out of the Mission and can still be heard blasting “Oye Como Va” in jukeboxes everywhere.
To Anglos, this Latin rock wrinkle may seem li ke a momentary aberration on the pop scene long ago, but to Latinos it is a moment never to be forgotten.
“Whatever movement Carlos started,” his brother Jorge Santana said, “and whatever support I had given in regards to Malo and then my 10-piece band, and with the radio play that I had, it was like the Mayans. They were here and all the sudden they disappeared. Where the hell did they go? And look what they left behind.”
VOICES OF LATIN ROCK
E-mail Joel Selvin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page N – 42 of the San Francisco Chronicle
Tags: Bernardo Gonzalez
, Bimbo's 365 Club
, Mission District