In Praise of Carlos Santana, Rock 'N' Roll's Great Cultural Unifier

By Nick Gaitan

After all these years, it's easy to take Carlos Santana for granted. Far too many of us may try and dismiss his work with an Onion-style joke about "Smooth." But what Santana has done for music, and particularly Latin culture, over his decades-long career should never be underestimated. Even if you can't name his most recent albums, his name and work stand the test of time. And as he arrives in Dallas tonight for a show at Verizon Theatre, it's high time we stop and reconsider all that his trailblazing work has done.

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Santana's most commonly known for his guitar playing, and his name is often associated with musical icons like Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead and Ritchie Havens. But his work goes deeper than that. His message is often one of passion, peace and unity. He is a pioneer in what we would have once called "world music." Santana's music has been celebrated and loved by audiences around the globe. His sound is both distinctly Latin and distinctly American. He continues to enjoy great success.

His work is doing a lot for the U.S. Latin charts, but most of what's played on mainstream radio is stuck in the past. There's much more to him than that. He continues to make brilliant music in the style and tradition that he created long ago.

Santana emerged from a period in modern music when the electric guitar was king. He broke out just before the legendary Woodstock Music Festival was put together. There was no better time for an artist like him to incubate. It was a perfect fit, and he and his band chose the perfect place, San Francisco.

The Latin influence in Santana's sounds made him "outside of the box." While he fit in with the psychedelic rock of the time, his fans were not limited to one scene or sound. He shared many influences with his contemporaries, only there was an additional current of Latin music to distinguish his rock sound.

From the start, there were congas and timbales, bringing out the more African-based origins of the rhythms used. There was the soulful, wheezy growl of the Hammond B3 organ used in R&B and soul music. What the guitar sound added to the mix was freedom and fire, hope and lament, the essence of a man and his music. Santana was playing rock, Latin and jazz, all at the same time. 

Many years have gone by and this veteran musico of the world is a household name to many. Parents and their children have both grown up listening to his music. Like other greats such as Willie Nelson, Ray Charles and Jerry Garcia, his audience is multi-generational. With 10 Grammys and three Latin Grammys to date, he continues to lay down his sounds consistently.

Through the years we have seen Santana in many contexts, going as far back as his iconic Woodstock performance. Even if you weren't there, the live recording projects the energy that this legendary guitarist continues to deliver. He has played so many packed shows where electricity unfolds and music comes alive. It's easy to listen for Santana's well-known classics, but there's much more in store for the crowd at Verizon.  

Some Grammy winners or nominees do not experience the huge amount of exposure and TV and radio play that other more mainstream performers do these days. Santana has most definitely proved his staying power, and that's no fluke. How is it that some stay on the radar and some do not? What is there for an artist to do? A duet, perhaps? No stranger to that approach, Santana has collaborated on recent releases by Mexican rockers Mana, Gloria Estefan, Juanes, Steven Tyler and Michael Jackson, to name a few of the better ones.

Do these collaborations enlist new fans and followers? It worked for Sir Paul McCartney when Kanye "gave" him a little time, alongside Rihanna, on one of his latest singles. Even though it's hard to believe there are people who don't know him, musical collaborations do create new fans and expose listeners to new sounds. Santana may not need the boost that younger and more mainstream artists can offer, but it certainly doesn't hurt.

He will always be relevant to his most devout fans. Of course, it was hard to love or even like some of his most recent collaborations, but it kept him in the public eye, and he stuck to his trademark sound. Which is why, on a night like tonight, you know what you'll be getting. And that's something to be thankful for.

Carlos Santana plays at 8 p.m. tonight, Wednesday, March 18, at Verizon Theatre, 1001 Performance Place, Grand Prairie, 972-854-5111 or verizontheatre.com, $40-$250


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