This may be a given but I have to ask: Why is the music of Carlos Santana considered “Chicano music?”
It’s true; I am a fan. And as a fan I never question why I love the music, but I often ask myself what it is specifically about the music that resonates so strongly with me. I could say that I love Santana because I love a soulful electric guitar voice, because I admire the musicianship of the band, because I feel the “sabor” they sing about, because I’ve always loved Santana. But these parts surely do not make up a satisfying the “whole.” There is something else, something about listening to the music that amplifies my sense of identification as a Chicana with other Chicanos and Mexicanos. This happens whether I’m among raza, in the various communities I call home, or whether I find myself feeling very far from Aztlán. I’ve witnessed the effect of the music – maybe you have too – when it comes on the car radio, at backyard family BBQs, and friend’s living room dance floors, the music gets your body up and connects you to your Chicano roots.
In this sense, Santana is forever part of the Chicano sounded imaginary. For Chicanos, identifying with the music of Carlos Santana may have a special meaning that has something to do with a particular Chicano/Mexicano subjectivity. Yet, for non-Chicanos, Santana still retains their quintessential American rock band status. Most of their airplay is on mainstream radio, rarely if ever on Spanish-language stations. So Santana can be thought of at once as “puro” Chicano or “classic rock,” except that Santana is a straight up fusion band. This is why I have to ask, is the music of Santana “Chicano” music? And I further wonder, could I be Chicana without Carlos Santana?
…Oye Como Va…
Before the Rob Thomas & Carlos Santana collaboration on the Grammy award-winning album Supernatural (1999), before the phenomenon of “Smooth,” there was classic Santana. The Santana that produced the self-titled debut album Santana (1969) and Abraxas (1970). The songs “Evil Ways,” “Black Magic Woman,” and “Oye Como Va” from these two albums are on constant rotation on “classic rock” stations well after forty years since they first hit the airwaves. Even if you’re not a fan or a music connoisseur, when listening to “Oye Como Va” or “Smooth” it’s easy to recognize a distinct “Latin-ness” about them. In part, this is because of the fusion of Spanish and English lyrics with rock, blues, jazz, and Afro-Latin musical styles. For Chicanos, this particular fusion of language and sound might also resonate as something familiar and close to home – if sound can be a home. A quick search on YouTube will lead you to the classic 2000 Grammy Awards Performance of “Smooth” and a wealth of competing claims by fans (and foes) in the comments section.
Fan 1: “SANTANA ERES LO MAXIMO, VIVA MEXICO!!!!!!!!”
Fan 2: “Salsa baby, Oye Como Va is universal, Carlos is the man!!!!”
This was a special and high-profile performance so these comments are exceptionally spirited. But, YouTube is full of spontaneous, impassioned, (albeit anonymous) examples like this on any given day. I highlight these two as sort of placeholders for the idea of how sound and music mighty carry significant meaning toward subject formation in an everyday sense. These fans claim Santana both for Mexico and for the world, respectively, because they reflect a strong sense of Mexican or Chicano pride. In the first comment, the very enthusiastic fan could easily be a Mexico City native, maybe a Chicano wanting to sound like a Chilango –“ERES LO MAXIMO” is not a Chicano Spanish expression. The second fan’s comment is all in English and could be Chicano simply based on that—but those are slightly secondary points. As I suggested earlier, for Chicanos, Santana’s music has the potential to reflect a sense of ethnic history and culture. Sound can be a home. After all, the first comment claims Santana’s music for a whole country with “VIVA MEXICO!” helping to affirm the feeling that this fan and Carlos are Mexicanos together, across time and place.
When I was studying music in college, Mexican, Chicano, or Latino music was not part of the curriculum. Instead, in my private piano lessons, I would gravitate toward pieces by Spanish or Latin American composers as a sort of “good enough” way to stay in touch with my latinidad. This helped, but the fact is that Latin American art songs have much more in common with the Western musical canon than they do with my experiences and Chicana consciousness. In other words, it was a reach to identify with these composers solely because we shared a language. What would I miss in a too quick move to identify with the Latin-ness of Santana’s music this way? Would I hear only the Spanish spoken in the song? If so, then gaining a sense of my Chicana/o subjectivity by claiming “Oye Como Va” (for Aztlán?) relies on partially subsuming the specific Caribbean contexts and poetics of the song. Is this song originally Cuban, Puerto Rican? It’s really just a party song. “Oye como va, mi ritmo, bueno pa’ gozar, mulatta” Eso! Does it really matter now if Santana’s version has re-defined it for all time?
In a way, the second fan expresses a more complex desire: “Oye Como Va is universal.” Everyone knows that Carlos Santana is Mexican, some know that he is also an immigrant, and still others may have read that he grew up in Tijuana. As part of American rock music history, Santana’s roots are firmly planted in San Francisco and the Bay Area and it is well known that Santana played at the historic Woodstock Festival of 1969. Clearly, amongst other identities, Santana is a classic American rock band with long and wide appeal. But from the beginning, along with creative fusions of rock, jazz, blues, and salsa, it has been the distinctly Afro-Latino percussion core that defines their emblematic sound. And this is exactly how and why dwelling on these details in the sound of Santana matters. If Santana comes to mean or signify something like “pur0 Mexicano” or “pur0 Chicano” (in a brown pride or brown power sense) then that purity is already so productively and interestingly troubled because there is nothing remotely “pure” about Santana’s music.
Therefore, to identify with the music means confronting those complex fusions of language, race, and music that make up the Santana “sound.” To partly answer my earlier question, “Oye Como Va” is a composition by the renowned Puerto Rican timbalero and band leader Tito Puente, but the musical form, a basic cha-cha-cha, is Cuban. The song has other authors as well, that both Santana and Puente name. But ultimately, this song and indeed much of Santana’s music, comes in wake of much older histories of African diaspora, migration, colonization, artistry and spirituality.
In a way, I’ve always felt that Santana’s music was making a black/brown connection, that racial boundaries were necessarily crossed or brought together because of the many histories that flow through the music. As a child of Mexican immigrant parents, I grew up listening to a wide repertoire of Afro-Latino music – elegant danzónes, romantic boleros, joyous cumbias, mad mambos, as well as more traditional Mexican music. Maybe that is also part of why listening to Santana reminds me of home. But this is perhaps too simple a response.
Santana’s music and popular image has been engaged in positive but also problematic ways in Chicana/o cultural production. Most recently, I noted this in a performance of the play New Fire, by Cherrie Moraga, in San Francisco. At a critical point in the drama, the evocative love song “Samba Pa’ Ti” is used to introduce a male character and a difficult, sexually violent scene. Moraga’s larger critique is of violent Chicano patriarchy and masculinity. The play is offered as a healing ceremony. But the association of this song, which features a famous guitar solo, with that specific scene is profoundly jarring. My sense was that Moraga selected Santana for the play’s soundscape it served as a shorthand for “Chicano.” Here, it was made to bear the history of violence of brown men against brown women and girls. This made it difficult for me to identify as a Chicana–queer and feminist–with Carlos Santana at that moment, and some time after. Surely this is also part of what “home” means.
Santana’s music interests me for these reasons, which go beyond the sounded Chicano imaginary in my headphones. What I find worthwhile in thinking further about Santana’s “sound” is how in the many acts of claiming Santana for oneself, one’s country, or one’s community, I can trace the way in which Chicano and Caribbean histories, both racialized and gendered, touch and cross in the music. That is, I see this as an invitation for the listener to reimagine notions of race, nation, gender, and sexuality even while dancing and singing along. In these ways, I see meaningful possibilities for imagining Chicana/o as a sounded subjectivity. I am certain that my sense of who I am, how I think, and how I walk in the world has been shaped by a life-long relationship with music and sound. And although being “Chicana” to me is not the same for anyone else, Santana’s music helps me to imagine a connection, a musical lineage I can trace and take part in. Santana is not my parent’s music. It’s not even my generation’s music. And, it’s not my only musical identity. But, even so, I couldn’t imagine being Chicana without Carlos Santana. Because when I listen, I do hear it, I hear how it all goes, together, and that is so, so good. “Give me your heart, make it real, or else forget about it!”
Wanda Alarcón is a PhD student in Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley where her research involves reading Chicana and Caribbean “stories” together in a decolonial feminist vein. When she’s not living the glamorous grad student life she likes to make zines about po’try, learning new songs on her childhood piano, cooking for her loved ones, and exploring NorCal with her main squeeze. A native Los Angelena, she is beginning to appreciate thinking and writing about her beloved hometown from afar. Music helps bridge that distance. So do the trees and ocean breezes. She lives and loves kibbutz-style in Santa Cruz with her partner por vida, Cindy, their two sassy cats Lucy & Mona, and dear housemate, Ella.
*The title of this piece is inspired by the short story, “Minnie Riperton Saved My Life,” by the poet & playwright, Luis Alfaro.
I watch you breathe,
I cannot sleep,
I touch your hair,
I kiss your skin,
And hope the morning sun won’t wake you too soon.
For when you wake,
and look at me,
You never know,
you just might see,
Another boy who crept in your room…
Take your time…(that’s what you told me),
Take your time…
But I fell head first, and I just don’t know what to do
—“Nothing Looks the Same in the Light,” Wham!
I was a teenager in the 80’s. I grew up in South East Los Angeles, Huntington Park, to be exact, H.P. for short—home of the Huntington Park Senior High Spartans and the local after game hangout, Spartan Burgers. In those years, almost everyone in my school was Mexican and most kids were either preppy or cholos or Florentine Gardens disco-types—almost no one was “alternative.” That is, until we caught our first glimpse of Boy George on Video One with Richard Blade – that MTV style video show that came before MTV. If you remember, or have YouTubed it recently, a key scene in the video for Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” begins with Boy George stepping out of a swimming pool, fully clothed and dry (a lo-tech effect even by 80’s standards), wearing a flowing tunic, white-boy dreadlocks, and expertly applied makeup. I remember being instantly fascinated watching him dance to a reggae beat and hearing him sing so longingly about a mysterious “you.” I had never seen anyone who looked or sounded like that before, and I went from listening to my brothers’ heavy metal records, my mom’s cumbias, and my grandpa’s Beethovens to listening to Culture Club, Eurythmics, Wham!, and Bow Wow Wow almost overnight.
Soon after, I started noticing in my neighborhood sprinklings of pink, purple and green hair, spikey egg white mohawks, brown boys in skirts and makeup, and the girls from St. Mathias High wearing black chunky combat boots with their proper, pleated, Catholic school uniforms–my personal favorite look. And when I bought my very own first pair of 8-hole lace-up Doc Marten’s, I was forever transformed. I sensed that crossing fashion lines somehow meant crossing other lines too, although, I was perhaps I bit too young to really cross anything. As a questioning adolescent, I embraced the freedom that music, fashion, and expression represented. It’s strange to think about how such a global phenomenon took shape in my little eastside town. That time of 80’s new wave, the “Second British Invasion,” told me something about who I would become. I learned fearlessness from the bold and transgressive acts of fashion and wit my favorite gender bending pop stars regularly deployed on American network TV. And I learned to “tune in” to the sexually ambiguous language of songs like “Time Clock of the Heart” or “Nothing Looks the Same in the Light.” All of those blurred lines felt “normal” to me. And it meant later on that I didn’t have to have an identity crisis when I was coming out. And I really didn’t. I didn’t really think about “identity” in this way again until much later.
I’m only sad in a natural way
And I enjoy sometimes feeling this way
The gift you gave is desire
The match that started my fire
—“The Paris Match,” The Style Council
As I copy and sometimes re-purchase 25-year old lost albums for my new e-music library, I’ve started to wonder about some of my musical choices. Why did I still like what I liked? How do I trace my musical habitus? Culture Club, George Michael, The Style Council – they’re all on my iPod right now. And I ask myself, is my musical taste really so wrapped up in what I perceived to be my pop idols’ alternative sexuality so long ago? In this post-gender, post-queer, post-race (rhetorically speaking), trans-border era, is there even such a thing as “alternative” anymore?
Because when I listen to those old songs now, part of me still “hears” the skillful crossing of gender lines in every ambiguously phrased lyric, like the Pet Shop Boys’ clever line, “Which do you choose, a hard of soft option?” And I recall vivid images of Annie Lennox at once crossing and keeping those lines in the video for “Who’s That Girl?” which ends with an impossibly queer kiss. (She queered the Lacanian mirror long before Black Swan!) I still sense how all of these wildly public expressions of queer desire, with all of its spectacle and taboo, flowed into my childhood home through the sturdy Zenith television set that brought us together to “listen” to music anew. And this kind of hearing has to do with a particular way of remembering my adolescence – the memory of how felt for the first time to hear those songs and see the images of Boy George winking his long painted lashes at the video camera, seriously putting pressure on the word “Boy”; or seeing George Michael dancing with Andrew Ridgley in the macho ditty “Wham Rap”, their two beautiful and stylish female band mates conspicuously superfluous in that dance. And also remembering how the combined effect put something like the question about boys on hold for me in a really powerful way. There were options out there, is what I understood, and that was all I needed to survive – to save my queer soul.
Don’t make me feel any colder
Time is like a clock in my heart
Touch we touch, was the heat too much?
I felt I lost you from the start
In time it could have been so much more
The time is precious I know
In time it could have been so much more
The time has nothing to show because
Time won’t give me time
And time makes lovers feel like they’ve got something real
But you and me we know they’ve got nothing but time
–”Time Clock of the Heart,” Culture Club
But I also detect another kind of crossing, or rather, multiple crossings in those same songs. Somewhere between the funk inspired bass line of “Nothing Looks the Same in the Light” and the soulful oohs and ahs of Helen Terry’s backup vocals in “Time Clock of the Heart,” I sense this music also crossed a race and a class line, however precariously treaded. From the perspective of a young, working class Chicana, quickly interested in all things British and gay, it seemed to me that these young white British boys took up a mic and pen and left their own working class accents behind for the promise of America. Clearly raised on a diet of soul and R&B, their eventual collaborations with Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, and Mary J. Blige – American musical royalty – seemed only natural on the Grammy stage. And I wondered in my youthful, pop star fantasies, how did they feel when they learned they could sing like that? What did it mean to be queer and black at the same time? Musically speaking. What was the bigger transgression? Because the 80′s were deadly years for many of us, on both sides of the Atlantic, who were confronted with the authority of the lines drawn by Reagan, Thatcher, and AIDS. Maybe the transgression is to survive. And to remember.
Listening as an adult now to George Michael’s greatest hits collection Twenty Five, it is easy to see that there is no longer any doubt about his sexual orientation. In songs like “An Easier Affair,” he celebrates that he’s “dancing with the freaks now/I’m having so much fun/I do my dance with everyone.” So I wonder, when your pop idols sex lives stop being curiosities or taboo, what still fascinates? Even their notorious falls from grace, and their celebrated “come backs” didn’t really provoke the public imagination in the same way again. But I detect there are still clues in the music. In his brilliant cover of “Feeling Good,” George Michael pays humble homage to Nina Simone saying: “It’s a new day, it’s a new dawn, it’s a new life, it’s a new low/Oh we all know it’s too much to expect a man, a white man, to do it like Nina” (my emphasis). That simple musical gesture, a crossing of many sorts, tells me something about what she means to him. And I think that it has ever been and ever will be music that will save our collective souls… I was seventeen when I left HP for a much larger Los Angeles. In some ways I was too young to leave home and sometimes I thought that I didn’t survive some things that came my way. But I always had a song to guide me and show me something new–a different way. I know I’ll never fully rebuild my archive on something like iTunes. But as I contemplate my growing digital library, I really do believe that new wave saved my life.