Rolling Stone Greatest Songs

Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: Santana, ‘Oye Como Va’ (#479)

For virtually the entirety of his long career, Carlos Santana has defied expectation or easy categorization.  He’s generally lumped in among the guitar gods of the classic rock pantheon, occupying an eliptical orbit somewhere between Ritchie Blackmore, say, and Michael Schenker.  He doesn’t sound like Blackmore or Schenker, you understand — Carlos Santana doesn’t sound like anyone but Carlos Santana — but in terms of his influence, he’s somewhere in that territory.

You can kind of see how Santana wound up referenced where he is in the classic rock taxonomy.  He played at Woodstock, he employed a distinctive fuzzy guitar tone, and he lived in San Francisco during a time when that city served as the home base for a number of other artists who made a cultural impact:  Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead.

But even a cursory listen to Abraxas — the 1970 album that featured ‘Oye Como Va’ and ‘Black Magic Woman’, Santana’s signature songs — derails the guitar god narrative.  Not because Carlos Santana is or was unworthy of inclusion among rock’s guitar greats, but more because his inclinations towards blues and Latin jazz took him so far afield from what any of his peers were doing.  Or to put it another way, Abraxas is a lot closer in sound and intent to something like Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, which came out the same year and on the same label, than to anything Janis or Paul Kantner or Jerry Garcia were doing.  If not for Woodstock and the Bill Graham[1]Bill Graham, 1931 – 1991, was an influential concert promoter, roughly analogous to a movie producer. / San Francisco connection, it’s entirely possible we’d more accurately think of Carlos Santana as a Latinized fusion jazz musician instead of a guitarist on the classic rock periphery.

The first Latin jazz great Tito Puente knew that someone had covered his 1962 song ‘Oye Como Va’ was when his wife Margaret heard the song while she was out shopping.  She recognized the song as her husband’s, but with Greg Rollie’s funky-assed organ and Santana’s distorted guitar where the horns and the flute should have been.  Definitely not anything that Tito had ever recorded, though Santana’s version is unmistakably the same song.

Tito apparently wasn’t too thrilled at first to hear of some upstart West Coast rock outfit covering his song, but time and royalty checks — Tito was given sole writing credit on the album — changed his view, wiuth Puente himself acknowledging that Carlos Santana had “put our music around the world.”

Michael Strum: “For a man I usually think of as a paragon of guitar, it’s the organ and the bass line that really stand out to me on ‘Oye Como Va’. Tito Puente’s charm is preserved, adapted, and enhanced in Santana’s rendition. A classic, a groundbreaker for Latin music, and a welcome entry here as our first non-English song, the Kanye haters notwithstanding.”

Rolling Stone: Growing up in San Francisco, Carlos Santana was shaped by the city’s psychedelic explosion. “You cannot take LSD and not find your voice,” he once claimed, “because there is nowhere to hide.” And while his early heroes were bluesmen, he changed history with this foundational Latin-rock reworking of a 1962 salsa number by Cuban percussionist Tito Puente. Santana kept the original’s cha-cha pulse but replaced its horns with Greg Rolie’s organ and Carlos’ lysergic guitar flares. Said Puente years later, “He put our music, Latin rock, around the world, man.”


1 Bill Graham, 1931 – 1991, was an influential concert promoter, roughly analogous to a movie producer.

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