Gary Golio Shares his vision in bringing Carlos Santana’s childhood to life in a new children’s book
Carlos Santana is known the world over for his musical rock stylings infused with Latin sounds, but few know how it came about that a young Mexican man came to San Francisco to play music. In fact, in Mexico as a child Santana was trained by his father to be a classical mariachi musician, but this did not take, as he became immersed in the world of American blues, jazz and rock at a young age.
Eventually his group, Santana, would land a coveted spot in the legendary inaugural Woodstock concert in 1969. The rest is rock history.
Gary Golio is the author of several children’s books which deal with reflecting and teaching about the lives of impactful musicians. In his most recent work he tackles the life of the aforementioned Carlos Santana, bringing it to life with the artwork of Rudy Gutierrez, who as a collaborator with Santana has painted concert backdrops as well as the the cover to Santana’s 2002 Shaman album. The book, titled CARLOS SANTANA Sound of the Heart, Song of the World, reflects upon Santana’s childhood experience and showcases the first glimpses of the musician we know of today.
Recently we connected with Golio to go over his past works on books about Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane, and how he’s able to weave complexities of these musicians lives into stories for children without losing the emotion and truth.
How did you get interested in art and writing? Where did that influence or want come from?
I was an artist for many years, I used to make my living as a landscape painter and I had always wanted to be an archaeologist…but I became an artist instead. I kinda feel like I’m digging in the lives of people that I really think have something to offer, people I admire. So i’m kind of a literary archaeologist now. I was a therapist for many years. I worked with people, especially teens that had addiction troubles all across the spectrum, you name it – white, hispanic, black, of all types- kids and adults.
You know the saddest kids I saw were not the ones who were poor or necessarily had some bad things happen to them but when I asked the certain kids, “What do you want to do when you grow up, what’s your dream?”, and the saddest kids were the ones who actually could not tell me anything that they wanted to do with their lives. So the books are kind of about me presenting people that I think embody good qualities, that are exciting. They’re usually musicians, and of course they go from rock, to jazz to blues. It’s all about the foundation of roots. Of these amazing people so the kids can look into these books and kind of use them as a roadmap to say, “How do I get good at something?”, “How do I get a passion, how does that help me in my life?”. My wife began by writing children’s books herself and she was kind of my inspiration. My first book about Jimi Hendrix was about his early years and so I’ve kind of used that model with the other books, to see the roots of somebody that has something to offer everybody else.
What is your personal relationship with the stories you tell and how you focus on these people that embody these qualities you feel are good to have people learn about?
You know I was a kid who was an only child, Italian-American. I never wanted for anything, we always had food. My parents both left high school right after Pearl Harbor and my dad went into the Navy, and my mother went into a war factory and they worked very hard all their lives, nobody expected a great deal from me. In my town there was a good deal of prejudice. Italian-Americans were kind of on the lower rung.
I always had interests and I had a grandmother who really kind of emphasized education and I was always watching these movies with her. Like from the 30’s and 40’s and the movies that interested me most were movies about people who had done interesting things. Like Vincent Van Gogh, “Lust for Life”, or the movie, “Spirit of St. Louis” with Jimmy Stewart about Lindberg. People who kind of really gave themselves over to something.
My father was an amateur artist he was very gifted but he never graduated from college or high school. He did a lot of not-so-wonderful jobs for the rest of his life, he always worked hard, he was an honest man, but they finally gave me to believe that I could do something that I wanted to do. They supported me, I went to school as an artists and after I became a therapist is when I started thinking about the lives of these teenagers and helping them, to kind of find things in their lives, roots, in their family, or in things that they loved and enjoyed doing. To give them a lifeline that they could go into their adulthood with some kind of a “life preserver”” that would carry them through and keep them rooted and keep them on track.
So I believe in stories, I believe that stories have a lot of power. Kids love Star Wars, or they love Superman. Whatever it is, the reason we love those stories even as adults is because great stories are inspiring. So I’m trying to tell great stories.
Why did you choose to write the Carlos Santana book, and what kind of research did it entail?
Well the reason I wrote the book was because Rudy Gutierrez, he is Puerto Rican-American, he and I did a book called “Spirit Seeker”, John Coltrane’s musical journey, about the great jazz-saxophonists and his spiritual changes in his life. Rudy did the Shaman album cover for Santana a number of years ago and his work is beautiful. And he was telling me one day that Carlos- after woodstock in ‘69, where Santana the band had their debut, there was this album, Abraxas and it’s an amazing cover. When Rudy saw that as a kid he decided he wanted to be an illustrator and he became an illustrator.
[Rudy] said, “Gary, Carlos has a great story, you should check it out”. And so I did, I researched this, probably took me about a year to write this whole thing from beginning to end. And I wrote it because of Rudy, as a gift, because I know there’s no book on Santana for kids, at least no picture book. I wanted him to illustrate it because he loves the guy, Carlos is an inspiration for Rudy. I want to see his art out there as an inspiration for kids.
I read a lot of books, some of them that are appropriate for kids are in the bibliography in the book. I probably read 10 books and god knows how many articles. The beauty of YouTube is that you can go and listen Carlos interviewed like a hundred times by all these people, and listen to him speak, and listen to his words and his stories. I wanted the book to be truthful, there’s no fantasy, I didn’t make anything up. I didn’t put any dialogue from when he’s a kid, unless he said something, and he does, there are one or two sentences in there, nothing is made up.
It’s a matter of listening to a lot of the music, to get to the spirit, listening to mariachi music which had a big impact on him, and just kind of soaking up Mexican culture. So it’s not just reading books about Carlos, it’s also about getting a feel of where he came from, how he felt to be this very poor boy in Autlán de Navarro in Jalisco, and then writing a story which is my interpretation of all of the facts. It’s kind of like, if Carlos does a cover of Jimi Hendrix, he’s doing an interpretation, and I’m doing an interpretation of Carlos’ life based on the facts. But it’s my romantic interpretation of Carlos’ early life.
Is there anything that was especially interesting to learn about Carlos in your research?
There was something that was personally important to me, and I made it the core of the story which is the relationship between a boy that adores his father as I adored my father when I was a boy, and then what happens when you become like thirteen or fourteen and you start butting heads.
That happens to a lot of boys and their fathers and most fathers love their children and want their sons to be successful, to be good at something, they want to be proud of them, but usually you want to tell them what to do. Most boys don’t want to be told what to do, I know I didn’t. I loved my father, I admired him, but he worried about me and he didn’t’ want me to make mistakes and he was always telling me to do this, but not to do that. We had our troubles, when I was the same age as Carlos was when he had his troubles.
So, I wanted to get at the core of what was going on, which was on the outside fathers and sons often have these troubles but at the core there’s this love that’s always pulling them back together. Carlos’ father was very disappointed when he didn’t become the third generation mariachi violinist but that wasn’t for him, and dad accepted it to the point where finally he sends Carlos this used guitar back from Tijuana and Carlos starts on his own path. And that takes a lot for a grown man, a father, to finally let go and say, “You know what, I’m going to support my kid and do what he wants to do as long as it’s a good thing.” When I dug into the story that was the thing that really got to me. The tug of war between what dad thought was a good idea, and what carlos in his heart knew that he had to do for himself.
After reading excerpts from your other children’s works, I was wondering how you deal with translating some of these darker themes and serious emotions into something a child could digest or understand?
The book on John Coltrane that Rudy and I did, it’s for slightly older kids, let’s say 8-12 instead of second and third grade, so it deals with John Coltrane’s early life, a boy growing up in Jim Crow South in North Carolina, and the prejudice and the racism. All the men in his family die within a year when he’s a boy. He becomes very depressed, at the same time a minister starts a community band, and he gets his first instrument, and his life changes. But, he becomes involved with drinking, he becomes a heroin user, how do you tell kids about stuff like this?
Even though the ending is a good one. Because of his spirituality John Coltrane was able to recover, to let go, to become sober and to become a great musician who actually interestingly, Carlos Santana, of all the people he adores one at the very top is John Coltrane, because of his spiritual connections. I think you can tell kids just about anything if you tell them in the right way, and you use the right words. You don’t give a kid a checkbook or a driver’s license when they’re eight years old because they’re not ready. You don’t tell them certain things until they can handle it but if you use the right language I believe in the power of children to deal with heavy stuff.
You don’t want to depress them, you don’t want to traumatize them, there are books for children about war, about Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, and if you look at the language in those books, usually they’re told in the context of a fictional characters’ life. The kids get really interested in what’s happening to them, you don’t have to tell them everything, they’re seeing it. It doesn’t have to be gruesome. There’s a part in the Santana book where he goes to a cafe with his father, a cantina for the first time and he was expecting this to be a wonderful, brightly lit happy place and it turns out to be a grungy, crappy little cafe where there’s sawdust on the floor, and there’s cigarette butts burnt into the table, and the men are drinking, they wanna hear the same song over and over. Carlos is like, “Hey, my father, what’s he doing in a place like this?” Dad had to do what he had to do. So I think, kids can handle that. There’s nothing in the language that’s terrible. And also, it’s like talking about death with children or talking about sadness or poverty. I did this a lot when I was a therapist, I never had a kid say to me, and I worked with kids as young as seven that had some very bad things happen to them, “Gary, stop, it’s too much. I can’t handle this.” I think if you speak to kids in an appropriate way, using the right language, and you respect them for their ability to handle things then everything will be okay.
You can drop those little things in there like grains of pepper, as long as you don’t overdo it and respect the ability of a child to understand what they’re saying, I think kids can handle a lot more than they’re given credit for.
Thanks so much Gary. With the final question I will ask, what’s the most rewarding thing for you when crafting these stories?
It’s wonderful to see that you get this idea one day and you sit down and you check it out and you look at some books and you think, “Okay, I want to write about this person, I love their work.” Then you find a story within the life that’s a focal point for the themes that I think are important. With Carlos it was him getting his first guitar, and his relationship and admiration with his father and their conflict.
Then I do more research, I go more deeply, I do my archeology thing and I dig real deep and I look for treasure. Then I write the thing, and then I have to sell it. Then [you] find an illustrator and you start seeing sketches and you start seeing this book come alive, and you say wow. The amazing thing, finally when you hold this beautiful thing in your hand, you think wow, “this all came about because of an idea.”
You convinced an editor and publisher to do this thing and they hired an amazing artist and then they printed this thing and it goes out into the world and then you get letters from people who tell you they cried when they read your book on John Coltrane, or Jimi Hendrix or somebody writes and says [they] went to high school with Jimi Hendrix. And so, it doesn’t matter it’s ten thousand people, or two people, when you see that it’s gone out like ripples, like you throw a rock into the pond. You just never know what’s going to come from this thing that resulted from you having a simple idea. It’s an amazing process and I’m very, very blessed to have had these things happen for me, and to have these books come out. It’s a great blessing.
For more information Golio and his books, please visit http://www.garygolio.com/.