José “Chepito” Areas is considered one of the most famous and celebrated musicians to hail from the country of Nicaragua. In many circles he is even considered a national hero. Chepito is most known for having played timbales in the Latin Rock group, Santana. In fact, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his work in the group. This is quite a feat considering he and bandmate, Michael Caraballo, were the first timbale/conga players ever inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Jose Chepito Areas’ journey is a fascinating one. “They used to call me Gene Krupa from Nicaragua!” Chepito said. In 1974 he released a solo album, collaborated with Nicaraguan singer-songwriter Alfonso Noel Lovo in 1976, and performed on Abraxas Pool with the early 70’s iteration of Santana in 1997. The 2000’s also saw Chepito’s success, with a feature in The Sounds of Santana in 2003 and a feature along with Michael Shrieve in Cha Cha Time! in 2007.
When Chepito was discovered by the Santana Blues Band, he was already a local legend in San Francisco thanks to the hot Latin band, The Aliens, of which he was the master and the other bandmates his students. Carlos Santana, only 22 years old at the time, approached a skeptical Chepito (he wasn’t sure about the t-shirt wearing, long haired hippie Santana).
Once Chepito accepted Santana’s offer in the late 60’s, he quickly rose through the ranks until landing the role of Musical Director. His work fused the group’s Latin Rhythms with its rock compositions, resulting in Santana’s unique, legendary sound.
Chepito made a go at solo work a few times, but none of the Santana band members managed to escape the shadow cast by the success of Santana. After a few stints returning to Managua and the Bay Area, Chepito suffered illnesses and legal issues (something he’s hinted at covering in a potential tell-all book).
In August, Dr. Alan Carlos Hernandez sat down with Chepito to discuss his wildly successful musical career in the Herald de Paris. We’ve copied the transcript below, but you can find the original text here: Herald de Paris.
Chepito Areas: (Chepito broke out in tears answering the first question) Beautiful and it’s great.
Herald de Paris: Tell us about coming to San Francisco and the band The Aliens. What kind of musical training have you had? What instruments do you play? Do you also compose?
CA: I wanted to go back home, to Nicaragua, I didn’t know what I was doing here in San Francisco. I was a famous musician back home. I came from a long line of accomplished musicians. My great grandfather, Jose de la Cruz Mena, was a famous composer of the waltz. I was mostly self-taught percussionist and trumpet player.
I moved to the States, then I started playing salsa music in San Jose. I nearly got married to a Mexican girl but I was saved by joining up with the band The Aliens who were a big act in The Bay Area.
HDP: Tell us about the first time a few of the guys from Santana came in to see you. What did they think of you, what did you think of them?
CA: Carlos heard of the Aliens playing at The Night Life in San Francisco. It was David Brown, Carlos Santana, and Gregg Rolie who came down to check me out. They liked what they heard and said that they wanted to change the sound of Santana Blues Band to Latin Rock. They asked if I could teach them the Latin stuff and I said yes. They liked my playing and enthusiasm.
HDP: What did you think of the band members?
CA: I was well dressed in a suit and they were a bunch of dirty hippies. I thought, what am I going to do with these guys, they sleep at Golden Gate Park, have holes in their pants, and wear tie die t-shirts.
HDP: I am told that Carlos was the only one who could communicate with you because he was the only one who could speak Spanish?
CA: Carlos was embarrassed to me Mexican at the time so he avoided talking Spanish
HDP: Tell us about the first time you sat in with Carlos, Gregg, Mike, and Dave. It has been said that you were a consummate professional musician and they were not at your level, it this true?
CA: Yes it’s true. They were a bunch of rockers and I was a Mambo and Latin Rock player. They needed training and so I started training them to play Latin. The rehearsals were on Fillmore Street in San Francisco.
HDP: How did they approach you to join Santana, what was the offer that they made and why did you accept? What did your former Alien band members, friends and family think of this move?
CA: They told me they wanted to record an album in a Latin Rock style and wanted me to join up with them. They wanted me to teach them. My friends, the members of The Aliens, were wondering what these heavy rock guys were doing talking to me, Chepito?
HDP: What was the first gig Santana like? How did you get along with the guys in the band? I’m told Carlos communicated with you in Spanish.
CA: The first gig I remember was at a college somewhere. I came dressed in a suit and tie, they were wearing tie die T shirts, holes in their jeans, long hair, etc. I threw away my shirt and tie and started being like them. I started growing my hair out, I adopted a rocker style.
HDP: How did being in the band influence you? Growing your hair long, playing rock instead of Latin. Did you ever think that the band would get so big?
CA: I was a rocker and started acting like one. I grew out my hair, started wearing different clothes and riding fancy cars. But I managed to stay pretty straight most of the time considering all the drugs being pushed around.
HDP: Tell us about Woodstock. You said in an interview that although you were not high or drinking, you saw God during the performance?
CA: Five hundred thousand naked girls dancing in front of you. (He laughs). Bill Graham was an enthusiast when it came to Latin Music. He liked the new Santana Latin Rock sound and sent us to Woodstock. During the performance, I felt God’s energy and presence there. The energy told me to play, I said I will play for God. I was straight.
HDP: How did you feel the first time you saw the movie Woodstock?
CA: I felt the film crew didn’t know much about Latin Music because during my solos they would show Gregg or Carlos playing maracas instead of my solo. Either way I liked the movie.
HDP: I have a picture of you driving your Rolls Royce and white El Dorado around the Mission back then. How did the money change you, did you buy lots of extravagant things?
CA: The money didn’t change me much because it was left to the accountants and money people. To this day I do not feel we were given or payed the proper amounts.
HDP: How much influence did you have over the first three Santana albums? I am told that you had to teach them how to play Latin Rhythms.
CA: It was my sound, my playing and teaching that gave those first three records that original Classic Latin Rock style. At Woodstock and all over the world they were dancing to that new sound.
HDP: What is your favorite Santana album and why?
CA: None of them. Wait, I will say, Abraxas followed by Borboleta, then Caravanserai.
HDP: What is the greatest Santana gig you ever played? Tell us a little bit about it.
CA: Altamont then Woodstock. At Altamont, I was with Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones. At Woodstock I was with Jimi Hendrix.
HDP: Who has helped your career along the way, your greatest supporter?
CA: Bill Graham. He led the way. Without Bill Graham I don’t think we would have made it. Que Viva Bill Graham!
HDP: Of all the conga players you ever worked with, who do you think is the best?
CA: Tata Guines he was king of the congas in Cuba. Also, Changito and Wilfredo de los Reyes.
HDP: Near the ending of the classic Santana line up, the band started to break up but you kept working with Carlos, why?
CA: Carlos knew I was doing less drugs and he couldn’t find anybody like me. He still hasn’t. He wanted that sound. So, we continued working.
HDP: Tell us about your critically acclaimed album. Did you ever tour with your own band to support it, why or why not?
CA: No never toured because somehow the album got shelved. It got no distribution.
HDP: In your own words why did you leave the band? Do you have any regrets?
CA: I didn’t leave the band. The band left me. And yes, I do have regrets but I’m keeping that to myself for now. You can read it in my upcoming book.
HDP: Is there anyone you would have liked to work with, any other band you wanted to be in?
CA: Yes, Earth Wind and Fire.
HDP: You told me once you had a timbale shoot out contest with Tito Puente in New York and blew him away. What was that like?
CA: Yeah I remember, Mario Rivera, the sax player for Tito Puente, called me and said come down and mess Tito up. Caco from El Grand Combo said nobody plays like you.
HDP: Tell about being the first timbale player inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What did this mean to you? What was the night like?
CA: Yes, I’m the first. It’s okay, it gives me something to brag about.
HDP: Who were the musicians who inspired you? What kind of music informs your musical style, who do you listen to?
CA: Gene Krupa and Joe Morelo from Dave Brubeck. I was early inspired to play Jazz.
HDP: I was told by a former band member, that there is a rift between you and Carlos and the rift is about you and other band members wanting Carlos to approve one of your songs for a TV Commercial. You guys would have made a ton of money and he said no, is this true?
CA: I don’t recall at the moment.
HDP: There have been a few reunions shows back in the day and you sat in. How did it feel to play with the original guys again? Do they still have the chops like they used to, do you still have the chops?
CA: Hell yeah, back in 1988, Carlos wanted me back in the band. I was feeling great. My playing was great. My chops.
HDP: Last year the original guys got together and did the Santana IV album. Why weren’t you invited to play? All the fans wanted you to participate, is Carlos holding a grudge?
CA: I feel he is. It’s been hard trying to get super close to Carlos throughout the years, even in the early days. I feel he has been somewhat distant even though he’s been there. We’ve had a love/hate relationship.
HDP: You are one of the authors of the Santana sound. He is still doing it after 50 years. Do you think you ever got the credit you deserve? Why or why not?
CA: I don’t think I’ll ever get credit for my accomplishments. Jealousy from others and those who have the power to control the news have downplayed my achievements.
HDP: If you could tell Carlos Santana anything, what would it be?
CA: That will be in my book.
HDP: What do you think of the local SF Latin Rock scene nowadays and promoters like Dr. Rock and his Voices of Latino Rock shows?
CA: I don’t really participate. I cannot comment.
HDP: I know that you still like to play gigs once in a while and your work with guitar player Ray Cepeda. Any plans to record?
CA: Yes, we’re recording right now. Even better we are recording at Hyde Street Studios, formerly known as Wally Heider Studios, in San Francisco. This is where we recorded Abraxas. Ray Cepeda writes great songs that gives us that classic that classic Latin Rock sound. My percussion work on top gives us that sound. I believe our work on “Green Eyed Lady” is proof of what I’m talking about. It’s an original Classic Latin Rock Sound... I believe our work on “Green Eyed Lady”, from the “Angels over Avalon & Aztlan” CD is proof of what I’m talking about. It’s available on apple iTunes.
HDP: Looking back on your impressive music career, do you have any regrets, anything you would do differently?
CA: No comment for now. It will be in my book.
HDP: If Carlos ever asked you to come back to Santana, would you consider it?
CA: Getting back and involved with a bunch of guys that you helped and nobody’s got my back. It’s hard. But on the other hand there have been more good times than bad. It’s like a divorce. Should I go back to my ex? I always believed that hippies were about love and peace and spirituality. But Carlos has failed, with me at least, to display this hippie way of life. I’d have to really think about it.
HDP: In the end when it is all said and done, how would you like history to remember you? What would you like your legacy to be?
CA: As one of the best percussionist in the world. As one of the most influential and one of the greatest who introduced Latin Rock to the world. I wish to elaborate more on these questions in my upcoming book that reflects my memories and life in Rock and Roll. Thank you to all my fans.