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Javier Batiz, a Guitar Legend in Mexico, Reemerges

Pop Music* A childhood friend of Santana's, he became a cult hero even though he stayed home.

August 10, 2002|AGUSTIN GURZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The story starts in Tijuana in the 1950s with two kids who played together in a rock 'n' roll band, the TJs. They both had dreams. But one went north and the other went south.

Those choices would make an enormous difference to the careers of the two budding Mexican guitarists, Carlos Santana and Javier Batiz. From San Francisco, Santana would emerge as one of the most influential and celebrated figures in rock history. In Mexico City, Batiz would find his early success stymied by a conservative social climate hostile to the growth of rock music and its rebel culture.

Feeling defeated, Batiz moved back to Tijuana in 1970, just as his old friend's career was taking off across the border. Though he's continued to perform and record steadily since, Batiz slipped into relative anonymity.

Nicknamed El Brujo (the Wizard), he became a cult figure unknown even to the new generation of Mexican rockers who started to flourish in the mid-1980s.

Santana, however, never forgot the effect of seeing El Brujo play for the first time one Sunday afternoon in the kiosk of a Tijuana park.

"The first electric guitar I heard was Batiz's," Santana has said. "I was listening to the sound of the guitar and I thought ..., 'Man, this is my future.' "

The 58-year-old Batiz, who gives a rare Southern California performance tonight at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, is enjoying a modicum of new recognition. Aficionados looking for the real roots of rock history in Mexico are increasingly finding Batiz and his blazing guitar at the source.

Although some still believe that Mexican rock started in the '80s with groups such as Cafe Tacuba and El Tri, Batiz was actually at the birth of the country's rock scene two decades earlier.

Batiz looks as if he's been cryogenically frozen. He's as trim as a teenager, with a huge frizzy Afro that smacks of Sly & the Family Stone.

Through the beard and bush of hair, his skin appears barely wrinkled. He speaks almost perfect English, but with a heavy accent.

When he hams it up, which is often, everything he says sounds funny. Even his tribute to himself.

"I mean, I'm an icon in Mexico--Batiz. Whoooo!" he said during an interview this week at the museum.

But his light mood can turn suddenly serious. His eyes well up with tears when recounting the discovery of his musical talent as a child. His widowed mother, an English teacher who loved to sing at home with friends and relatives, taught him to play his first four chords on his guitar. The rest just came to him, as if by magic.

"When it dawned on me, 'God, why am I playing like this? Why am I singing like this?' I have a range of four octaves, I play my guitar like nobody else plays, I was 12 years old and nobody taught me. Why?"

He's struggles to hold back the feeling before giving the answer. "God," he says finally. "Only God."

God, and the blues in his blood.

Batiz fell in love with American blues artists by accident when he happened to tune to a maverick show late at night on a Tijuana station, broadcast from a ship off the coast of Rosarito, as he recalls.

With his band the TJs, he loved to play the music of Little Richard and Fats Domino. Batiz says he persuaded a teenage Santana to play bass in the band, in exchange for guitar lessons. (The superstar's manager could not confirm the recollection.)

In any case, the two Tijuana kids shared a lifelong love for the roots of rock. A few years ago, Batiz says, Santana gave him a rare copy of a song they liked to play together, "Watch Your Step" by Little Bobby Parker, who grew up in East L.A.'s R&B scene during the '50s. Santana reportedly picked up the record on a trip to Sweden and saved it for his old friend.

In 1963, Batiz had his first hit with a version of Chuck Berry's "Memphis, Tennessee." He rode the country's rock wave, la onda roquera, until it came crashing down after a Woodstock-style music festival held in 1971 at Avandaro. Mexican society was freaked out by the images of their youth skinny-dipping, smoking pot and swearing in public.

From that point on, says Batiz, rock was seen as a threat to society. When work dried up, some continued to play at improvised, underground places known as Hoyos Funkies, or Funky Holes.

"We lost everything," he recalls. "All the riches and the limos and the houses, and even the marriages, because we couldn't work anymore. A lot of groups disintegrated, and it took 20 years to get back again."

A beaten-down Batiz returned to Tijuana, writing a hit song from the experience, titled "Coming Home." After his mother died, he bought his childhood home where he now lives with his wife and daughter, Charleena, 8.

Batiz admires the energy and innocence of youth. And he's hopeful new talent will have an easier time getting recognized.

"There's a lot of people coming forward now," he says of Mexico's new rock talent, "so that before everything is taken for granted--again!--a lot more people can say, 'Listen, this is what I play.' "

Javier Batiz plays today at the Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach, 7:30 p.m. $25. (562) 437-1689.

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