A conversation with the celebrated guitarist and bandleader on the occasion of some momentous anniversaries
2019 is an important year for Carlos Santana. It’s the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock festival, featuring a breakout performance of his then largely-unknown band, two weeks ahead of the debut Santana LP. This year also marks the 20th anniversary of Supernatural, the end-of-century “comeback album that returned Santana to the top of the charts, helped along by the smash single “Smooth.”
But the guitarist didn’t need a comeback, because he never went away. His career has been filled with twists and turns, from pop-friendly hit singles to ambitious, jazz-immersed collaborations with fellow guitar virtuoso John McLaughlin and much more. In fact, he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down, given the unsung excellence of his new album, Africa Speaks.
In recognition of this year’s landmark status, and in connection with a high profile show in the San Francisco Bay Area (the region from which the Santana band originally came), Carols Santana granted me a rare interview, which formed the basis for a feature than ran in four Bay Area altweeklies. But even that expansive piece couldn’t contain all of the fascinating and illuminating conversation. So for Rock and Roll Globe readers, I proudly present the best previously unpublished bits from our interview.
I read your autobiography/memoir The Universal Tone. In the book, you discuss your deep appreciation and understanding of the debt that popular music owes to African cultural traditions. And your latest album, Africa Speaks helps listeners – if they didn’t know it already – to hear the connections between African and Latin, especially Caribbean music more clearly, but in a rock context. What specifically inspired you to make the new album?
The nutrients and ingredients and the rhythms of Africa immediately give you hope and courage. They encourage. So what does that mean? It means one word, joy. Joy knows no fear. Joy and fear don’t get along. Fear is like the fog in San Francisco, but joy is the sun. And eventually, the fog will dissolve and the sun will not. So, for me, the rhythms of Africa have the nutrients and ingredients of hope and courage, which is joy. They make you dance.
I’ve always thought it interesting that the best musicians are the ones who are the most serious students of where the music comes from.
Well, yes. As I say, it got my attention when I first heard Mr. B.B. King. And of course, I grew up right in between B.B. King and Tito Puente. And along the same time, I discovered [Babatunde] Olatunji and Eddie Palmieri and Miles Davis and [John] Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, and of course John Lennon and Bob Marley. Because for me, it’s about consciousness; the consciousness in music.
I remember John Lennon and his wife Yoko being very vocal about what enormous contribution that African music had in them, whether it’s Chuck Berry, the Marvelettes, anything from Motown, Isley Brothers, “Twist and Shout.” Later, when they started doing Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper’s, because they were affected by Bob Dylan; then they went somewhere else. But let’s remember that Bob Dylan’s main guy was Lightnin’ Hopkins. Same thing. Van Morrison’s main guy is John Lee Hooker. So, we all have someone that we hold onto to get our identity together.
VIDEO: The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins
From my perspective, there are a handful of artists – Neil Young, Todd Rundgren, David Bowie, and I put you in that category as well – whose work demands a great deal from the listener. Because you don’t do the same thing over and over again. What responsibility do you feel to your fans, and what do you expect in return?
I have neither one of those territories that I hang around with. I don’t expect anything from the fans and I don’t wake up to please anybody other than my heart. So, therefore, I don’t have any weird pressure to do what my fans tell me to do. No, it doesn’t work like that. I don’t wake up to do that. I wake up, basically, and I say, “Thank you.” Gratitude, thankfulness, deep appreciation for another day. And then I know if I’m actually feeling those three things, I can create miracles and blessings. The miracle for me is that I’m 71 years old. I have energy of a 27 [year old] with a lot of thirst for adventure. I can hardly wait to get into the next thing so that I can be at the peak of my brilliance … like you.
When you made the 2016 reunion album Santana IV, you self-produced. For the very different Africa Speaks, you worked with Rick Rubin. He has kind of a reputation as a producer that artists turn to when they want to “get back to their roots.” What was your motivation for choosing to work with him?
Hope, trust, and faith that he has the missing puzzle [piece]. We recorded 49 songs in ten days. We recorded and then we went to Australia and New Zealand. Then, [vocalist] Buika came while we were gone; she sang lyrics and created melodies and all kinds of stuff around what we did. So, I hadn’t shaken hands with her or looked here in the eye until the second [session]. So, I think what I really mean to say is that my reason for reaching out to Rick Rubin and Buika is because I felt that those are the two spirits that would bring this particular adventure to a supremeness.
VIDEO: A Conversation with Rick Rubin
Buika is a different sort of vocalist than those who have appeared on your previous albums …
Each song [on Africa Speaks] is like an arena. The ones that we did with Buika, these 11, 12 songs, I don’t think anybody else could fit in there other than Buika, except for Laura Mvula; she did a little bit on one of the songs. And one thing that is a landmark for this album is the first time that I … people have been saying it for years, “When are you going to have a woman in your band?” And now we’ve got two! My wife’s played drums [in the band] for the last three or four years. Yeah, she’s incredible. And [Africa Speaks] is album of Santana featuring Buika; she’s the main vocalist leader. And I have a lot of deep appreciation and a lot of belief that this is something the world needs right now. Because the world needs – I’m gonna call it like this – “mystical medicine music.”
One of the qualities of your work that has always struck me is the way that you approach each project with what I would call intention. An album like Caravanserai probably didn’t seem like a commercial bid at the time, and it really wasn’t. It was not a commercial album. Supernatural, on the other hand, was. But they’re both authentically you. You brought the same authenticity to both kinds of projects. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
What Santana is, it’s a frequency of certain elements that makes people feel at home. A lot of people are not at home in their own hearts. Some people are not happy with themselves; they’re miserable. So, our music is assigned and designed to take you out of your misery. And as long as you hear the album, it takes you to a place where you celebrate you, you celebrate your life.
Someone called my wife a “goody two shoes,” because Cindy is like myself … we’re kumbaya people. And I always say, “Well, that’s okay. I can live with those names because I want to bring beauty from within.” People have a lot of beauty that they’re not letting out. And so, our music invites people. I see it all the time. You start crying and laughing and dancing and you don’t even know why. And then, the music makes you feel like you need to go to the closet and clean a lot of shit that don’t fit you no more. Because all of a sudden you feel differently about yourself, and about the world. And that’s what this frequency can and will do for you. We’ll take you outside, out of your emotional perception investment. Whoa!
Can you tell me a little bit about how the culture of the San Francisco Bay Area had an impact on your musical outlook and your overall approach?
Yes, thank you for asking that. For me, my alma mater was the streets of San Francisco. The Fillmore West was the main university. So, I learned from Haight Ashbury and of course The Grateful Dead. For me, everything was like one consciousness with Charles Lloyd, The Chambers Brothers, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Ravi Shankar, all that.
But at the same time, it was Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Dolores Huerta, and Mahatma Gandhi. Because from Bill Graham, I learned how to open my heart to both and offer myself.
You’ve mentioned about the special sensual connection that women had with Santana music early on. But were there people at some of the band’s early shows who sort of scratched their heads and just didn’t get it?
Of course. One of the funniest things that I first read was in Rolling Stone review, a critic. They said, “This band sounds like a psychedelic mariachi rock band.” I was like, “Damn. Next thing you know, they’re gonna ask me to play piñata music for him at his bar mitzvah!” I just looked at it like, “Okay. That’s that person’s perception, but it’s not really what’s happening.”
Because we don’t show up in a certain country waving the American flag and stuff like that. We don’t do that. Our flag is a different flag. I live here because I honor it, but my flag is the human heart, the human spirit. Anything else is a corporate, corrupt business. And we know that. People may not want to hear it, but you know what? Sometimes when you have a fever of fear, you need to hear that you need medicine for that fever.
With regard to music specifically, what’s the best advice you ever got, who gave it, and did you take it?
The best advice I ever received was something that Eubie Blake, this piano player said. He was in his 90s, almost 100. And he looked at the camera and he said, “Well, what do you have to say to people about your music?” And he said, “If they just listen, I got ‘em.”
I thought that was awesome. I said, “That’s it right there.” And it’s not arrogance, man. It’s confidence in your spirit. I have confidence that what comes out of my fingers and my heart is going to touch somebody. It’s going to rearrange molecular structure. That’s what we do. That’s who we are.
STREAMING: Africa Speaks by Santana