With a new record and three major anniversary milestones on the horizon, it's shaping up to be a busy summer for Santana

By Jordan Runtagh
June 07, 2019 09:30 AM
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Maryanne Bilham

For Carlos Santana, the past and present are coming together in perfect harmony this year. On Friday the guitar legend will release his latest album, Africa Speaks, a Rick Rubin-produced venture that blends his familiar Latin roots and Bay Area psychedelia with the sounds and rhythms from the African continent. Santana’s virtuosic playing is complimented by Spanish jazz singer Buika, who adds her bewitching vocals to a number of the album’s tracks.

In 2020 Santana plans to tour the album with a string of theater dates, but first he has some major milestones to attend to. This summer the 71-year-old will embark on the Supernatural Tour, named in honor of the mammoth 1999 album that kicked off a remarkable late career resurgence with the radio juggernaut “Smooth,” featuring Matchbox 20 frontman Rob Thomas. The disc turns 20 this year, which his hard enough to believe, but this August also marks half a century since Santana’s star-making turn at Woodstock and his band’s self-titled debut just weeks later. Santana aims to be present for the two major gatherings honoring the generation-defining festival — the troubled Watkins Glen event produced by Woodstock ’69 organizer Michael Lang, as well as a second show held at the original concert site in Bethel, New York.

Santana spoke to PEOPLE about his new music, old memories, and his timeless message of peace.

What story did you want to tell on Africa Speaks? What did you want your music to say?

That’s the most significant, meaningful question. What I want to say to the listener is that there is a need for ritual. There has been since the beginning of time with Africans and American Indians and what you call Shamans and Aborigines. The reason people need ritual — including the Pope on Christmas Eve with the wine and the candles and everything — is because ritual is like when you link up your phone to your laptop. You get this information and all this data. Humans need ritual for the same reason that you need to create a connection with absoluteness, which is with God, the universe, whatever you want to call it. What I want to say is that the African music has an ingredient of joy, which is so much needed right now in this planet because there is so much investment in fear everywhere. So we give people hope and courage with this music that we created. I call it the mystical medicine music.

African rhythms are the DNA of so much music. It’s in all of us.  

Yes, and there’s two sides to it. One is the molecular, the cells, and the other is the spiritual DNA. The spiritual DNA is immutable. When we come into this planet, especially if you’re in the western mentality, they infect you with the concept of sin, guilt, shame. You’re guilty of sin as soon as you come out of the womb because of the first sin from Adam and Eve. That’s what Bob Marley calls mental slavery. You’re already stained, you’re already corrupted — like a phone that has been corrupted — as soon as you come out of the womb. The spiritual DNA says that stuff is not real, it’s an illusion created for mental slavery. Just like a pimp tells a woman, “I’ll protect you in the big city but you got to work for me.” Pimps, politicians and the Pope, they play the same game to protect you and they sell you fear. They borrow your watch to tell you what time it is.

This music is to remind you that you’re immutable, that you’re significant and meaningful. You can create miracles and blessings and you can do the impossible. It’s really important in Africa Speaks. When people say to me, “If Africa speaks, what does it say to you personally?” It says to me, “Give people what you’ve been giving them since you first picked up the violin and the guitar. Give them hope and courage.”

When you first began work on this album, you recorded 49 songs. How did you land on the 11 tracks that made the final cut? What were they saying to you?

Those particular songs were saying, “We are ready to come out and be hatched.” The other ones are in incubation. These ones, they create a cluster story that’s right from the get-go, from “Africa Speaks” to “Candombe Cumbele.” Nowadays very few people concentrate on creating albums like What’s Going On, or Sgt. Pepper’s, or The Doors’ first album. There are certain albums that are complete, like a novel, from beginning to end. It’s not just one or two songs. The whole album was telling you a story, like in Sketches of Spain, [by] Miles Davis. This album, to me, is like that. The whole album is one particular statement.

What was it like working with Rick Rubin? What did he bring to the mix?

It’s incredible the zen-like clarity that he brings by not saying much. He basically allowed the 49 songs to be created. He was watching and once in a while he would go inside the room and he would whisper a few things here and there to this person or that person. It was like watching a master bonsai [gardener] know where to trim a tree here and there — or what to say here and there.

But I think his main incredibleness came at the end, the last month when he mixed the whole album. Everybody said the same thing: It sounds so alive. You can distinguish each instrument, and it’s really vibrant with energy. Rick just uses ingredients of impeccable integrity. He doesn’t use anything that is not real. If it’s synthetic and phony and plastic, it’s not in his DNA.

It also features incredible vocal work by Buika. How did you first cross paths with her? 

She’s like Etta James and Tina Turner and Nina Simone. She’s got that raw realness, but she doesn’t sound like them. She sounds like herself. I found her at like 3 o’clock in the morning. I was surfing the internet looking for new African music and she showed up. I used to go to Virgin Records in Paris. That’s closed and Tower Records was closed, so now, like everybody else, I go to the internet to look for the newest thing that’s coming out of Africa.

People have been asking me for years, “When are you going to have women sing in your band?” And I would just get quiet. My wife, Cindy Blackman Santana, she played drums on every track. She’s in the band. She’s been in the band for two or three years now. Between the energies of Buika and Cindy, it’s given Santana a whole new energy that I have never witnessed before in all the bands that I’ve played in. It’s more vibrant, more energetic, more fluid. It has a lot of different kinds of power that it will not lay down. It keeps hovering. What I love about this music is that it puts away the time and the gravity. Like real masterpieces, that’s what they do. Time disappears and gravity disappears.

In addition to the African rhythms, what other music has inspired you — either when you were just starting out or now. I know Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker and B. B. King were big for you, but who else?

Otis Rush. Miles, definitely Miles. Coltrane, John McLaughlin, Paco de Lucía. But especially women. Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, and tons and tons and tons of Aretha Franklin. I used to study Lady Soul. I studied everything that’s in the album: the bass player, the guitar player, the drummer, the vocalist, the horns. I was learning everything about her album Lady Soul, including her phrasing and why it’s so important to go back over and over until you get close to feeling what she’s feeling. “Why is she singing this note a certain way?” I think it was Tony Bennett that said, “If you take from one artist that’s called stealing. If you take from many it’s called research.” I’ve been researching a lot from a lot of people.

At what point in your life did you realize that music had such power?

When I first heard my father play and saw the way he would charm women — and men and children would really like it, too. My father played the violin and people would just stop in the room. They’d look at him like he was a shaman charmer, one who charms a snake with a flute or something. My father had charisma. He didn’t look like Clark Gable, but believe me, he had that thing with women. [laughs] I was like, “Damn!” I think it was his confidence. Confidence is very, very essential. Not arrogance, but confidence. Just the way he put his chin on the violin, women surrendered immediately. Like plants need water, humans need romance.

Was he the beginning of your musical education?

Yes, I started in Tijuana. My father gave a shoeshine box to my brother and two boxes of Chiclets to me and he would say, “Don’t come back until you sell all of it!” We were like, “Whoa.” He was really serious about it. Then later on he put a tiny little violin in my hands and I learned the songs the tourists liked to hear. There’s a certain ingredient in Mexican music that is very…I guess what they call “melancholy.”

So he taught me to play and we were able to bring money to dad to help him. I have four sisters and two brothers and he needed help for food and the rent. I learned at a very, very young age to make a living and bring it to my father and my mother.

What was it like for you moving to the States? That must have been such a huge cultural shift.

It was like being a child that comes to Disneyland for the first time and they give you a bunch of rolls of tickets to go to every ride and have anything you want to eat — hot dogs and pizza and Coca Cola. For every person, there’s a conspiracy from God, or the universe, or archangels and angels, whatever you want a call it. For me, it was a connection with Bill Graham or Clive Davis or Jerry Garcia or Mike Bloomfield or Miles Davis or John Lee Hooker or B.B King. There was a conspiracy for me to connect with all of them, and all of them went out of their way to basically tutor me and encourage me. They would look at me in the eyes and they would say a few words that were always very encouraging. So when I first came to America, it seemed like something was conspiring to give me a first class ticket to everything.

What was your connection with the bands in the San Francisco area when you were first starting out? Did any take you under their wing? 

The connection started when I made a decision to leave my mother and my dad and go into the streets and become a street person: panhandling and putting a hat on the floor and playing for change. That’s when I connected with Jerry Garcia and Michael Bloomfield. They saw me play and they looked at each other. They gave each other the nod of approval and before I knew it, I was opening for them.

When was the first time you played at [legendary San Francisco venue] the Fillmore?

The first time I played at the Fillmore was really exciting. I’d never seen a live show before and [the Fillmore’s owner] Bill Graham heard me jamming because it was a jam session. I think some of the musicians took LSD and they couldn’t play because they were looking at the walls, even though there was no TV in it. They kept looking at the wall like something was in it and I was like, “Oh, they took LSD.” That particular band wasn’t going to play because they were really high, so they created a jam session with members of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Michael Bloomfield. A friend of mine at that time, Stan Marcum, went to Bill Graham on his own and he said, “Bill, I know there’s a Mexican kid over there who can play the guitar. Will you let him play the guitar?” Bill Graham said, “I’m not in charge. Go ask Michael Bloomfield.” So he asked Michael Bloomfield and Michael Bloomfield goes, “Yeah, my guitar is over there, man. Go grab my guitar. It’s okay.”

So I grabbed his guitar and I waited and waited and all of a sudden they looked at me and said, “Go ahead, man, take a solo.” After I took a solo, Bill Graham came over and said, “You got a band?” I said, “Yeah.” He goes, “Okay.” So we gave him our information and he says, “Well, you’re going to open up for The Who and then you go to open up for Steve Miller and The Loading Zone and Howlin’ Wolf!” And I’m like, “Okay…” [laughs] Again, it was a conspiracy from the beginning for me to be at the right place at the right time.

Sounds like fate. Speaking of being at the right place at the right time, Bill Graham was responsible for getting you on the bill at Woodstock.

Yes, absolutely. He said to Michael Lang, “I’ll help you, but you’ve got to put Santana in.” And he goes, “What’s Santana?” He said, “You’ll see.” So because of Bill Graham, we had this incredible experience.

You didn’t even have an album out at that point. Were you nervous at all performing in front of that sized crowd?

Bill trained us like a great boxing trainer. He trained us to go from 2,000 to 12,000 to 20,000 to 40,000, 60,000, 90,000. We played the Seattle River Rock Festival, sandwiched between Albert Collins and Tina Turner. Then we were in Dallas and we were sandwiched between Chuck Berry and Sam & Dave and we kept going like that. We played in Atlanta and also in Atlantic City later on. Then we had a week off before the festival concert and they hired a house for us to stay at in Woodstock. We were waiting for the event to happen and then we flew in helicopters. So he trained us to go from 2,000 to 90,000. After 90,000, when we saw that crowd, we weren’t really that afraid.

Do you have any favorite memories of that day? 

I think my favorite memory is the connection. Being in that helicopter and watching the ground, the people as far as you can see, like an ocean of flesh and hair and teeth and arms. It was literally like witnessing a living organism. Because of that experience at Woodstock, I was able to really appreciate the Berlin Wall coming down, Mandela being freed and when we celebrated the year 2000. All of them have in common the same thing.

I’d like to see Woodstock in every city, in every park on Saturday and Sunday. Balloons, tie dye shirts, barbecues, good music. Instead of shootings, like we have everywhere, I’d like to see people really coming together and celebrating our diversity. America is a social experiment. Right now it’s not doing so good. It’s a failed experiment because it deals with racism and fear and separation. But this is going to go away, just like the Berlin Wall went away. What will prevail is that every human has divinity in them and this divinity will create a spiritual divine human consciousness eventually on this planet. That’s what Woodstock was to me.

I’m excited that you’re recognizing the 50th anniversary of Woodstock this summer.

We are going to be at both concerts, no matter what happens. We booked ourselves Friday at Watkins Glen with Michael Lang and we booked ourselves Saturday at the original site with the Doobie Brothers. I’m inviting whoever wants to come and share with us, whether it’s like people from Sly Stone or Joan Baez. People are welcome to come to our stage and partake and just celebrate. I don’t like regurgitating nostalgia, but I do like celebrating something that was so memorable in a positive way.

Your debut album also turns 50 in August. What are your thoughts looking back on it now?

I feel very, very grateful that we were able to make an impact. It feels like a year after that album came out, the first one, I turned around and everybody had congas and timbales like the Rolling Stones and Miles Davis and Sly Stone. I said to the rest of the band, “I guess this is working because everybody’s getting congas now!” [laughs]

And Supernatural is also celebrating a big anniversary this June. What are your memories when you think back on that album?

The beginning of that album was basically a promise given to me by this archangel messenger that said, “We’re going to put you back on the radio like you’ve never been there before. You’re going to receive a lot of accolades and every time you receive something just say “Kadoish, Kadoish, Kadoish Adonai Tsebayoth.” Which means, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of host.” I’m like, “Okay…” I stayed true to presenting myself with willingness. Mr. Clive Davis [producer and head of Arista Records] says to me, “Do you have the willingness to discipline yourself to come to the studio with me and I’ll bring seven songs and you bring seven songs? Because, the way you play live, it’s really hard for anybody to follow you, other than James Brown and a few people. But to go in the studio to create music for radio, that’s a new territory for you. Do you have the willingness and discipline to do that?” I said, “Absolutely.”

Those are two really two powerful words: “willingness” and “discipline.” Whether you want to play golf or tennis or be a race-car driver, you need willingness and discipline to get the brass ring, as they say.

There are so many great tracks on that album. Of course, “Smooth” is the one that comes to mind first for a lot of people. What did you think when you heard the demo for the first time?

It’s funny because it was absolutely the very last song. We had already finished just about everything and Clive calls and said, “I got one more song, just one more song.” I’m like, “Clive, I think we have enough.” He said, “Let me send it to you.” So he sent me the demo. I said, “It sounds like this, it sounds like that,” and he says, “Carlos, this is what I do. Trust me, you need the song.” I said, “But it feels weak in certain places.” He goes, “I’ll tell you what, why don’t you guys record it at the same time in the studio?” I said okay and we did. We recorded it at Fantasy Records in Berkeley. One take.

I was in the middle of the take and something told me, “Oh my God, this is really, really different.” It seemed like it just opened up a facet and water was flowing. It was very, very low effort. It felt like it was just a flow of grace. We were looking at each other just smiling, I tell you no lie. It was absolutely one take and when we finished, we knew we didn’t have to do it again. It was like, “This is it.”

Did you think it was going to become the worldwide smash it eventually became?

No. Not only Clive knew. As soon as I do something, I back away from it. It’s kind of like cooking a delicious meal. All the ingredients, everything’s there, and I just back away and watch the audience. I hope they’re hungry, and they were. But I don’t think like this and this is going to do that. I just present it, offer it, and let the results come from another place, by grace.

My last question: What would you say to a young person who’s just picking up an instrument for the first time?

I would say the same thing that people used to say in the ’60s: Get it in your soul. Get it from your soul and ask for it. Anything that has to do with being gratified with instantaneous success or fame, that’s not what you’re supposed to do. That’s like a fake wooden nickel. The real deal is when you accept the notes that come from your heart and out through your fingers. That’s what’s going to heal the planet. Play music for that and you’re on the right track.

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