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Carlos Santana

Why Carlos Santana? Well, he's a homeboy, a neighbor, from San Rafael. And when I'm in Tucson, his music bring out the best of that otherwise alienated urban desert. No other performer attracts bikers, former hippies, middle-class Hispanics, Chicanos, vatos, lovers of Latin jazz, blacks, curious white college students, whole families from babies to grandmothers. This is the Big Heart of Santana, sometimes glowing as the literal heart on a stage mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe surrounded by Mayan glyphs, while lightning flashes?as if to welcome him?all over the Sonoran desert sky. He carries the spirit of Bob Marley and sings the still under-appreciated lineage of African-American musical influence on American joys. ?Peter Warshall

Steve Heilig: What's your earliest musical memory?

Carlos Santana: Oh, I think it was like when, you know, Cupid throws an arrow and hits you. First, there was this Mexican band, dressed up with bows and arrows. They were playing some funky weird music?I didn't know it yet, but it was like Lee Perry, George Clinton, and Sun Ra mixed up; Mexican funky. The second [experience] was Los Indios Tabajara, playing more traditional folk music?songs like "Maria Elena." I remember it piercing me because my father was always on the road, sometimes for a year, playing music, sometimes up here in California while we were still living in Autlan, Jalisco, a little town down between Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta. If you go there and blink you will miss it.

SH: So you were living in Jalisco with your family....

CS: With my parents, until my dad left for Tijuana. He was sending money, but we hadn't seen him for a while. My mom put us all in the car and drove us to Tijuana. This was '55, so I was, like, seven years old. He was living with this other woman, but my mom didn't know that, and only had this one address. She went and knocked on the door, and this lady came out screaming. My mom broke down; what were we gonna do? we don't have any money to go back. There was this guy on the corner, this wino, who said "What are you looking for?" She said she was looking for her husband, and showed him a picture, and he said "Oh yeah, he's in there." This is how God works, you know, through this wino, who told her to go back there. She knocked again, and this lady comes out screaming again, but this time woke my dad up from his siesta. He stuck his head out, saw me, my six brothers and sisters, crammed in the station wagon, and his face turned like the NBC peacock, all the colors, anger and joy and fear and doubt. It was the typical Mexican story, the typical African thing....

He put us in the Colonial Hotel, a really funky place. They were still putting the roof on. We were there for months. My mom and dad weren't really speaking, but he would bring a bag of groceries and stuff. My dad's a beautiful man, but like a lot of Mexican men, or men in general, a lot of men have a problem with the balance of masculinity and femininity?intuition and compassion and tenderness?and get overboard with the macho thing. It took him a while to become more, I would say, conscious, evolved.

Anyway, once we got to TJ, he bought a bunch of Chiclets gum, broke it in half, and gave one half to me and one to my older brother, saying, "Don't come back until you've sold them all." I thought, oh, so that's my reality now....

But he was also teaching me music; even in Autlan he taught me how to read when I was very young. He taught me the violin in Tijuana. He would drill me on it, on all sorts of European music. After a while I started going out on the street with two other guys with guitars?it was like "Song, mister? Fifty cents!" We played all the stereotypical Mexican songs. I said to myself, "I hate this stuff." I had started listening to Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker....

SH: Where were you hearing them, on the radio from San Diego?

CS: Yeah, American radio. Blues was my first love. It was the first thing where I said "Oh man, this is the stuff." It just sounded so raw and honest, gutbucket honest. From then I started rebelling. I found myself in the shantytown, where it smells like piss and puke, you know, every town has one. I was there playing with my dad, and the tables were black from cigarette butts, for there was no ashtray; and no floor, just dirt. And there's a cop, with his hand all over the prostitute, doing his thing because if she doesn't let him, he'll bust her. I'm watching all this as a kid, thinking, "Damn, this planet is funky." My father looks at me and says "What's the matter with you?" because I didn't look like I was having fun. I said "Man, I don't wanna be here, I don't want to live in this kind of scene." And he said "What do you want to play then, that Pachuco shit?" (Pachuco is this music of Tijuana that is integrated with doo-wop, blues.) I said, "Look at where we are, just smell it; do you think this scene is better than that?" That was the first time I ever spoke back to my dad. I thought he was gonna slap me, but he didn't, it was like I opened his eyes.

He let me go. I started getting more involved with other bands, playing other kinds of music. But by the time my dad moved to San Francisco, I hadn't been doing too much musically. There's a guy [in Tijuana] who's still around named Xavier Batiz, who dressed like Little Richard, played like B.B. King, with a little Ray Charles in there. He had a beautiful tone on guitar. My mom took me to the park to hear Batiz's band, the TJs, and the sound of the electric guitars, amps and everything...for me it was like watching a flying saucer for the first time. I started following him like a guided missile. I'd come home all excited, and my mom wrote to my dad saying "Carlos's got the music bug again!" My dad sent me a beat-up old electric guitar. Once I got that electric sound, there was no turning back. I knew I wasn't going to be an accountant or English teacher. Even before I came to San Francisco there was nothing that could deter me from this path of music.

SH: How old were you when you came to San Francisco?

CS: It was '62, so I was 14 or 15. First I came with my mom, but I didn't like it that first time. When I worked in Tijuana, I was making like nine dollars a week, playing guitar in a club band. We'd start at four in the afternoon, play for an hour, and then the strippers and prostitutes would come out. That was seven days a week. We'd play until midnight on weekdays. On weekends we wouldn't get out of there until six in the morning. I was getting my thing together, playing so much. When I came to San Francisco I had to go back to junior high school, because I didn't know how to speak English. And I didn't want to hang around with these...kids, you know what I'm saying?

I'd saved enough money to help us emigrate, get some dental stuff for my sisters, and still buy a Stratocaster! But my mom spent it on food and rent, because she had to. I got so angry at her I wouldn't speak to her or eat for a week. She got disgusted with me and gave me $20 and sent me back to Tijuana by myself. When I got there it was Halloween. There were all these devils and skeletons around, and it scared the crap out of me because I didn't know anybody now. I went to the church, to the Virgin of Guadalupe, and said "Look, I was here a year ago with my brother. We walked on our knees from the front door all the way to your altar. I didn't ask for a favor, so I figure you owe me one. So I ask that you give me my job back while I'm here, and take care of my family." Then I went back to the club. The guy said I wasn't supposed to be there. They knew my mom had emigrated, and I was underage and didn't have her permission. But I had a letter from her, so then they said it was cool. I stayed there for almost another year, really learning again. By the time I did come back to San Francisco in '63, right before they killed JFK, I was really confident about what I knew about music. I had picked up all this repertoire. And there was this consciousness explosion in San Francisco with the hippies and the Black Panthers and the whole thing, so I really landed in the right place at the right time.

SH: Who were the first musicians you hooked up with?

CS: I went to the Fillmore West on a matinee gig. Bill Graham was there, and Paul Butterfield. I know he was on acid because he was watching the wall like it was a TV, and there was nothing there. I said to myself, Oh, this guy's not playing today, he's barefooted, looks like he's been up all night. Sure enough, there was a jam, with people from the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane. Michael Bloomfield was playing keyboards?his guitar was just standing there. A friend of mine went to Bill Graham and slipped him a note saying "This skinny Mexican friend of mine plays the blues?will you let him play?" Graham says "I'm not in charge, Bloomfield is. Go ask him!" My friend, Stan Marvin (he became our first manager), asked Bloomfield, and he said "Sure, man, go ahead." A very gracious guy. So I got the guitar, and stood there, waiting and waiting...until they said, "Oh yeah, you're still here, go ahead and take a solo." I jumped on it and Graham said, "You got a band?" And I said "Yeah," which was sorta true in a way. He took my phone number, and we hooked up. I was still working at the Tic Tock diner washing dishes over on Third Street. This guy named Tom Frazer came and found me there, took me to Palo Alto, where he had musicians ready, including Gregg Rolie on keyboards; he and I just fit like Wes Montgomery and Jimmy Smith or something.

We started mixing up jazz and blues, and some African flavor. We had something different than what was being played in San Francisco. John Mayall, Eric Clapton, all those guys, were all playing blues?just louder. We mixed it up with the African, the Cuban, with Mongo Santamaria. We started noticing that the hippies were dancing differently. It wasn't like catching butterflies, it was like, girls' nipples getting hard, and we said, "Oooh, this works." There was no turning back. We'd open for Paul Butterfield, for Chicago or Johnny Winter or Steppenwolf, and we'd take their crowd. That gave us a lot of confidence that what we had was, I wouldn't call it world music, but we took it back to Africa in a way.

SH: So how did you get your first recording contract?

CS: We had an audition. Bill Graham called us: Hey, the head of Atlantic music was in town looking to hear us. I said "I don't want to be on Atlantic." Bill said, "Just go, and don't screw it up!" So I went, but I played terribly, just awful. I knew that Aretha was with Atlantic, and Cream. I'd already heard that a lot of musicians were not satisfied with things like airplay and distribution. CBS was next. They came to hear us in Santa Barbara when we opened for the Grateful Dead. By the time we got signed, Bill Graham took us aside, and said, "You know, if you're gonna make a record, you guys don't really have any songs, just jams, like seventeen-minute things." "Isn't that cool," we said. "No it's not," he said. "You have to have some songs." He brought us to his office and hooked us up with songs like Willie Bobo's "Evil Ways." Then I started hearing songs like "Oye Como Va," "Black Magic Woman"....

SH: So you hadn't been listening to people like Tito Puente and all that before?

CS: No, no, not really. Maybe a little Mongo Santamaria, and Ray Barretto because of "The Watusi," a big hit. We liked African music from Olatunji's side. We didn't know the New York Afro-Cuban-Puerto Rican thing until we went there.

SH: So it was Bill, who was from back East and really into salsa, who turned you on to the Latin side of things?

CS: We started doing those songs, and people would sing along. It was an instant connection with the audience, who didn't know us. It was incredible to start opening up at big festivals, with all these huge stars. By the time we got to Woodstock, we were set.

SH: Did you get any negative backlash from Latin music purists?

CS: There were New Yorkers who just couldn't stand us, "Who are these Mexicans from the West Coast, who can't even play clave, how dare they...." They didn't get what we were doing. We weren't another salsa band, so "forget them." And eventually some did come around; anyway, the big guys like Ray Barretto and Tito Puente were very encouraging.

SH: It couldn't have hurt when you got some known players like Orestes Vilato, the Escovedos, Armando Peraza, joining your band....

CS: Well, for us it was a natural evolution. I'm not the kind of guy to have a group stay together forever, like the Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead. People would say, "Are you sure you want to play with so and so? That could be career suicide. You'll lose your audience." Well, then I should lose them, because I need to grow, to play with Wayne Shorter, with John Lee Hooker. My goal would be to do another album with Alice Coltrane, with Pharaoh Sanders, Ali Akbar Khan, Bill Laswell...and with a whole bunch of African musicians like Idrissa Diop, Ismael Lo, Toure Kunda, Salif Keita, Mory Kante...just mix it up, bring some Miles and Coltrane songs....

SH: Do you play much in Mexico, your old home country?

CS: I'd still like to go back there more but I don't get along with the government. I kinda feel like Hugh Masekela?he couldn't go to South Africa. If I go to Mexico, it's a real hassle. I can't seem to just be quiet there. I feel that people need to change things, so that genocide of the Chiapas Indians would stop, for example. I'm not just a show business guy, so when I get in front of a microphone, I don't like accusing or judging, yet I do want the government to know that we know that they are the cause of genocide. It's important for governments from Mexico all the way to Brazil to understand that people know they are corrupt. Every president that leaves [these countries] takes millions of dollars. I would like to see that money come back and feed the Indians and things like that. Mexico is like three layers?the Indians, the mixed races, and the whites?and they only get together for the Virgen de Guadalupe each December. I said, why not do this every day, and put aside the differences? So, anyway, when I speak like this, they make it real hard for me when I go there.

I'd love to go to Africa and play for free, for benefits. Unfortunately it costs a lot of money for planes and food and all that. Even if the musicians play for free you still have a crew to pay. If the governments would pay just for those things, I'd go. If big airlines would kick in tickets as a goodwill thing, I'd be there. But instead the governments charge so much tax, you end up paying to play. Plus, if I say we're gonna make it so anybody can come, charge like three dollars?instead of like $50 that some bands from Europe charge, so that only the rich can see you?even if I put that in the contract, they change it. And if you complain, they throw you out, keep the equipment, keep your passport. I went through that too many times, whether in South America or Africa. It's a corrupt thing. Bob Marley was able to do some of these things because he had some kind of arrangement with the United Nations where nobody could mess with him. If we had that, we could get together four or five of the best bands from America and Mexico, say, and tour South America or even Africa as a benefit thing. You know, people say "music should be for free." Ok, I'm with that. I play my best concerts when I play for free. But, I'm a practical guy?I believe in spirituality but I also believe in practicality.

When I go to Africa, I am not just some musical tourist?I am part of the family. My values are consistent with the American Indians, aborigines, and African people. I don't know how they look at other people like Paul Simon, David Byrne, or Peter Gabriel, but I know how they look at me. If I go to Kingston, Jamaica, I know how they see me and treat me. That's important to me. I try to honor their music, take certain elements, give it back in a new way, and credit them immediately?financially, emotionally, spiritually?give it right back. There's a way to make it a win-win situation?that's the way of the future.

It's important that people know that music itself is like a rainbow?we need to honor African music, pre-Columbian and aboriginal musics, our first foundations. I love to turn people on to that, however I can?especially other musicians. When you do that, you can sleep really good at night.

The roots of all our music come from Africa. When I played Salif Keita for Miles Davis, I said "Miles, can I play you somethin'?" And he said [imitating Davis's famous scary whisper] "Sure, put it on." When he heard those trumpets playing, he nodded and just whispered, "Spanish." And I said, forgetting that you just don't contradict Miles, "No, actually it's Moorish, because they conquered Spain, you know." He just looked at me with that look, repeated, "Spanish." And I said, "Yeah, it sounds Spanish, but it's really from Islam...." And he just stared at me, and said "Spanish!" OK, Miles, whatever you say! But even Sketches of Spain sounds like that because of the Moors. Otherwise they'd be playing polkas and waltzes like everybody else in Europe. So that's African roots.

When I go to a place like Rio, when I go from the airport to town, you always have to pass the shantytowns, miles and miles of cardboard houses. I also know that there's no death, that we're just visiting here, and that each person has volunteered to come to this planet to raise consciousness in some way. So, I'm learning not to judge, criticize, or defend?I'm learning just to observe. It might be a Zen or Buddhist thing, I don't know, but when you really observe, you can get some clarity. Some people think I'm full of mumbo jumbo; "Give me the meat and potatoes, Carlos, I need to pay the rent." OK, you may spend most of your energy getting the rent money. I spend mine trying to use the same notes and alchemy that Marley and Coltrane used to create a new kind of bread that people also gotta have.

Everybody's born with the same potential to be rich, or spiritual, or miserable. If I trip and fall, I hit the ground like anyone else. If you get huffy and puffy and say "Well, Santana don't know what it's like to live in the heart of the Kingston ghetto or the favela?" Well, I smelled it, man, that's where I grew up. And it all smells the same, from Tijuana to Timbuktu. What I want to do with music is pinch people, to see that we all have a passport to some kind of success with our grace and energy. I see a lot of people who come to the USA and don't really want to work; they just stand around. I came here and my mom said, "OK, you're gonna wash dishes, and get a job, you're gonna help with the rent." I learned about responsibility, about two things many people lack?focus and determination. I was in high school when a guy said, "Tomorrow's the last day of school. What are you gonna do when you graduate?" I said, "I'm gonna play with B.B. King, with Michael Bloomfield," and he started laughing. He said that was really funny. But I meant it.

It's like music itself. When you, as a musician, feel something really strong?this is the first rule of music?the listener's gonna feel it. If I don't feel it, why the hell should you? You have to be feeling something before you hit that string. Actually it's five things?soul, heart, mind, body, cojones?all in one note. That will give you the chills. The songs sometimes are incidental. It's that note, that passage, it can make you start crying.

SH: It's been quite a year....

CS: Right now, I feel very grateful to God, today, for I feel very stimulated, very charged, and that everything I have been learning is finally coming to fruition. These new collaborations feel so natural. It sounds like one breath, it doesn't sound forced. In fact, at first we were going to call the [most recent] album Mumbo Jumbo but it just had to be changed to Supernatural because that's how it's felt.

I don't think Latin music's going to go out this time, like the flavor of the month, as they say. There's more Spanish-speaking people in this country than ever, and they gravitate more towards African music, even if they want to claim it is Latino or salsa or whatever. But it's still African music. It's gonna stay, because more people are becoming aware that anything with rhythm comes from Africa?unless you're talking about some aboriginal or American Indian music. It's African?get over it, accept it, embrace it, and honor it!

It's true that in the past, the music industry would usually try to find a white guy to get whatever form of nonwhite music onto the air, and that doesn't seem to be a problem now....

A lot of forces back in the 1950s didn't want to let the African influences come forward in American music?even though that's what American music is. It's all African, other than pre-Columbian or polkas or waltzes from the German or French. So, white musicians used to try to use African music as a kind of backdrop for their ego, to come out like another white Tarzan. Not anymore. Now people honor the music. From my heart, I can say that my association with Baaba Maal, Salif Keita, Toure Kunda, all of those musicians, they don't see me as an intruder, a tourist, but as a fellow brother musician who honors and articulates the music?and, as we already said, pays the royalties! I want it to be known that Santana believes that quality and quantity can go together!

SH: I'm wondering if you have a "label" for your faith, your spirituality, like Christian, Buddhist, etc....

CS: It's like water; water is very powerful, but very humble. I've read things where a writer said his only religion was to die without shame. Another said that it was just to be kind to everyone. To spread the message of kindness towards everybody. The opposite of that is judging and condemning. Any religion that judges and condemns is a spiritually retarded religion. The basic core may be good, but back at headquarters, they're always trying for superiority. One that brings kindness and redemption?a win-win situation for people and the planet?that's my religion. I shy away from that word because religion to me is right next to politics, which is right next to corruption. My metaphor is the desert?in the desert you need water, not wine or beer, because with those you're gonna die. Religion and politics is like Coca-Cola or something, when what you need is water. There's a big difference between the love for power and the power of love.