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Santana: A Man Out of Time
Re: Masters is a monthly interview column dedicated to exploring a veteran artist's body of work

Nov. 1, 2007

In conversation, Carlos Santana is truly a man out of time. Proudly identifying himself as a hippie, he constantly peppers his speech with references to his musical heroes (John Coltrane, Miles Davis, B.B. King) and casually tosses off phrases like "consciousness awakening" and "celestial amnesia."

Musically, though, Santana is timeless -- the sound of his guitar, instantly recognizable for his exquisite tone and glorious sense of melody, is a global treasure. "I can play right here in Central Park, in the middle of 100 people or 100,000 people, and you will distinguish my sound," he says, sipping coffee in a conference room at his label's midtown Manhattan offices. "I can go to Africa, India, anywhere in the world, and I'm not a tourist, I'm part of the collective family."

A new collection, "Ultimate Santana," is the first to compile songs from the two distinct stages of his career: early hits like "Black Magic Woman" and "Evil Ways," recorded by the Santana band when they were one of the world's most popular acts, and more recent smash singles, including "Smooth" and "The Game of Love," that feature the guitarist in collaboration with a battalion of pop stars.

The line separating these eras isn't just a matter of style or sound: Carlos Santana, now 60, was actually without a recording contract in the late 1990s when Clive Davis (who had originally signed the Santana band) brought him to Arista Records and created a new template, which has been copied by many older artists since, with the all-star duets on 1999's "Supernatural." The album went on to sell an astonishing 15 million copies and win nine Grammy awards.

But Santana himself never seemed to change. He remained his ultracool self, playing like his instrument was permanently tapped into some invisible interplanetary energy. His influence on musicians from Prince to Metallica to the entire "rock en Espanol" movement has been critical, yet when he is in the spotlight, he usually uses the opportunity to pay respect to his predecessors and inspirations. "God made the world round," says Carlos Santana, "so we can all have center stage."

MSN Music: This collection is the first time your older hits with the band and the new songs, from "Supernatural" forward, are gathered under one roof. What connects them all? What do the songs share across all these years?

Carlos Santana: There's many components. First, there's God's grace, the intangible. The tangible, physical part is the melodies, my tone, the intentions, the motives, the purpose. And always, there's the connection to Clive Davis, ever since the beginning. He's relevant in today's world, and so am I.

It's very peculiar: On TV the other day, I saw Peter Fonda in this ad selling "music from the '60s generation." And it made me realize that I'm there, I'm part of that, yet I'm part of something that is in the moment right now, in the holy instant right now. Some people don't have that, they stay in one "Twilight Zone" jukebox from the past.

John Coltrane or Bob Marley, the people who stick around -- with all respect, they're more important than anything. The MTVs come and go, but Coltrane is always going to be here. And I want to be part of that. I want to be part of a movement that is beyond music, like what Harry Belafonte or Desmond Tutu or Mother Teresa or Mandela or Martin Luther King do. I try to utilize the music as a voice that reminds people that we can make a difference, that we are capable of creating miracles.

As you listen to all of these songs together, what do you hear changing in your own playing?

When I hear something like "Black Magic Woman," I'm always amazed by what I learned from Miles Davis, even back then, of distilling thousands of notes into just three notes that go straight to the heart. I'm amazed that my brain, or something, was working back then -- because when I try to play it today I go, "Man, how did I do something so simple and so soulful, and brilliant in a way, where that's all that needed to be said?"

I'm amazed that, being so young back then, I had something that was pretty wise. I guess I learned my lessons well from B.B. King, Freddie King, Albert King, Tito Puente and Miles and John Lee (Hooker), and I'm happy to say that I've done my best to honor all of them.

On the other hand, what do you think your playing has gained through these years of experience?

I learned so much over the years, my body has absorbed so much from Coltrane and Marvin Gaye, Stevie Ray, everyone, that my spirit knows what to play when I play with Smokey Robinson or Alicia Keys or whoever God puts in front of me. I'm very grateful that I have the intuitive power to complement them and not step on them, not impose.

I've been blessed with celestial amnesia since I was born. I don't know how to play the guitar as soon as I stop playing it. So when I pick it up, it's virgin territory again. I don't practice the guitar a lot. I notice that when I do, I start playing stuff that's mindless and corny, just clever and cute, and I don't like that. At least for me, it works better when I approach everything like the first French kiss -- very awkward, your palms are sweaty, and you don't know if she's going to slap you or if she's going to hold you closer.

What's different working on these one-off collaborations rather than working with an ongoing band?

What's different is that I'm able to play with Cher or Tina Turner or Lauryn Hill -- especially the women -- and I'm invited back. I adapt to the situations like a shape shifter, man. So I have confidence -- not arrogance, but confidence. I'm able to fit in any situation, with anyone from Wayne Shorter to Yo-Yo Ma to Metallica, and the greatest honor is when they invite you back and say, "Let's do it again, that was fun."

The blues is still the first root of what I love, because it deals with emotions, it deals with something that even cynical intellectuals are affected by. It's like when somebody licks your face, even if you're cold blooded, your skin responds, your hair stands up. To me, there's nothing more immediate in music than when someone like Tina Turner makes you laugh and cry at the same time with just one note. That's something that the brain or a computer can't quantify. You can't measure joy, and you can't measure a tear. And those things have to go inside that one note. Once you achieve that, they'll call you back.

You mentioned the distinctiveness of your tone. You are the very rare musician that a listener can identify in a single note. Was that an intentional ambition or just something that happened? How do you achieve something as hard to describe as that?

It's a gift, you know? I tried and tried to sound like B.B. King and Kenny Burrell and Grant Green and Wes Montgomery. And as hard as I tried, I couldn't. I always sounded like me, so I gave up. At the same time, there's something about me that people identify -- grandparents, little kids and everyone in between. It's almost like I'm incidental and they hear their own families, and that's what makes it, strangely enough, so identifiable.

In this world, you can be extremely famous, but that doesn't mean people like you. There's a difference. I think people like you because they identify their own struggles and their pain and their discoveries in you, so when they hear that sound, they go, "I know that's Santana, but that's me."

Is there a song that crystallizes that phenomenon for you, one that you know you can go to and find that essence of your sound?

The instrumental ones, definitely -- "Europa," "Samba Pa Ti," "I Love You Much Too Much," which is a very Yiddish song that Bill Graham taught me. I remember I was on tour with Mr. Bob Dylan in 1984, and I was sitting with Bob, and waiters and waitresses and people would come up to me and say, "Man, I got married to 'Samba Pa Ti,' or "See my daughter Sophia? She was conceived to 'Samba Pa Ti.'" So there's something about "Samba Pa Ti," and "Europa," too -- people play them at weddings or baptisms, or they make love to them, because they have no need for English or Spanish or Italian vocabularies. They go straight to the heart in a universal language that people don't need a translation. Melodies speak louder and more eloquently than any language on this planet.

You've mentioned Bill Graham and Bob Dylan and John Coltrane and Peter Fonda ... What do you think is most misunderstood about the '60s generation and its legacy?

The biggest misconception is that it didn't amount to anything. But the hippies gave birth to Tiananmen Square. There's something that happened in San Francisco -- and part of Los Angeles, with the Doors -- that gave birth to consciousness. It started off with LSD or peyote or mescaline, and it gave birth to the Black Panther movement. It gave birth to a new way of questioning authority, religion and politics. And people resented it, because they wanted us to be like sheep and just follow.

We got people out of Vietnam, we exposed Nixon, we don't believe Ronald Reagan brought the Berlin Wall down -- he took the credit, but it was Bob Marley and a lot of musicians who made people on the other side of the world say, "We're missing out, let's just bring this stuff down." And I also give credit to Mikhail Gorbachev.

The hippies are still alive in a lot of places. Some became yuppies -- greedy, unconscious people -- but there's a lot of hippies alive today who truly want to implement the principles of the American Indians, which is whatever you do to the pond, you do to yourself, like Chief Seattle said. The real hippies, not the ones who came in with the fake mustaches and wigs to get free love and free food, we're still around. And we intend to create a new movement and make a difference. And you can't shut us out.

I'll quote the ultimate hippie thing, from Princess Leia -- the harder you squeeze to crush us, the faster we will slip through your fingers. (Laughs.) You like that? George Lucas -- he's a hippie, too!

Alan Light is the former editor-in-chief of Spin, Vibe and Tracks magazines and a former senior writer at Rolling Stone. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, GQ and Entertainment Weekly. His book "The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys" was published in 2006. Alan is a two-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.

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