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Carlos Santana searches for deeper meaning

Minds that are fearful or full of rage are weak and shouldn't be introduced to mind-altering chemicals. Those are the thoughts of legendary Latino guitarist Carlos Santana, and, truth be told, he's pretty sure that people like that aren't ready for adventurous music, either.

By Peter Lindblad

Minds that are fearful or full of rage are weak and shouldn’t be introduced to mind-altering chemicals.

Those are not the musings of Nancy Reagan. In essence, they are the thoughts of legendary Latino guitarist Carlos Santana, and, truth be told, he’s pretty sure that people like that aren’t ready for adventurous music, either.

In fact, their heads might explode if they’d heard San Francisco jazz insurgents Charles Lloyd or John Handy in their prime. Comparing them to two of his other heroes, Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter, Santana postulated that “ ... the music that Wayne and Miles were playing was almost like it was very, very meticulously painted on paper, and the music Charles Lloyd was playing was as if somebody had stripped himself naked and put a lot of paint on himself and started painting against a wall ... and smearing the notes.”

A young bluesman who’d grown up in Tijuana, Mexico, listening to John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed and B.B. King on American radio, Santana’s own mind was blown by Lloyd and Handy’s artistry and innovation while living in the “city by the bay,” a place he moved to in the early ‘60s. For Santana, they are members of an exclusive club, along with other like-minded musical explorers.

“So, Ali Farka Toure, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix and Charles Lloyd ... that’s what you call ‘consciousness revolution music,’” explained Santana.

Going further, he finds similarities between their off-the-beaten-track sounds and the effect produced by psychedelic drugs.

“That kind of music is not for the faint of heart,” says Santana, the man who brought Latin-tinged rock into the American mainstream. “Mescaline, LSD, peyote and Hiawaska ... that’s like stepping outside the realm of the brain, and the brain quantifies right or wrong, good or bad, tall, low, short and tall. The brain is kind of like a computer in that it only gives you the facts. But when you go to this other place, where John Handy and Charles Lloyd were going, and Jimi Hendrix, it’s outside. It is the beginning of [thinking] outside the box, and it’s not for the faint of heart, unless you have somebody to walk you through it.”

Peace lover

In a new DVD from Eagle Rock Entertainment called Hymns of Peace — Live at Montreux 2004, Santana takes a journey of the soul with jazz greats like Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ravi Coltrane, Chick Corea, Idrissa Diop and John McLaughlin, in addition to his usual lineup and guest stars, like Steve Winwood and Nile Rogers.

"I'm truly an inclusive guy,” says Santana. "I guess I could ... do the trio thing like Cream or The Police, but I only do that at jazz clubs. I get more supreme joy from bringing in a whole ocean of rascals and characters and personalities and creating a big, big canvas ... a masterpiece.

"I’m very grateful to god that I’m one of the few musicians who can go from African to Japanese, to jazz to blues to Jamaican, and I’m not a tourist.”

A night of all-star jamming, Hymns of Peace features jazz and rock musicians alike approaching classic songs like John Lennon’s “Imagine,” John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and Bob Marley’s “Redemption Songs” and “Exodus” with childlike zeal.

“These are the songs I want to hear in church,” says Santana.

Timeless and moving, those much-beloved classics haven’t aged a day for Santana, and to him, they point the way for a brighter tomorrow.

“The past is gone. We can’t change it. We can’t fix it,” says Santana. “We can only move on. So all the songs are very, very in today, and I’m pretty clear that whoever listens to this CD, especially a woman, is going to say, ‘This is the opposite of what George Bush is doing.’ This DVD has compassion, it has diversity, it has forgiveness, redemption, and it has a promise of unity and harmony. There’s no ego in that, just one common goal, and to have that many musicians, and all of them being so gracious enough to come in when they wanted to ... man.

The idea for the Hymns of Peace show came from Santana himself. Two years in the making, it was put together with Montreux Jazz Festival organizer and founder Claude Nobs.

“He said, ‘What would you like to do?’ And so I said, I’d like to do this, with these musicians and these songs, and he goes, ‘Okay.’ Most people in his profession ... they would say, ‘Oh, that’s impossible.’ And he’s just, ‘Okay.’ He got on the phone and started calling their managers, their accountants, their lawyers and, you know, telling them we have a plan, and we have an agenda, and we want to see if they want to join us.”

It was an enjoyable night for Carlos, one of those rare occasions when egos are shoved aside and the hem of the Divine seems within reach.

“We had one rehearsal the day before, and it was great to see Wayne Shorter and Ravi Coltrane doing songs they don’t usually do, these one-chord songs, like Bob Marley’s ’Exodus,’ and then tearing it up,” says Santana. “Because jazz musicians play in their own mediums and their own arenas, and I remember watching them turn into children. I mean, there is something really glorious about watching musicians turning into children — the purity, the innocence — and not be a slave to it, not the cold, calculated, mental and mechanical, but the purity and innocence of a child.”

Blues beginnings

Santana’s own childhood was filled with music. The son of a mariachi violinist, Santana was born in Autlan de Navarro, Jalisco, Mexico. He took up guitar when the family moved to Tijuana.

“What attracted me was how, in bending notes like Django Reinhardt or B.B. King or T. Bone Walker, you’re able to make people stop what they’re doing,” says Santana. “You’ve charmed them. You’ve captivated them. You’ve captured their spirituality and their sensuality. For me, guitar is a very direct instrument. Synthesizer guys try to copy guitar players, but guitar players don’t want to sound like synthesizers.”

Deeply impacted by the blues musicians he heard on the radio, Santana continued his studies of the genre when he immigrated to San Francisco with his mother.

“Living in Tijuana, you had a choice of listening to Ricky Ricardo [the fictitious persona of Desi Arnez], Afro-Cuban music, mariachi music, French and German, polkas and waltzes, and then you had the guys who were a little older than me who were listening to Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Little Richard, Ray Charles, and that was for me what listening to hip-hop is like for a youngster today,” relates Santana. “The newness was a straight-up blues thing ... so I liked blues from the beginning, because it had a different passion injection in one note and you didn’t have to play a bunch of notes to penetrate the extremely profound.”

Santana eventually immigrated to the U.S. with his mother, ending up in San Francisco. He remembers the experience going smoothly.

“My mother had the sense to go to the papers and the American consulate and apply for a visa,” recalls Santana. “We paid a fee and they gave us temporary permission to come. My mother was really blessed that the right channels opened up for her to ask the right questions and we went to the right places. It wasn’t a brutal thing. It was morally, legally and spiritually, and ethically correct.”

Little did he know it at the time, but the stars were aligned for Santana in other ways, as well. In San Francisco, where he would later be exposed to the jazz music that would bring his own compositions to another level, Santana was able to get work as a musician, and in 1966, he started the Santana Blues Band with keyboard player and singer Gregg Rolie. A musicians union requirement that bands have a single person named as band leader led to the band name.

Frequent lineup changes were the order of the day, until mid-1967, when the roster stabilized somewhat. Members at the time included Santana, Rolie, bass player David Brown, drummer Bob “Doc” Livingston and percussionist Marcus Malone. It was also around that time that the band, now sporting the name Santana, captured the attention of famed promoter Bill Graham, who gave the band its big break, a concert at the Fillmore West theater on June 16, 1968. Not long after, Santana was signed to Columbia Records. More roster shuffling was in the cards for Santana, with the departure of Malone and Livingston in 1969. Drummer Michael Shrieve was one of the replacements, arriving at the same time as a second percussionist, Jose “Chepito” Areas. This was the group that would record the band’s self-titled debut and play live at Woodstock on Aug. 15, 1969, the event that would catapult Santana into the national consciousness.

“We didn’t know [it would], but Bill Graham knew it was going to be historical, and so we surrendered and deferred to him because we didn’t even have an album out, and he really, really hustled to get us in there,” remembers Santana.

Santana was released the same month as Woodstock. It stayed on the charts for two years and sold two million copies, buoyed by the success of two singles, the Top 40 hit “Jingle” and the Top Ten smash “Evil Ways.”

More fallout from Woodstock propelled Santana to even greater heights. The Woodstock documentary film and its double-platinum soundtrack included the band’s triumphant performance of “Soul Sacrifice,” a highlight of both releases.

Still caught up in the momentum generated by Woodstock, Santana released, in September of 1970, Abraxas, considered by many to be Santana’s best album. Topping the album charts, Abraxas spawned the Top Five hit “Black Magic Woman” and the Top Ten single “Oye Como Va.” Santana had arrived.

“It very magical, man,” says Santana. “I remember getting ready to go inside and record ‘Black Magic Woman’ and the phone rings, and this guy says, ‘It’s for you.’ And I go, ‘Well, who is it?’ and he said, ‘It’s Miles Davis.’ And I said, ‘Oh man, get out of here.’ ’No, it’s Miles Davis,’ he says. So I pick up the phone and the voice says, ‘Hey ...’ in that voice Miles had and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ For me, that was the beginning of a different validation for Carlos.”

A year later, the band emerged with Santana III, which featured a teenage guitar slinger by the name of Neal Schon. Again, Santana had scored a No. 1 album, its second in a row. The album featured “Everybody’s Everything” and “No One To Depend On,” which both charted.

Post-Woodstock woodshedding

After that, the band started to dissolve, with drug use and different agendas causing the classic Santana lineup to split. Despite the breakup, Carlos retained the rights to the band and would go on to record albums like Caravanserai with a revolving-door lineup.

Forays with jazz musicians like Buddy Miles and John Coltrane’s widow, Alice, on the side would allow Santana to explore musical avenues outside the Santana sphere through the ‘70s, but sales of subsequent Santana albums would gradually slide. The depression lasted into the '80s, despite a 20th reunion concert. Rock bottom, at least commercially, was in sight when the 1987 album Freedom struggled to crack the Top 100.

A Grammy for the solo album Blues for Salvador provided evidence that Santana was still growing as an artist, and in 1988, he convinced Wayne Shorter to join the group. After the retrospective Viva Santana! was released, Santana put out Spirits Dancing in the Flesh, another commercial disappointment.

Columbia Records had had enough, and Santana’s 22-year tenure with the label ended. Signed to Polydor, Santana looked to revive his career with Milagro, with yet another lineup, but it couldn’t stop the slide, and after a live album, Santana left Polydor for EMI.

His stay on EMI was brief, and before long, he joined forces with Arista Records and its head man, Clive Davis, who had been president at Columbia during Santana’s salad days. The result of the pairing was 1999’s Supernatural, the mother of all comeback albums. A big winner on the awards circuit, Supernatural garnered 11 Grammys and sold over 10 million copies, with Santana’s collaboration with Matchbox Twenty’s Rob Thomas “Smooth” reaching No. 1 on the pop charts.

An all-star cast helped Santana get back to the top, with such luminaries as Eagle-Eye Cherry, Lauryn Hill, Eric Clapton and Dave Matthews lending a hand. Acts like those aside, Santana is not impressed with a lot of today’s artists.

“Most of the music today — it’s not 99.9 percent — it’s played by a bunch of squares ... shallow, plastic, synthetic squares,” says Santana. “Those are the enemies of the American Indians, the Bob Marleys and the hippies because squares are control freaks. They’re not happy, and they want to make you unhappy with their rules and regulations and their fears and their impositions. A hippie is not [saying], ‘Whatever man.’ We say, ‘All of it at the same time.’ If you look at nature, it doesn’t clash, man. You see all the beautiful colors and gardens and the air and the clouds ... that’s why there is a different flow if you listen to Coltrane [rather] than listening to some plastic, hot-tub jazz.”

That’s something you’ll probably never hear from Santana, who’s gone to places, musically, they could never get to. Those that get it are welcome to follow.

“It’s scary for a lot of people because they are not happy with who they are,” says Santana. “If you’re happy with who you are, you’re going to have a ball.”