Santana upbeat on the power of positive music


July 3, 2003


After the astounding multiplatinum success of Carlos Santana's 1999 hit "The Supernatural," the 2002 followup "Shaman" was a bit of a letdown.

The formula remained the same, pairing the fluid, mellifluous guitar genius with a procession of top pop hitmakers. Only this time, the hired craftsmen weren't nearly as impressive, and the sparks never flew with Michele Branch, Dido or Nickelback the way they did with Everlast on "Put Your Lights On," or even with Rob Thomas on "Smooth."

Still, the live experience has always been what Santana is really about. And if there is a more inspiring and uplifting musical experience to be had anywhere near Chicago this Fourth of July weekend, I don't know about it.

I spoke with Santana by phone from New York at the start of a tour that brings him to the Tweeter Center in Tinley Park on Saturday.


*7:30 p.m. Saturday
*Tweeter Center, 19100 S. Ridgeland, Tinley Park
*Tickets, $17-$47.50
*(312) 559-1212


Q. Let's start by talking a little bit about "Shaman." Was there pressure coming off a smash like "The Supernatural" to top that accomplishment?

A. Not for me; not in the least. I'm not wired to think like that. I'm not an accountant or a lawyer or an A&R man or those things. I'm just trying to get to the next note the same way Tarzan tries to get to the next vine to swing from the next tree. To me, the next melody is my priority. So no, there was no pressure at all.

Q. Did you enjoy making the record? Was it a fun process for you?

A. Oh, yes. "The Supernatural" and "Shaman" have been very enjoyable experiences. I'll give you an example: When you hear that someone that your children like, like Dave Matthews or Rob Thomas or Wyclef [Jean] or Lauryn Hill, they write a song from their heart and they bring it to you, man, the least you can do is be gracious and grateful and compliment it.

Q. It seems to me that the challenge in rock 'n' roll is how to stay relevant in this music that has always been about the moment. So many bands of your generation have simply become nostalgia acts.

A. It's interesting that you say that. I feel that to me the most important thing is to keep the water clean. I'm able to be in an arena with Mr. Placido Domingo and P.O.D. and Justin Timberlake, and we can go anywhere that we want to, it's just that the songs have to be right for both of us. We both know that at this point it's the songs that dictate the momentum.

Q. So how do you recognize a song that's going to work for you?

A. This is a good question. We had many writers who submitted songs for "Shaman," and I had to let go of a lot of them because even though I knew in my heart that they were No. 1 songs, it wasn't me. I said, "This song is probably for John Cougar Mellencamp or someone like that," and with all respect to him, it's not me. I'm not going to do something that's not me. It has to come to a Santana galaxy to a certain extent. It has a certain world to it.

For example, when you see the Olympics, and you see the last game they play, and then they all run in the field with the flags and you see a river of colors and people are dancing and laughing and crying and there's no more competition, it's just all celebration, that is Santana. Whether it's a ballad or anything, it should sound like a celebration of all that we are. That's a Santana song. If it just sounds Irish or Mexican or Japanese, it doesn't sound as good to me.

Q. So you're always looking for that celebratory, transcendent quality?

A. All-inclusive, transcendent, multidimensional--that's what I want it to sound like.

Q. Spirituality has always been a big part of your music. Do you find that the people who are seeking to collaborate with you understand that?

A. Oh, yeah. They all know that there's a difference between religion and spirituality by now. Religion divides; spirituality brings unity and harmony. Religion definitely divides, so there's a big difference.

Q. There was a lot of speculation about "The Supernatural" and "Shaman" concerning how much control you had over the records. Producer and record company president Clive Davis took a lot of the credit for your comeback. Did you ever feel as if you weren't holding the reins?

A. I had the right to approve every note. It's my name on it. I made a pact with Mr. Clive Davis, and I said, "You bring certain songs, I'll bring certain songs." And he said, "Well, can I also give you the feedback on your songs? You don't have to listen to me, but can I give you the feedback on your songs?" I said, "Sure, it will be an honor." So nobody holds a gun to my head or dangles money or tries to buy me; it's nothing like that. Prince asked me the same thing: "What did they tell you? Did they tell you what to do? Did they try to control you?" And I said, "No, man! Prince, they just gave me a bunch of menus, and I said, 'I'll take some of this, and I'll take some of that.' " And he was like, "Oh, OK!"

Q. But you must realize after talking to some of your younger collaborators how rare that is in the industry today. It's not 1969, and the music business just wants to shape so many young artists and make them conform. Look at the difficulties a guy like Everlast has had.

A. You know, I am so grateful that he shared that song ["Put Your Lights On"], because that song is basically the kind of song that I'd like to go and commit and do a whole tour just in prison, playing for prisoners: "All you killers, put your lights on."

Q. Here's a song he wrote about being on the brink of death after a heart attack, and he shared this intensely personal tune with you.

A. Exactly. So I'm very grateful and honored that he shared it with us and then we get to share it with the world. But I don't have any distance between the press or the media and myself. I understand the fact that there's nothing more commercial than romantic music, chocolates and flowers. It's very commercial, but there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, there's probably nothing more commercial than Nat King Cole singing "Mona Lisa" or the Beatles singing whatever. Commercial doesn't scare me; what scares me is when it's plastic and synthetic and it's not real. Then I do have an aversion, and I will not let anyone make me cute, clever, plastic and synthetic. I will not do that for anybody.

I'm still a street guy. In fact, this is my favorite saying: I started in the streets of San Francisco with a hat on the floor. I'm the same guy, but the hat got really big. Believe me, when I go on stage, man, I feel Jerry Garcia and Michael Bloomfield, Bill Graham and Miles Davis and Marvin Gaye, [John] Coltrane and Bob Marley--they're all with me when I go on stage now. In fact, we play their music. At this point, I just feel really grateful to be 56 and we're just starting.

Q. I get the impression watching you perform that the stage is really where it's at for you.

A. Yes. We travel from April to September or October, three weeks out, three weeks at home. Five weeks is the most I will do, and then five weeks at home. We just celebrated 30 years of being married, so to me, family is sacred. I don't go on the road for like a year and a half. Three weeks on the road, three weeks at home. That creates a beautiful balance, because this way, when you do see me on stage, I'm there. Some people get kind of zombie eyes and they don't even know what town they're in or what song they're playing. They hate themselves, they hate the band. I don't want to do that to myself.

Q. So many people have been through the band through the years, how do you recognize someone who is going to fit?

A. They have to be very bubbly, and I have to be able to live with that person the other 24 hours. I'm not interested in changing psychological diapers on grownups. I will not go on the road with people who are always doomy or resentful. I don't have time for that, man. I have my own children to be a parent to, and I want professionals on the road, people who are consistently seeing light and joy and a purpose. What's the purpose of life? The pursuit of happiness.

Q. So why surround yourself with people who are not going to contribute to that?

A. Right. I'm not saying we're all a bunch of Pollyannas. We're affected by what happens in the world. It's just that we don't want to accentuate negative stuff all the time. It doesn't weaken me, it pisses me off, so I just tell them to go away and get their own band and be miserable somewhere else. I don't want to be around people who are not happy unless they're miserable. That's the first thing I tell them. Our role when we go on stage is to make people happy. People work really hard to buy a ticket, so don't go on stage looking like an angry criminal.

Q. How does the current band compare to the one that played at Woodstock, say?

A. It's two different things. The one at Woodstock, we basically just came out of high school. We knew very little but we felt a lot. This band knows a lot and then feels a lot. I mean, look, how many musicians get to be around [drummers] Dennis Chambers and Chester Thompson? I mean, come on!

Q. Do you find it encouraging at all that America is starting to pay more attention to South American sounds? We're starting to see more Latin American bands perform here, especially in a city like Chicago, where for a long time, there was not only a geographical boundary but a lack of acceptance.

A. America has always been a puzzle to me, how they'd rather take a second-generation B.B. King from England than a first-generation B.B. King from America. America has always been really fascinated with the Queen. No disrespect to Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page or Jeff Beck--I think they're all great in their own right, and they're all my friends and brothers--but they all know that I learned from their daddies. Their daddies are my daddies: Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, B.B. King. We all come from them.

At the same time, for a long time, America was not ready to accept people from South America. They still ban a lot of bands from Africa with the 9/11 thing, but they don't ban Germans, Russians or Australians or Irish. To me, there's something about America that is still very racist, only more high-tech. I like it upfront: If you're racist, just be racist. Don't try to cover it up with some slick wording. I like the Ku Klux Klan because at least I know where I stand with them. But there is something really strange about America that would rather acknowledge a horrible band that comes from Europe than a supreme band that comes from South America or Africa or even America itself.

We travel with Mana, and their acceptance is encouraging. But I probably get in trouble a lot because I don't see what a lot of people see. For example, everybody kept saying at a time three or four years ago, "They all came from you--Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan, Marc Anthony and J.Lo." Everybody was saying that I was first. But I said, "I can say the same about Joao Gilberto and Mongo Santamaria." But at the same time I feel that all the music that people call Latin or Spanish is really coming from Africa.

This is where I get in trouble with Spanish-speaking people, because they want to take credit for something that they didn't create. The music that we have today and we call cumbia, mambo, rumba, cha-cha-cha, bolero, bossa nova--it comes from Africa, man! I tell people, "Look, chicken soup was invented in Africa, not in Puerto Rico or Cuba." So I get in trouble, because people say, "How can you say that?" Well, it's easy: I've been to Africa, and I know where it came from!

Q. So give credit where it's due?

A. Yes! Thank you!

Q. I'd like to ask you one last question about the psychedelic legacy of Santana.

A. What people call psychedelic music is basically entering a door--a different door of perception--which brings me to the saying, "You cannot behave appropriately unless you perceive correctly." This is why "Shaman" is important. When the European people came to America, the first thing they killed was the shamans, because they knew that those guys knew too much and they wanted to make people deaf, dumb and blind. Same with Africa. This way, they'll indoctrinate you with the Christian thing, but you cannot have access to Christ unless you go through them.

Psychedelic music liberates you from that kind of thinking. Even Cary Grant took LSD under supervision! I always tell people there's a big difference between drugs, which man makes, and medicine, which Mother Earth makes. There's a big distinction there. I think they should legalize medicine and they should outlaw drugs. Anheuser-Busch is a drug; cigarettes are a drug. Anything that imprisons you is a drug; anything that liberates you is medicine. But we're just too advanced for a lot of people still!

I can tell that when I open my mouth people are afraid, because their sense of right and wrong is still in a little box. But I'm comfortable with my existence, and the things that I did learn from mescaline and LSD, I don't regret one trip. I learned so much from each one--as far as all is one, to feel someone else's pain, to feel connectedness. There is something about the terminology "visit yourself." In our music, we try to do that even today--transport people to a place where you're not afraid and you don't have anger or fear. Music remains the most potent psychedelic force, from Beethoven to Jimi Hendrix.

I equate it with a snake shedding skin: Every time that I took [a trip], I got rid of some luggage that I really didn't need and I got rid of some things that weren't me anymore, that didn't fit. I cleaned my closet a lot and got rid of clothes that weren't me anymore, and I learned a lot. But the thing that makes the most sense is John Coltrane's music and Bob Marley's music.

Q. But cultural perceptions have changed so much in that regard since the '60s.

A. Well, I think you can say there's a lot of squares today. That was the worst thing you could call a human being in the '60s, man: a square. But it's really encouraging to look out at my crowd today and see grandparents, parents, teenagers and little children with psychedelic tie-dyed shirts. It makes me really happy.