Given the tumult churning around in our nation, Power Of Peace, the new collaborative project between Carlos Santana and The Isley Brothers (Ronald and Ernie) offers the perfect musical salvo in reaction to seemingly insurmountable world problems.
The project, which also features Carlos’ wife, Cindy Blackman Santana, finds the legendary Rock & Hall of Fame team of musicians tackling songs of peace and unification. They cover songs by the likes of Stevie Wonder (“Higher Ground”), Marvin Gaye (“Mercy Mercy Me – The Ecology”), Curtis Mayfield (“Gypsy Woman”), Dionne Warwick/Jackie DeShannon (“What the World Needs Now is Love Sweet Love”), Muddy Waters/Willie Dixon (“I Just Want to Make Love to You”), The Chambers Brothers (“Are You Ready,” “Love, Peace, Happiness”), Swamp Dogg (“Total Destruction to Your Mind”), Billie Holiday (“God Bless the Child”) and Eddie Kendricks (“Body Talk”).
There’s also a new song, “I Remember,” penned and sung by Cindy Blackman Santana. Discussing this once in a lifetime collaboration, Santana remarked, “There is a spirit of creativity that came knocking and presented itself as a golden opportunity to do something with and for a supreme musician, who I consider to be the best in the world. Brother Ronnie Isley has been in the center of collective unity and harmony on the radio around the world since 1962 with ‘Twist and Shout,’ the song that the Beatles chose to invade America with. Like Michael Jackson, John Lennon, and Bob Marley, he’s an iconic supreme of the highest order. Cindy and I feel very blessed to offer him this gift. From God, through us to you, for the world…Mr. Ronnie Isley.”
That sense of love and unity that infiltrated this project was also felt profoundly by Ronald, who raves, “It was an absolute joy working on this album with Carlos. I hope this record carries the spirit of hope, love, and peace to the world that it brought to me, my brother and Carlos!” Join us in a conversation with Carlos Santana, who provides the backstory behind this exciting new project.
Rock Cellar: What sparked this collaboration between you, Ronald and Ernie Isley of The Isley Brothers and Cindy Blackman Santana?
Carlos Santana: When Cindy and I got married, we were listening a lot to Ronnie Isley singing Burt Bacharach’s catalog. It’s a must have for anyone who considers themselves to be a lover. H’s doing songs like “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head.”
The first song we danced to when I got married was “The Look of Love” interpreted by Ronnie Isley; of course that was written Burt Bacharach. Back then, we had the good bug to do something with Ronnie. When we were on tour with Rod Stewart, we had the good fortune to find out that his sister-in-law was singing with Ronnie. So she heard about what we were doing. Then we were in St. Louis and she said, “Hey, Ronnie knows you’re a big fan and she’s coming over to see you.” I was like, “oh my God!” And that’s’ where it started.
He came backstage and I told him that I really aspired and yearned to do something with him. He kind of just looked at me but when I told him the songs I had in mind he went, “Oh!…” The first song I had in mind was “Let The Rain Fall On Me” and “God Bless The Child” by Billie Holiday. He wanted to do “Higher Ground” by Stevie Wonder, “Mercy Mercy Me” by Marvin Gaye and “What the World Needs Now?” So in terms of the songs we eventually chose to record for this album, it was pretty much 50% what he wanted to do and 50% what I wanted. I feel so grateful. It’s wonderful to do something without fear. We did 16 songs in four days.
When did you first realize music had the power to deliver a strong message?
Carlos Santana: The message is to wake as many people as possible, gently, to their own light. Because when people begin to accept that they’re not wretched sinners or unworthy of God’s grace, that’s when you begin to create miracles and blessings. That’s when you become mighty, otherwise you become pathetic and pitiful and you’re invested forever in being a victim or villain. So the concept of being a wretched sinner and not working with God’s grace, that’s what Bob Marley called mental slavery.
So we go the other way, we say, “You’re significant and meaningful, you are a beam of light that comes from the mind of God.” Once you learn to accept that so your molecules can hear it, you begin to walk differently. You begin to look differently and you begin to manifest differently.
The name of the new album is Power Of Peace and those are words we all need to abide by in 2017. Can you speak about the transformative effect peace can have on the world?
Carlos Santana: Yes, when you bring peace you’re able to live on this planet with mightiness because you begin to see there’s no value truly in nations and flags and voters and religion or politics.
The only thing that has any lasting value is universal love and its universal principles.
There’s schematics for a whole new behavior for humans and it’s called compassion and kindness and generosity and being considerate. Those are mighty powers. A lot of people are still not ready to discard the arrangement they have mentally with patriotism but I say to them without fear, patriotism is prehistoric.
We are one body, we are one heart and we are one mind. When you look at us outside of this planet and you look at the planet, you don’t see patriotism. You don’t see any of that. You just see we are one baby and the world is the womb. So I invite you to stop believing that the world is flat.
The next time you see an eclipse of the sun or the moon, it’s not a flat shadow. (laughs)
Stop tripping negatively about who you really really are. We are one.
Take us back to the first time The Isley Brothers crossed your radar.
Carlos Santana: Oh yeah. I just came to San Francisco from Tijuana. It was my first week there. This was back in ’62. The San Francisco Giants were getting ready to play the Yankees here in the Bay Area. They kept playing on the jukebox “Twist & Shout” by The Isley Brothers and I was like “Oh My God! This guy singing this song gives me chills every time I hear it. Put another quarter into the machine and play it again!”
Then I realized that Ronnie Isley was the first Michael Jackson ‘cause he was really really young when he was singing this song. And of course the Beatles invaded us in ’64 and had a big hit with their version of “Twist & Shout.” But they were copying that song from the Isley Brothers.
Whether it was The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, many of those British Invasion bands would give us back the music that came from The States. Do you find that ironic?
Carlos Santana: Sometimes people get a little upset when I say this but I’m like, “Please don’t come and invade me with my own music and especially when you’re not doing it as good as the original.” So go back and come back when you have your own stuff and invade me with your own stuff; don’t come back and invade me with Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry and Howlin’ Wolf and Motown. Create your own music and invade me with that. I mean, I know what it sounds like because I grew up here. Don’t invade me with my own stuff, man. (laughs)
Was that how you felt initially about The Beatles?
Carlos Santana: Yeah. I grew to love them once they took LSD and they discovered Bob Dylan. Then I said, Okay, now you’re talkin’!” (laughs)
Back to the new album, in terms of your creative connection with Ronald and Ernie Isley, did that come easily?
Carlos Santana: Yeah. We all play African music. So for me I never had the fear of not fitting with anyone because since I was a child I’ve been attracted to African music. When I was a child they used to call it tropical music, whether it came from Cuba or Puerto Rico or the Islands. But it’s really African music. It’s African music whether it’s Ben E. King or BB King or Freddie King or Albert King or Sam Cooke or (John) Coltrane. It’s all really African music. I realized that this music is my heart center so I’m very very capable of articulating it with honor and grace. I say this with total clarity and courage, when I go to Africa I’m not a tourist. They immediately love me and start quoting some of my songs saying, “My wife got pregnant when we were listening to ‘Samba Ba Ti.’” (laughs)
In terms of songs about peace, who were the artists/songs that embraced that ethos that inspired you as a musician and in your life away from the stage as a spiritual being?
Carlos Santana: For me, John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” Bob Marley with “One Love.” “Blowin’ In the Wind” by Bob Dylan. What’s Goin’ On by Marvin Gaye, the whole album. “All You Need Is Love” by The Beatles; “Imagine” by John Lennon. There’s a frequency of waking humanity to not investing in fear.
How can we tap into that frequency as a community of people?
Carlos Santana: I’m grateful you asked that. I would say when you play songs. I can give you 27 songs about peace that you can play in shopping malls, parking lots, elevators. CNN, you see a dwindling and vanishing of people strapping themselves with bombs to kill another human being. All of those kinds of songs say to you very clearly that divinity does not demand death in the name of whatever you believe. That’s the message of music for me.
There’s entertainment, there’s show business and then there’s music to give you a spiritual jolt and to remind you that you are divine, you’re not a mistake. You’re not a wretched anything.
Covering classic songs like Stevie’s Wonder “Higher Ground,” Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” Curtis Mayfield’s “Gypsy Woman,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You” by Muddy Waters and Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me – The Ecology, ” what were the most challenging ones to record?
Carlos Santana: It was my wife, Cindy, who said, “Oh, we’re gonna do ‘Higher Ground?’” and I said, “Yeah.” She goes in front of Ronnie Isley, “Well, we’re not gonna do it the way everybody does it are we?” And we were like, “oh, that sounds like a challenge…” I said, “Okay dear, what do you have in mind? Please go to the drums and tell me what you hear.”
So she went and played this beat and I was like, “Yeah, let’s do it like that!” So when you hear the intro, my keyboard player was doing something a seven year-old kid would do. He was just playing the keys up and down, up and down on the clavinet.
It sounded like he was threading water or playing a harp. I said to him, “What are you doing?” He went, “Huh?” Because he was in the zone doing it so I said, “Wait a minute! Don’t stop, do it again!”
I told someone to hit record so I put that in the front of the song and then we come right in on the song. We don’t do it like the record or other people who have covered the song.
Cindy was the one who said, “Let’s not do it like that that can we do it this other way?” So we put a different kind of foundation on it. Then I was in Bangkok and it was two o’clock in the morning and I said, “Why don’t we put on these lyrics about NBA basketball players at the very end?” Then Andy, our singer/rapper put that on there at the last moment and it really really works.
Thinking back to all of the concerts you witnessed from childhood until now, what one stands out to you?
Carlos Santana: My answer will never change, it will always be the same. It was Miles Davis at the Fillmore. Every time that I saw Miles Davis at the Fillmore was incredible. He was so amazing; his music, even today, sounds so beyond comprehension of what people are predictably into. He would look at the hippies and say, (imitates Miles’ gruff voice), “I can go where you go and you can go where I go.” I was like, “Damn!”
So pick up anything featuring Miles Davis at the Fillmore and you realize, “Wow!” whether it was Jimi Hendrix or Sly (Stone), all of us were like “Dang! This is music coming from the milky way.” All of us play earth music; he didn’t play earth music, he played galactic music from another galaxy. Miles Davis is the most important musician I have ever met.
When did you initially find your voice as a songwriter?
Carlos Santana: It’s when I wrote “Samba Ba Ti” and I heard it on the radio for the first time at night. I was like, “Oh dang! That sounds like a story in another language, not English or Spanish or anything else.” It’s a language. One of the highest compliments I’ve received from a musician was Eric Clapton, he went, “Hey Carlos, what were you thinking with ‘Samba Ba Ti,’ where were you?” I was like, “I wrote it as a poem because this wino in the alley in New York was a story of playing the saxophone. He had a bottle of booze in his back pocket and he couldn’t make up his mind which one to put in his mouth, the saxophone or the bottle of booze. In the meantime, he looked like a kid who’d been on the merry-go-round way too many times. He was bobbing and weaving like he was kind of dizzy, I was like, “Damn! I wonder if that is gonna be me when I grow up.”
This guy was really trapped. So I wrote the lyrics, “through every step in life you find freedom from within.” So for me when someone like Eric Clapton wants to know how I arrived in creating something vulnerable. There’s hard rock licks and then there’s just being vulnerable like Billie Holiday.
Being vulnerable takes more courage than just turning it up loud and playing some powerful riff.
Tragically, we lost Prince a little over a year ago. He cited you in interviews as one of his major influences on him as a guitar player.
Carlos Santana: I met Prince when he was recording his first album or his first demo at the Automat here in San Francisco. I was really moved by his gift. He was supremely gifted. Sometimes people crate this persona; they go from Clark Kent to Superman. He was this person and then he became Prince; same thing with Michael Jackson. He was Michael Jackson and then he because that. Sometimes that can be good and sometimes it can be a trap, because you spend so much time and energy upholding that persona mask. I never wanted to have that. I just want to be a student and to be able to walk into a room with Tito Puente or John Lee Hooker or Coltrane or Wayne Shorter or Herbie Hancock and not having any of the trappings of show business. That’s really exhausting.
Do you think Prince struggled with that?
Carlos Santana: You know, I turned him on to Larry Graham from Sly & The Family Stone. I said to him, “You and Larry Graham would be a great pairing.” Larry turned him onto being a Jehovah’s Witness.
I think that helped him through his life. I don’t know what happened in the end but I do know that being a Jehovah’s Witness probably helped him have a longer life because the other way is dangerous.
What happened to Prince, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Jimi Hendrix, it’s almost predictable. It’s like you OD on yourself.
Instead of opening yourself to feel God and the spirit, you start opening on you. It’s about, me, me, me. Music is, (recites musical scale), “Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do…” So when you go, me, me, me, me, you get in trouble.
Did you ever jam with him?
Carlos Santana: I’m very grateful that Prince said he listened to me a lot and of course I listened to him a lot too. But Prince, like myself, we’re an amalgamation of many people that we love. He loved James Brown, of course, like Michael Jackson and he also loved Jimi Hendrix and he loved Curtis Mayfield. I got to play with Prince three or four times. It was a lot of fun. I had the great honor to have shared a stage with Prince and John McLaughlin and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
And of course Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. I’ve been around the block and I feel really grateful. When we get together and play, it’s about complementing each other’s playing, it’s not comparing or completing but complementing.
Lastly, are there any plans to bring the original Santana band back out onto the road for shows?
Carlos Santana: Yeah, there are plans and all of that stuff is up ahead. I’m gonna complete this commitment with this band with Cindy. Cindy has her own CD she’s working on with Narada Michael Walden and she’s singing a lot. We’re in the process of creating a CD with Rick Rubin; I’m not complaining but by the grace of God we’re really really busy and we’re really creative.
I just feel so grateful that we have the energy to manifest dreams like crazy.