“It’s about playing from your heart,” Carlos Santana says about why he believes his music, and remarkable guitar playing, has stood the test of time. “It’s about being gut-bucket honest. For real. No shucking and jiving, no slippin’ and slindin’, no making excuses. You’ve got to give it all you got, from the center of your heart, and be true and be true and be true to every note that you play. That is the requirement for cooking this kind of food: Sincerity and trueness, and playing with intense intensity and with intention. That’s how I play my guitar. You cannot fail with that, because all of a sudden, then it’s not a profession, it’s a way of life.”
Santana, the guitar icon who has sold over 100 million records and performed for three generations of concert fans worldwide, is as busy as ever. 2019 marked the 20th anniversary of the guitarists’s genre-breaking album Supernatural and the 50th anniversary of his legendary performance at Woodstock. The 10-time Grammy Award winner (and three-time Latin Grammy winner), who has also received the Billboard Century Award, is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, and received the Billboard Latin Music Awards’ Lifetime Achievement honor in 2009, and was the recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors Award in 2013.
He is currently headlining a multi-year residency at the House of Blues in Las Vegas, released a new EP, In Search of Mona Lisa in 2019, a taster of what was to come with his Rick Rubin-produced Africa Speaks record, released last June. And don’t forget about the Santana + Earth, Wind & Fire tour set for this summer.
The three-song EP took listeners inside a magical and deeply personal experience Santana reportedly had when he recently visited the Louvre Museum for the first time and set his eyes on Leonardo da Vinci’s beguiling masterpiece.
Rock Cellar: Your music has always been a real melting pot of styles. Where did that come from?
Carlos Santana: Oh, totally. First, it comes from the spirit. And second is African music. I grew up listening to African music, since I was a child. But I have to credit the spirit, who this lifetime has — some might say — given me a very short leash. So I stay really, really close to obeying my inner instructions. And my inner instructions are to compliment, compliment and complement.
Rock Cellar: Cindy, you’re one of those rare drummers who plays for the song, and who plays for the singer. How do you approach your craft and why do you think that is?
Cindy Santana: Thank you. Well, I listen. First, I listen to the singer. With all due respect to Carlos — and all guitar players — I don’t listen to guitar players that much. But certain musicians, when they sing — and that can be with an instrument — they don’t play notes or scales or chords, they play life, and that’s what the best singers due. They express life and they tell you stories, so that’s the kind of guitar players I do listen to. People who tell the story well. And if you follow their lead, you can’t go wrong.
Rock Cellar: Your message has always been very global and inclusive. But the world today is as fractured as ever. Your last album had a very positive message. Do you feel strongly about carrying a positive message to your audience?
Carlos Santana: My music is medicine music, to alleviate the fake, phony baloney arrogance and fear and division and separation that’s out there right now.
This music — the music I make — brings everyone to the level of we’re all significant and meaningful, so carry yourself like it. Making music is an opportunity to share with our brothers a beneficent message to the world. This planet, as you can see, is very much infected with fear everywhere, and a lack of integrity, at the moment, so we feel that we need to come to the rescue of this place and time on this planet that so intensely needs medicine and to heal itself from fear and division and separation.
And I just feel very honored and very grateful that we’re allowed to go create a frequency of healing of unity and harmony, to give people hope and courage, to believe that life can have meaning.
Cindy Santana: Yes, exactly. All of that. Carlos was talking earlier about listening to the music as a spectator after we record it — because you record it and you’re in it and sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees until you step back a little bit and you get an alternative perspective, so from that point of view from listening after the project is completed — and what we’re doing just feels really soulful. It feels really open and it feels really good. It makes you feel happy, and especially in these times right now, that’s exactly what we need, to bring a lot of joy to everyone who hears what we’re doing.
Carlos Santana: I’m sure Billie Holiday is smiling from ear-to-ear, because for us, there’s no division between here and Heaven. There is no big division. Like Prince going to the other side? I say he just changed his zip code.
Those artists are still here, sharing their love, so again, we feel really honored to be part of bringing that love.
We believe that the world needs music, to correct the twisted, crooked minds that want to harm other people. When you play this music, like I said, I call it medicine music, because it heals people from thinking incorrectly.
Rock Cellar: You’re known for groundbreaking arrangements, and taking songs and turning them inside out and making them your own, but also making them something that is easily relatable. It’s that spiritual thing you were talking earlier, about taking even the simplest song and making it speak straight to the listeners soul. What’s your special sauce for you in approaching arrangements?
Carlos Santana: Thank you for asking that question, because I think any musician who is just starting needs to know that you need genuine sincerity and trueness. You need to be authentic and honest, but more than anything, it’s important that you tap inside your heart, for real, you know?
Rock Cellar: Carlos, in many ways you seem to be the ultimate collaborator. From the beginning you were always seeking out new people to work with — no matter what their styles or backgrounds, which eventually led you to working with people like Rob Thomas and, most recently, the Isley Brothers. What have you learned in collaborating with so many different artists over the years?
Carlos Santana: Mainly, what I’ve learned is not to impose your frequency on someone else. Presentation is really important. Wherever you are, whoever you’re with, be a good listener. I’m a pretty good listener. But I listen to my inner voice too. I take instructions. Carlos do this; Carlos try that. So you work on patience and humility. So that’s what I do; I tune in to humility and patience and being present and being lucid, and that which means being totally aware to compliment and compliment and complement, like I said before.
Cindy Santana: Carlos has an incredible Rolodex of songs in his head, and he’s got about 50 iPods, 50 iPads, and they’re all full of different music from every era. It helps him come up with new and different choices and I think really brings out a great side in everybody he works with. He’s also really very diligent, sculpting when he works.
Rock Cellar: There’s a lot of magic on this record. There’s a lot of guitar and a lot of power coming through on every one of the songs. How do you find how to fit it all the pieces together?
Carlos Santana: You mentioned magic. I learned a word from Magic Johnson, when he came to the Lakers, he said he deferred to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And I said, ‘Oh, that’s a really, really high word.’ Defer. It means that you have are giving honor and respect for those who came here before.
So I’ve learned to defer to the vocalist, to the other guitarists, and to the drums. When it’s my turn, I just get in there with all I’ve got, but I love deferring, because I’m not afraid. Because you cannot get to Heaven until you become a child, and children are not afraid to try anything and everything, anytime.
When Cindy sings, she reminds me that the one thing for every human being to remember is innocence. So remember your thirst for adventure, your innocence. When you remember your innocence you can create wonderment.
So in this sense of adventure, I would just say it straight up, don’t be wishy-washy. It ain’t where it’s at. Be intense about creating music.
You remember when the Berlin Wall came down, and when Mandela was freed? It happened the same day! Some fools create more walls, and say you don’t have to save your money, because it’s already in people’s hands. Well, we want to take the walls out of people’s lives by creating this sort of frequency.
As my brother George Lopez says, if you are going to try and create a wall, you better make sure you make it in one night, because the next morning someone will be there to take it down. So we are here transmitting a frequency to alleviate and bring to the four corners of the world unity and harmony.
Rock Cellar: You have a real reverence for those who have come before. The legendary promoter Bill Graham — although not a musician — was significant in your life and had to be one of them. What did you learn from him?
Carlos Santana: He opened the gates for Santana! He was the one that said, you know, ‘You need to come to my house. I want to talk to you.’ And I said okay. He said, ‘You guys play this weird-ass music that has no beginning no end.’ Well, I wanted to know what was wrong with that. He said, ‘You don’t play songs.’ But I didn’t understand what he meant.
So he played me by songs he loved, and made me learn them. So he believed in us, and me, before I believed in myself. He basically adopted me, because he saw the connection between the blues and Jimi Hendrix and Tijuana, because he loved all kinds of music. So he’s still with me and this is what I tell the youngsters who are listening: ‘Have faith that you will have a Bill Graham or a Clyde Davis knocking on your door when your time is right.”
He also pushed me to utilize music to break down the powers that be, because that kind of power is not healthy for humans. It feeds upon greed and selfishness. So we play our music and we go around the world to keep bringing walls down. Because walls are just separation. So we play music that says, ‘You are significant and meaningful. Carry yourself like it!’