Carlos Santana weaves magic with his guitar, making listeners experience a new musical high every time they listen to him. Joel premkumar meets the legendary guitarist and comes away impressed.
The legendary Carlos Santana’s insatiable appetite to reinvent himself continually has resulted in him remaining as fresh and relevant today as he was at the Woodstock festival in 1969. In a career spanning over four decades, Santana has sold more than 100 million records and has enthralled over a 100 million fans at concerts worldwide.
To date, he has won 10 Grammy Awards, including a record-tying nine for a single project, 1999’s Supernatural. Among many other honours, Carlos Santana received Billboard Latin Music Awards’ 2009 Lifetime Achievement honour.
He was also bestowed Billboard’s Century Award in 1996. Santana has also been cited by Rolling Stones at #20 on the Magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
The music of Santana defies all attempts at classification. From his earliest days as a ground-breaking Afro-Latin-blues-Rock fusion outfit in San Francisco, he has been the visionary force behind the artistry that transcends not only musical genres, but also cultural, geographical and generational boundaries.
Long before ‘world music’ was listed as a category, Santana’s ever-evolving sound was ahead of its time in its universal appeal and is in total sync with 21st century’s pan-cultural landscape.
Talking exclusively to Sunday Herald about what keeps him driven in the music industry, Santana says, “I was born motivated. That is the way my constitution works — spiritually, physically and emotionally. I thank God that I’m always aspiring, which is a flame in my heart, and I have an ardent desire to create music to touch people’s hearts. That is what motivates me.”
On his ability to be relevant to the younger generation, he says, “Every molecule in my body is always looking for a new colour or feeling or sensation, so there’s nothing ho-hum or ‘been there, done that’ about my existence or the way the band hits it night after night. To me, everything is the first time ever.
We do not lip sync. We play live, and every note and every word is delivered with passion and with the intangibles that make you want to laugh, dance and cry at the same time. That kind of power cannot be put in a box. It appeals to every one of any generation all over the world. Like Bob Marley, I am focused and generation-less.”
Carlos Augusto Alves Santana was born in Mexico in 1947. He started learning the violin under the tutelage of his father at the tender age of five and then moved to guitar at the age of eight. His family then moved to California where he graduated from high school. Although he was accepted into several prestigious universities, the young Carlos preferred to learn guitar techniques under Javier Bátiz, a famous guitarist from Mexico.
Some of the techniques that he learnt from Javier were what shaped his early musical output. The young Carlos Santana gradually started listening to blues performers like B B King and John Lee Hooker. He was also influenced by Jimi Hendrix, Mike Bloomfield, Hank Marvin and Peter Green.
As a young man in San Francisco, he got the opportunity to witness his idols perform live. He was also introduced to the hippie movement centred in San Francisco in the 1960s and got his first taste of a variety of musical influences, including jazz, blues and folk music. Santana worked as a dishwasher and played for spare change for a few years, but eventually decided to become a full-time musician.
Taste of success
In 1966, he got his first break to play with the impromptu band of jazz saxophonist Bill Graham. The jam session that ensued got Santana’s guitar playing and solo skills noticed by both the audience and Graham. Gaining on this new-found acceptance, Santana formed the Santana Blues Band with fellow street musicians David Brown and Gregg Rolie.
The band quickly dropped the blues band bit and were simply known as Santana. They gained recognition for their highly original style of music, which was a fine blend of Latin, jazz, salsa, blues, rock and African rhythms. They immediately picked up a following in the San Francisco club circuit. All of this led to the highly memorable performance in the Woodstock Festival in 1969.
Eventually, it was the heady 60s that shaped Santana’s music and personality. Reminiscing, Santana had famously remarked, “The ’60s were a leap in human consciousness. Mahatma Gandhi, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Che Guevara, Mother Teresa, they led a revolution of conscience. The Beatles, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix created revolution and evolution themes. The music was like Dalí, with many colours and revolutionary ways. The youth of today must go there to find themselves.”
The performance at Woodstock was what really kick-started’s Santana’s career. He was offered a contract by CBS Records and went into the studio to record his first album. After a major struggle with the line-up and other issues, Santana released his first self-titled album in August 1969, which went on to become a huge hit, reaching number four on the US album charts with the single Evil Ways reaching number nine on the Billboard Hot 100. The album earned platinum five times.
The road ahead was certainly not a smooth one from there on with various ups and downs, mostly with issues of management, line-up and creative differences. Working through all of the problems, Santana continued to produce albums that routinely went platinum.
His next album, Abraxas, released in September 1970, topped the Billboard charts and earned platinum five times. This was followed by Santana III, Caravanserai, Welcome, Moonflower and Inner Secrets among others. Santana released a total of 12 albums in the 1970s, each of them earning RIAA certifications.
The band’s success continued into the early 1980s as well with albums such as Zebop! and Shangó achieving a fair amount of success. The band’s next four albums from 1984 to 1994 remained commercially unsuccessful.
After signing with Arista in 1999, the group released the most successful of all of Santana’s albums, Supernatural, which went 15 times platinum in the US and won nine Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year as well as three Latin Grammy Awards including Record of the Year. It became a global phenomenon eventually, selling over 30 million copies, and is continuing to sell. Santana followed that up with Shaman and a couple of other albums which have been received well. His latest album, Shape Shifter, was released earlier this year and has so far had a good run.
Santana has collaborated with almost every major musician in his long and illustrious career. From the old to the young, famous to critically acclaimed, Santana has played with them all. His major collaborations with older artistes include Gerry Garcia, Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton, Gloria Estefan, Steven Tyler, Tina Turner, George Benson, B B King and Seal, apart from a host of brilliant but now forgotten artistes.
His newer collaborations are with Rob Thomas, Lauren Hill, Cee Lo Green, Indie.Aire, Yo-Yo Ma, Chad Kroeger and Will I Am. Talking about his most memorable collaborations, Santana says, “They were with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Stevie Ray Vaughn and of course, everyone from the Supernatural experience. The child in me is very fond of sharing with Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and so many other artistes that speak from the heart.”
Santana recently performed at the Vladivar Rock ‘N India tour, his first ever tour of India. Although Indian philosophy is a major force in shaping Santana, he had never performed here before. The deeply spiritual Santana says, “I feel very grateful. It is a great honour. The West desires, while India aspires.
Aspiration is when you want spiritual traction. An aspiration is when you want to hug a sunset. I have learnt this philosophy from India. My spiritual principles are about aspiring, and India embodies that. It is the same attraction to me as the Beatles and the Hippie movement of the 60s.”
The ever-optimistic Santana says that he will continue to make music and promote global harmony. For, he is not only a global music icon, but also an exemplary world citizen who values humanitarian outreach programmes and social activism.