Carlos Santana
A&E

Why Carlos Santana Calls Himself a ‘Real Hippie’

From Woodstock to ‘Supernatural’ and now ‘Africa Speaks,’ Carlos Santana brings the global spirit home

PHOTO: ROBERTO FINIZIO

Though he no longer lives in the Bay Area, Carlos Santana holds fond memories of his time here—including living in Aptos, where he moved with his first wife in the early ’70s.

“It was time to start a family,” says Santana, who now lives in Las Vegas, via phone. “And that house in Aptos became like a nest.” The couple’s first of three children, Salvador, was born during their time there. “I’m very grateful and very clear about what each place that I have lived has given us,” he says.

The band to which Santana lent his last name—first as the Santana Blues Band in the late ’60s, then as simply Santana—is primarily linked to one place: San Francisco, where it rose out of the local music scene. Even once the group broke through to international success after its performance at Woodstock in 1969, the guitarist’s connection to the Bay Area has endured. He brings Santana back to NorCal on June 26, teaming up for a concert at Shoreline Amphitheatre with the Doobie Brothers, another classic band with an interesting connection to Santa Cruz.

When Santana lived in Aptos, he was a follower of the Indian spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy, and his band’s music has always had a somewhat mystical quality.

“Santana’s music is very spiritual and sensual,” he says of his band. He discovered the effect it had on audiences before he even landed a record deal, back when he and his crew brought their music to clubs and on campuses around the Bay Area. “The first thing we noticed is that the women move differently.”

While today’s pop freely blends global musical textures with traditional American forms—from rock to R&B to blues—it is worth remembering that Santana’s self-titled debut sounded nothing like its contemporaries.

From his earliest days as a bandleader, Santana has mixed guitar-led jamming with percussion rooted in Caribbean and African traditions. By combining high gain amplifiers and improvisational instrumentals with a repetitive Nigerian chant by Babatunde Olatunji and Latin flourishes, Santana’s 1969 lead single “Jingo” introduced a new kind of fusion, and in doing so, influenced a generation of musicians.

DOORS OF PERCUSSION

“I was learning how to do this alchemy between blues and African rhythms,” Santana says, explaining how he came to piece together all of the various musical idioms that form his distinctive sound. “We were learning from Willie Bobo, Jack McDuff and anyone who had congas and timbales. We put electric guitar with that, and something changed.”

The term world music may trace back to the early ’60s, but it wouldn’t come into wide use until the 1980s. By that time, Santana had been making music that drew from styles outside the European tradition for well over a decade.

His Mexican heritage—Santana was born in 1947 in the city of Autlán, and spent much of his youth in Tijuana—has always informed his music. Other early influences, like Hungarian jazz guitarist Gábor Szabó, broadened his horizons. From an early age, Santana’s interests included folk and, notably, blues guitarists B.B. King and John Lee Hooker.

But there was always something about African musical rhythms that moved him. In both raw form and filtered through Latin and Afro-Caribbean traditions, they would come to be a key part of the Santana sound. “Since the beginning of the Santana band, this has been a global consciousness music,” he says.

This year’s tour will feature as its opening act another deeply rooted Northern California rock ‘n’ roll institution—the Doobie Brothers. Started in San Jose in 1970, the Santa Cruz history of the Doobies is less well-known: their regular gigs at the legendary biker bar Chateau Liberté in the Santa Cruz Mountains earned them hardcore fans in the 1970s among the Hell’s Angels and other biker gangs. Multi-instrumentalist John McFee, still one of the core group members today after joining the Doobie Brothers in 1979, was born and raised in Santa Cruz.

Doobies guitarist Pat Simmons says the group has played with Santana a number of times over the years, including a 2017 swing through Australia and Japan. “We’re complementary musically and historically,” he says. “It’s always been a good show.”

Pat SImmons

BROTHERLY LOVE Doobie Brothers guitarist Pat Simmons says the Bay Area band has always been musically complementary to another longtime local, Carlos Santana.

“It’s always been great for us to play with other bands—Journey, Chicago, Eagles,” Simmons says. The Sep. 20 concert with the Eagles at San Francisco’s AT&T Park in front of 40,000 fans was one of last year’s big shows.

“We’ve been around for a long time, and any time we get a chance to play in front of new fans, it’s good for us,” he says. “You make your fans one at a time.”

Both bands are still creating new material. “We just cut five tracks,” Simmons says of recent recordings with producer John Shanks, set for release next spring, most likely as an EP. “Everything winds up online anyway,” he says, a realization that the industry’s changed a lot in half a century. “For a band like ours, it’s more about just letting people know we’re still working. I’m not sure it makes any sense to make a full album.”

He also reveals that the Doobie Brothers will perform a special show of 1973’s The Captain and Me at The Masonic in San Francisco this September. It’s a follow-up to their performance of that album and its 1972 predecessor Toulouse Street at New York’s Beacon Theater, which will soon be released as a live album.

Santana’s latest effort is Africa Speaks (out Jun. 7 on Concord Records). The album is full of the trademark Santana guitar style, but the rhythms are even more pronounced and upfront than on much of the band’s previous material.

“Everything that I ever learned came from Africa. Coltrane, Chuck Berry and Cream got it from Robert Johnson; Robert Johnson got it from Charlie Patton. Charlie Patton got it from Timbuktu in Africa,” Santana says. “No matter how you slice it or you shuffle it, you’re still playing African music. When I say this, I say it in a very divine way: it’s all the same. It’s still African language.”

And the guitarist comes by his African emphasis honestly. “Santana is one of the few bands that goes global, to each of the four corners of the world,” he says. “And we’re not tourists. We’re part of the family.”

Mallorcan singer and artist Buika takes the lead vocal on the album, much of which is sung in her native tongue, Spanish. Produced by Rick Rubin, the sessions for Africa Speaks yielded almost 40 songs, and dozens ended up on the cutting room floor, or as Santana puts it, “They’re in incubation.”

Name-dropping some of the top-tier artists he counts as friends—Mick Jagger, Lenny Kravitz and Sting—he teases the potential of the unreleased tracks. “Eventually, maybe I’ll find artists that can come in and sing on them.”

LOCAL NATIVES

As he chronicles in his 2014 memoir The Universal Tone, the Santana Blues Band formed in 1966, after the guitarist’s family moved from Tijuana to San Francisco. Once settled in the Bay Area, he became fully immersed in its burgeoning culture.

That same year, promoter Bill Graham started booking Santana’s band for local gigs. Graham, who started as a waiter in the Catskills and went on to invent the modern concert promotion industry, comes up whenever Santana is asked about his early days in the Bay Area music scene. “He was a supreme maitre’d,” Santana says. “Like my father and mother, he instilled in me how to present myself in a way that I wasn’t going to self-destruct. He would say, ‘The water is pure, the flowers are fresh, the apron is clean, the food is delicious. I hope you’re hungry; It’s my pleasure to serve you.’ That was his narrative.”

As Santana’s band grew in popularity, the group became a regular fixture at Graham’s Fillmore West. Before the release of the band’s debut album, Santana also played all over the Bay Area, including dates at the Dream Bowl in Vallejo, San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom and Winterland.

WOODSTOCK NOTION

Prior to the release of Africa Speaks, the most recent Santana record was 2013’s Santana IV. That album marked the long overdue (if temporary) reunion of nearly all members of Santana’s early 1970s lineup, the band responsible for hits including “Jingo,” “Evil Ways, “Black Magic Woman,” “Oye Como Va,” “Everybody’s Everything,” and “No One to Depend On.” Each of those first three Santana albums reached the Top 10 on the Billboard charts, and the singles would all become staples of progressive radio, then AOR playlists, and finally classic rock radio.

That celebrated lineup is also the one that played the Woodstock Music & Art Fair on the afternoon of Saturday, Aug. 16, 1969. Sandwiched between a set by Country Joe McDonald and an impromptu performance by former Lovin’ Spoonful guitarist John Sebastian, Santana wowed the crowd at Max Yasgur’s farm with a 45-minute set that featured an incendiary reading of Olatunji’s “Jin-go-lo-ba” (today better known as “Jingo”) and an original, “Soul Sacrifice.” The band’s debut album wouldn’t hit record store shelves for another two weeks.

In his memoir, Santana says that he was high on mescaline at Woodstock; he writes that his memory of the set is “a blur.” But the festival’s overall vibe stayed with him. “What I remember is energy,” he says of the watershed cultural moment that marks its 50th anniversary this year. “The energy of people for three days sharing granola and good vibes: all the stuff that annoys the arrogant, cynical, slave people. It scares them to see that unity and harmony can actually happen before your eyes; people can not have needs for weapons or religion or politics, and we can actually share each other’s hope and celebrate each other. Woodstock really, really affected the rest of my life, my consciousness.”

CELEBRATION DAY

Though Santana has scored numerous awards on his own and with his band—including 10 Grammys and three Latin Grammys—and sold more than 100 million records across the globe, his commercial popularity has traversed many long and dry valleys between peaks.

Santana was in the midst of a particularly parched valley in the late 1990s; it looked as if his salad days were behind him. That perspective was underscored by his winning a kind of lifetime achievement award in 1998, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Usually,” he says with a laugh, “when they give you that award, it’s over for you.”

Not long after the ceremony, the guitarist was approached by industry mogul Clive Davis. The executive—then the head of Arista Records—suggested that Santana collaborate with a range of current hot artists. The result was the juggernaut album Supernatural, featuring “Smooth” (sung by Matchbox 20 vocalist Rob Thomas) at its center.

The seemingly unlikely roster of artists who worked with Santana on Supernatural reads like a who’s who of 20th-century fin de siècle: in addition to Thomas, Supernatural pulls in Dave Matthews, Everlast, Lauryn Hill, CeeLo Green, and Eagle-Eye Cherry. The album even included a nod to rock history by way of a collaboration with Santana’s musical peer, guitarist Eric Clapton.

Santana’s principal vocalist during the Supernatural period, Tony Lindsay, has been an anchor of the South Bay’s jazz, soul and R&B community for the past four decades. He ended his 25-year run with Santana four years ago and hasn’t seen the new lineup, saying he cherishes the memories of bandmates he performed with. Still, he says, “I might just go” when Santana plays Shoreline on June 26. “Since it’s so close, I’ll probably be there,” the Peninsula resident says.

With Supernatural’s 20th anniversary this month, it would seem that a victory lap in the form of a retrospective tour would be in order. Instead, the creatively restless Santana is observing the ’99 album within the context of a tour that presents his newest material as well. Both “Candomble Cumbele” and “Breaking Down the Door” from Africa Speaks show up often in the band’s current set.

PASSION PROJECTS

One of the enduring qualities that ties together every project in which Carlos Santana has engaged is intention. At the height of Santana’s successful run of albums (Santana, Abraxas and Santana III), he shifted gears and made 1972’s decidedly uncommercial Caravanserai. That album brought in new players and explored Santana’s growing interest in improvisational jazz.

For Santana—who has also made collaborative albums with virtuoso guitarist John McLaughlin, Alice Coltrane and his brother Jorge—all of his work fits together. He brings the same commitment to projects that aren’t destined for the charts as he does to hit singles like “Smooth.”

“The connection between any album that I’ve ever done and will do is passion, emotion and feelings,” he says. A deeply spiritual man, Santana says that his music “is assigned and designed to take you out of your misery. It’s a frequency of certain elements that makes people feel at home.”

While he can freely quote the great philosophers, Santana instead chooses words from the Godfather of Soul to make his point: “As James Brown said, ‘Jump back and kiss yourself.’” When one does that—literally or metaphorically—“you’re actually validating your light,” Santana says. “You’re celebrating your spirit. That’s what we were born to do. And the only way to uplift someone is to help them be aware of their own light, their own magnificence.”

PEACE, LOVE & MUSIC

At press time, Santana was on the bill to perform at Woodstock 50, a half-century to the day after the band’s original set there. The modern-day event’s future is in serious doubt, and it’s not at all clear if Woodstock 50 will even happen—this week, the event lost its venue when Watkins Glen International decided not to host it, and then saw (as of press time) two of its producers walk away. True to form, Carlos Santana brings a mixture of mindfulness and intention to the question of whether a revival of the iconic festival is even a good idea.

“It depends on the consciousness of the artists,” he says. “Why are you coming to play? Are you coming to sell more records? Are you coming to sell Mountain Dew or tacos or marijuana? Or are you just coming here to celebrate the good qualities of humans?”

Santana says that those who came to the first Woodstock with the right intentions are still here: “We’re singing the same songs, differently. We reinvent ourselves, but the song is unity and harmony and healing and coming together and doing away, eventually, with patriotism, which is prehistoric. Anything that has to do with walls and patriotism and arrogance about, ‘We’re number one,’ that’s a division between ego and spirit. With spirit, we’re all one.

“Woodstock—the real Woodstock—is the opposite of fear and greed,” Santana says. And if that makes him sound like a hippie, he doesn’t mind. “Not a fake hippie with fake mustaches, fake wigs and phony values,” he says. “Not that hippie; the real hippie.” To him, that includes figures who “care for the environment, who want equality, fairness, and justice. Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez, the Black Panthers; those kind of hippies.”

For Santana, making music with intention is part of that mix, a vehicle to achieve those hippie goals. “It’s an art,” he says. “We do this so we can do that.”

Dan Pulcrano and Nick Veronin contributed to this story.

Santana and the Doobie Brothers perform at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, June 26. $35 and up. livenation.com.

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