Carlos Santana: Back on Topby Marc Shapiro
Carlos Santana took the music world by storm back in 1969 with his thrilling performance at the Woodstock festival. He was the first guitarist to skillfully blend fiery rock riffs with Latin, blues and sensuous Afro-Cuban rhythms to create a unique and unforgettable sound. His vision to create innovative melodies has earned him a magnitude of critical praise and
Carlos Santana took the music world by storm back in 1969 with his thrilling performance at the Woodstock festival. He was the first guitarist to skillfully blend fiery rock riffs with Latin, blues and sensuous Afro-Cuban rhythms to create a unique and unforgettable sound. His vision to create innovative melodies has earned him a magnitude of critical praise and acclaim over his illustrious career. But, the road to success has been a rocky, uphill climb.
The middle child of seven children, Carlos Santana was born on July 20, 1947 in a tiny Mexican village where the homes were comprised of brick and mud, and there was no running water or lights. But, what his parents couldn't give in material wealth, they heaped upon their children in love. It was after the family moved to Tijuana that twelve year old Carlos developed his talent for the guitar and his reputation as a formidable musician spread.
In 1968 Columbia Records signed on the Santana Blues Band and they began in earnest to work on an album that would include such popular Latin and soul favorites as "Black Magic Woman," "Evil Ways," and "Oye Como Va". On August 15, 1969, the Santana band was given the opportunity to play Woodstock before the release of their first album and this performance would forever be etched in fans' minds as a key moment in rock history. The Santana Blues Bands went from obscurity to instant recognition. Shortly thereafter, rumblings of discontent were echoed within the group with the volatile mixture of drug abuse, personality clashes, and the frustrations over the musical direction the band, ultimately leading to the demise of the group.
Following the breakup, Carlos Santana delved deeper into the meditative arts and spirituality. The succession of albums that followed were greeted with critical acclaim, but moderate success. In the late 90's, Santana begin working on a new album under the creative direction of Clive Davis, head of Arista Records. In a brilliant union of collaborating with younger artists as Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean, and Rob Thomas, the album, Supernatural was a commercial smash. It sold over thirteen million copies, and appealed to both the baby boomers and the teenage crowd. Carlos Santana became the star of the 2000 Grammys, and Supernatural won several awards including, Best Rock Album of the Year, Song of the Year for "Smooth", and Album of the Year. With a career that spans three decades, Carlos Santana has proven that talent, determination, and passion are the keys to longevity in a business that is obsessed with youth and beauty. Against the odds, he has defied the rule of convention and made an incredible comeback. His story is timeless, inspirational, and he has undoubtedly proven himself to be the king of the guitar.
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Back On Top
By Marc Shapiro
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2000 Mark Shapiro
All rights reserved.
Back Through the Front Door
Carlos Santana had plans for the Grammys. And it was not going to be a rushed thirty seconds where he would read off a hastily scribbled list of names.
"A Grammy Award would mean that I get an opportunity to thank the people who made it all possible. But it would also be an opportunity to invite the audience to meditate in silence for ten seconds to visualize equality, justice, beauty, grace, excellence, and compassion."
That kind of sentiment on a night made to order for honoring commercial success and corporate plunder would seem pretentious in the extreme coming from just about anyone else on the planet. But coming from Carlos Santana, it all sounds real ... and possible.
Because Carlos Santana is more than a virtuoso guitarist. Of course, there's that, too. Exploring the endless possibilities of world music on the strength of a soaring, individual style of playing that incorporates a dizzying mixture of Latin and Afro-Cuban rhythms with screaming leads. There's his ax, the most secret and sacred of weapons, that mixes the intensity of rock with the sheer emotion of blues, soul, and jazz, and which he has often described as "the cry." The sounds of Carlos Santana come from a place most musicians never reach—the heart and the soul.
"Playing guitar is both a physical and a metaphysical experience," Santana has said. "It's a beautiful way to touch yourself and to touch other people. My goal is to always play the guitar from the heart."
This statement is part and parcel of the Carlos Santana mystique. If there is an arrogant bone in his body, he keeps it well hidden. Yes, he is prone to what would be best described as spiritual New Age raps that often leave the listener dazed, confused, and fighting a snicker. But the reason you don't laugh is that one is not prone to risk hurting the feelings of one who truly believes what he is saying and has the spiritual and creative chops to back it up.
The result of his conviction to musical and spiritual truth has been one of the most supportive and loyal fan bases in the history of popular music. Since 1969, more than forty million copies of his albums have been sold throughout the world. Santana has managed a consistent performing career that has seen numerous incarnations of the Santana band and his star-studded solo outings play in more than fifty countries in front of more than twenty million devoted fans.
And it is a fan base that has spanned the generations. It is not uncommon for Santana shows to be filled with families. Fathers and mothers whose right of passage was often a tune off of the first Santana album, passing their music down to their kids who have just come upon the guitarist as a hip find on the strength of the album Supernatural. Teenage girls now scream Santana's name much like their mothers did years earlier.
Santana thinks he knows the reason why he has—even through the years when he did not have hit records—continued to be a shining star in the musical universe. One reason is the resurgence of classic-rock radio which, he points to with some pride, continues to play the finer moments of his more-than-thirty-year career. But, for Carlos, there is also a bottom line.
"There are so few musicians with passion out there and passion is something the kids can feel. The kids know when something is happening."
Carlos Santana is on a never-ending journey toward inner peace and perfection. In his hands he is doing much more than merely playing notes, chords, and melodies. Santana's soaring, knife-sharp leads and muted, introspective riffs are the guides to something much bigger than the popular-music world he walks. His is a world of music, mixed liberally with spirituality and driven by a singular worldview of social injustice and the power of prayer and religious fervor to set things right. It would not be a stretch to describe the introspective, soft-spoken guitar player, with the soft eyes, slight frame, and curly ringlets of hair, as the musical reincarnation of Gandhi. It is a trait that has not been lost on his musical contemporaries.
"Carlos Santana is the sweetest man I know," guitar great Eric Clapton once acknowledged, looking back on his many decades' association with the man. Blues legend John Lee Hooker was likewise impressed with Santana. "He's one of the greatest men I've ever worked with. He's a perfect gentleman."
Dave Matthews, one of the current generation's rock royalty who worked with Santana on Supernatural, was quick to jump on the guitarist's bandwagon. "Hanging out with Carlos was really enlightening. Even though he's such a heavyweight, he's an incredibly kind man. Recording with him was like being away at a retreat as opposed to going to work."
Carlos Santana is a gentle man; an often private and distant man who, arguably, functions on a different spiritual plane than most of us. He admits to not getting out as much as he used to. Watching television, reading a good book, and attending to his myriad of good works is where this former rock bad boy is at these days.
However, being in a spiritual place does not mean that Carlos Santana has lost the eye of the tiger. The man has not gone soft. His stance is far from passive. He's uncompromising when it matters, and can slip into open defiance at a moment's notice. There are few in celebrity circles who can touch Carlos Santana when it comes to integrity and honesty. And he has no patience when it comes to those who cross that line.
"I don't subscribe to the three p 's," offered the musician. "Pimps, politicians, and the pope. They all lie."
Comments like those arise often in Carlos Santana's world. He is not afraid to speak his mind. He is not afraid to offend. These traits are part and parcel of the reason why his most consistent detractors—and, yes, there are a few—often refer to the guitarist as somebody who, philosophically, is still stuck in the 1960s. But while Carlos has often expressed his admiration for a lot of what came out of that whole San Francisco/Haight-Ashbury period, his beliefs are very much of modern times.
"Some people think I'm full of mumbo jumbo," he once said, acknowledging his detractors. "But I feel I've learned about responsibility and about two things that many people lack ... focus and determination."
And, because of that, Carlos Santana is not afraid to walk the walk.
Over the years, Santana's convictions have been regularly tested. Twice in the 1990s, Santana was invited to the White House to perform by President Bill Clinton. While he was in tune with much of Clinton's social and political works, and had a good feeling about the man personally, he turned down both invitations on the grounds that the Latin American dignitaries who would be present represented countries who were soft on civil rights. And when the political climate in Vietnam was not to his liking, the performer backed out of the opportunity to be the first U.S. rock performer to perform in the country since the end of the war.
"My lips don't smell like anybody's behind," he once remarked in a moment of open rebellion against the establishment.
His defiance of the things he feels in his soul are wrong has also extended to the social ills of this country. He willingly jumped at the chance to do the music for Norman Lear's Hispanic-themed television series, Aka Pablo. But once he took a look at the pilot script, Santana backed out, for what he felt was a good reason.
"Would you believe that on the second page of the script they had a Mexican character taking a siesta at two P.M.?" he remarked. "I decided then that I could not be involved with that project."
Nor could he, in all good conscience, return to the stage at Woodstock in 1994 when he found out the performers were almost all white. Santana would not be involved in anything that was not in the spirit of the original Woodstock "with people of all colors coming together in a hopeful spirit." The promoters wanted Santana's blessing and presence so much that they ultimately added four black performers to the bill to get him to participate.
And it is his overriding faith and innate ambition that has served Santana well in a career that has spanned more than thirty years and thirty albums, that has allowed him to survive the temptations of stardom as a superstar Latin-blues rocker, on the strength of such raw musical visions as Santana and Abraxas, the wasted drug-induced triumphs of nights at the Fillmore and a breakout performance at Woodstock, and the often turbulent attempts to find himself in the arms of a God he could attach his musical and personal visions to.
There was the successful marriage of music and spirituality that resulted in the progressive grooves of Caravanserai and Love Devotion Surrender. A religious falling-out with his once beloved spiritual leader led to the wide-ranging decade of the 1980s, in which Zebop! once again found the guitarist having fun with his music. Carlos Santana arrived at the end of the millennium healthy, happy, and in a state of grace. But, as always, inevitably at odds with musical conformity.
For, you see, Carlos could not sit still. No sooner had he found a form that he was comfortable with, than he was on to something else. Rarely coming up for a breath of air commercially, his career has been counted out more times than Rocky's.
"There have been a lot of times when people told me, 'You're committing commercial suicide.' And a lot of times they were right. That's a lot of suicides, man. But I'm still here."
A big reason for his continued survival has been his instinctive approach to avoiding the pitfalls of stardom. Santana learned a lot about surviving the excesses of the 1960s when his band emerged from the streets of San Francisco and onto the top of the charts. He remembered "being slapped hard" by the abundance of drugs, sex, and other self-destructive perks of the rock-and-roll game. But he saw that way meant disaster and, by the early 1970s, he was happily married, in tune with his religious side, and, by his own laughing estimation, "pretty boring."
A position he happily maintains to this day. "I'm invisible," he quietly boasted. "I don't have the tabloids and people like that in my face. They stay away from me because my life is very boring to them. There's no, 'We found Carlos with a goat' kind of thing. My wife and I have been together for twenty-six years. So there's nothing for people to go after. And I love it this way."
Santana had emerged in the mid-1990s as a world-music icon, revered as a rock god by millions but also considered a literal dinosaur in the reigning days of grunge, rap, and alternative music. He had continued to be a popular concert attraction throughout the world and his increasingly ultraprogressive recorded forays into jazz, blues, and all influences in between, continued to sell at a consistent clip. The hits were not there like they used to be, but you could always count on the latest Santana album to at least sell its weight in gold and produce some mighty arresting sounds in the process. But the ability of his music to reach millions through the speakers of radio had, largely by design, continued to elude him.
You had to go all the way back to 1977 and his cover of the Zombies' hit "She's Not There" to see Santana's name on the high end of the commercial Top 40. And while his albums regularly made the Billboard charts, they never hit number one. Nor did Santana really care. Until the day his personal frustration with the world led Santana to a very private and personal conversation with an angel named Metatron. Where, in a sense, he made a pact with the devil to once again be commercially viable.
Long a deep and philosophical thinker, Santana had become disheartened at what he perceived as "the cynicism, the violence, and the other negative crap that young people were absorbing from the media today." In his tortured vision of hell he saw children selling their bodies to get high and escape from a world that offered no hope. In private dreams and meditations, Santana offered up his dreams of making a record that would carry the message of love, peace, joy, and light to combat the evil in the land. Even if it meant going in a commercial direction that he had not actively pursued in years.
"I got told by the angel, in my dreams and meditations, that 'We're gonna help you get back into the ring, because we want you to utilize your sound and vibration and resonance to hook up with a lot of new people.'"
Santana took up the cause with his typical fervor and, along the way, discovered a new level of musical spirituality. Contrary to his early fears, the collaborations with this new crop of singer-songwriters did not feel forced. In terms of his own creative being, Carlos Santana felt reinvented. Initially, his insecurities about this latest venture had him ready to call the new album Mumbo Jumbo. By the time it was finished, he had christened the effort Supernatural—because that's how it felt to him.
The result of Carlos's willingness to step into a brave new musical world was that Supernatural, a tough mixture of 1990s musical sensibilities and his signature soaring and melodic playing, raced to the number one slot on the Billboard charts, his first number one album since 1971. The first single off the album, "Smooth," a duet with Matchbox 20 singer Rob Thomas, became Santana's first number one single in more than twenty years. Carlos Santana's prayers had been answered. But even the normally unflappable guitarist was shocked by his return to the commercial world.
"I'm more shocked than surprised," sighed Santana, late in 1999 as he watched Supernatural reach to the sky. "I had no idea that the album would take on this configuration. I'm very grateful."
And he was more than a little bit excited when Supernatural received eleven Grammy nominations. It was not Santana's first shot at the gold ring, however. In 1989 he received a Grammy for Best Instrumental for the composition "Blues for Salvador." But he sees this current crop of honors as something completely different.
"Back in 1989, that was kind of coming in through the back door," he maintained. "This one feels like it might be going through the front door."
But whatever happens at the Grammys, Carlos Santana feels the creative and life experiences that brought him into the new millennium on top have already made him a winner.
"To me it's all been grace," he recently said, with no small amount of humility. "Tonight I could be hiding in the bushes across the border in Tijuana, trying to get into America."CHAPTER 2
If you blink you'll miss Autlán de Navarro.
Located on the semitropical, rugged Mexican coastline, a speck on the map between Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta, Autlán de Navarro is like a village out of time. The moon sets easily and unobstructed most nights, forming an almost mystic connection between sky, water, and rolling hills. It is a town where tradition, especially as it pertains to religion and family, is strong, and where houses are still made of dried mud and stone.
"They don't have any lights," explained Santana of his birthplace. "They don't have any running water, fences, and chickens run all over the unpaved, dirt roads. It is a simple, beautiful, and unpolluted land."
It was in these primitive and yet quite mystical environs that José Santana and Josefina Barrigan grew up, courted, married, and settled in the first of a series of primitive brick-and-mud shanties and began raising a large, traditional Mexican family in much the same way that their families and their families' families had done before them. José Santana had been quick to pick up the occupation of his father, Antonio, who had eked out a living in the 1920s and 1930s as a French horn player in a local municipal band. Antonio had been introduced to music at an early age and had felt obligated to pass the family tradition down to his son José.
José had learned his lesson well and, as he grew to manhood, was very much in demand in the small village as a violinist and bandleader of his own group, a traditional swing-oriented group called Los Cardinales, which played elegant interpretations of Duke Ellington and Cole Porter songs. When the mariachi craze hit Mexico in the late 1940s, José donned the traditional sombrero and serape and was soon plying his trade with the traditional music of his homeland.
Carlos would later recall that his father and his band were very much a focal point of their small town. José and Los Cardinales would often entertain at town weddings, baptisms, and social and political functions. Carlos recalled that when Los Cardinales struck up a fiery tango or a traditional mariachi-style waltz, the townsfolk flooded the dance floor.
It was into this world of peace and simplicity that Carlos Santana, the middle child of seven Santana children—four girls and three boys—was born on July 20, 1947. José Santana was proud of all his children and loved them all dearly. But there was a near-psychic bond that formed instantly between the father and his middle son. As he watched Carlos wiggle and coo in his crib just days after his birth, José felt in his heart of hearts that Carlos was destined for bigger things than the dusty roads and simple lives lived by the people in Autlán de Navarro.
Excerpted from Carlos Santana by Marc Shapiro. Copyright © 2000 Mark Shapiro. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Meet the Author
Marc Shapiro has written more than a dozen nonfiction books. He has penned biographies on celebrities such as Gillian Anderson, Goldie Hawn, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and James Cameron.
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Musicians will enjoy the roller coaster that this book has to offer. If all of us were as persistent as Santana was, all of us would be better off. The book goes thru the good Santana years, mainly his first three albums, where most of the early Santana hits came from, to the years of wrestling with his inner spirit and playing music that enriched Santana spiritually but failed to be a commercial success. It is not until the album Supernatural that Santana once again is back on top. Never give up would be a nice slogan for this book.