Music Without Borders: Carlos Santana And The Art Of Playing Life

Carlos Santana
Carlos Santana tearing it up during a recent tour (Photo by Erik Kabik)

Immigration may be a hot topic political issue nowadays, but had Jose Santana not moved from his native Cuautla, Mexico, to San Francisco in 1961, the world might have been deprived of enjoying the creative fruits of his guitar-playing son Carlos.

In the 54 years since that fateful move was made, the latter has sold millions of records, toured the world countless times, influenced legions of musicians and become a musical ambassador to fans around the world. And between his immersion in the hippie counterculture of the late ’60s Bay Area and a devotion to Eastern religion under the tutelage of Indian spiritual master Sri Chinmoy that was planted in the early 1970s, Santana’s views are often clothed in messages of love, harmony and positivity. It’s clear when he responds that he’s feeling grateful, when you open the conversation with a question about his well-being. (To see his future projects, click here.)

Corazón
Corazón

Currently on the road in support of last year’s Corazón, it’s not only the 68-year-old legend’s 22nd studio album, but his first Spanish-language outing. And like his 1999 commercial highpoint Supernatural, this 12-song project finds him sharing the studio with a broad spectrum of guest artists ranging from rapper Pitbull, reggae crown prince Ziggy Marley and R&B crooner Miguel to Latin rockers Juanes, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Latin pop queen Gloria Estefan and friend and jazz legend Wayne Shorter. And while longtime fans might grumble and groan about some of the partner choices that have been made in the past, Santana is clear that this is an approach he’s always embraced, dating back to his early days haunting Haight-Ashbury.

“I’ve been doing this since I got introduced to Bill Graham’s school, my alma mater, which is The Fillmore. Going to the Fillmore, it was natural for me to check out the Young Rascals or The Doors,” he explained. “I learned a long time ago from Bill Graham, Miles Davis and Clive Davis that some musicians play genres and other musicians play life. [John] Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, they don’t even have a genre. They just call it life, therefore they’re not bound to reggae, jazz, blues or rap. And you have an advantage, you have a bigger portfolio and Rolodex to draw from.”

While Supernatural comes off as a project driven by market research and less by any kind of spontaneity, Corazón crackles with more fire whether it’s the quick two-step ska shuffle of opener “Saideira” featuring Brazilian rock/reggae vocalist Samuel Rosa, the lilting translating of Pink Martini’s “Una Notte a Napoli” to Spanish with help from Latina chanteuses Lila Downs, Nina Pastori and Soledad or the sultry rumba of “Besos de Lejos” nudged along by Estefan’s gorgeous phrasing. And while “Oye 2014,” an updating of Santana’s hit 1970 version of Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va” with Pitbull falls flat, songs like the gorgeous Caribbean soul of “Margarita” featuring bachata superstar Romeo Santos and midtempo salsa shuffle “Yo Soy La Luz” featuring Shorter and Santana’s wife, Cindy Blackman, compensate for this shortfall. Even though Corazón may be getting framed as Santana’s first Latin album by his label, the guitarist is adamant that everything he plays is derived from the continent of Africa.

Carlos Santana
Carlos Santana

“Chicken soup is chicken soup whether it’s Bird’s Eye or from Africa. African music is African music [even when] it comes from Spain because the Moors conquered Spain so that had the descarga and rumba…all that stuff. When people ask me why I give so much credit to Africa I tell them because 99 percent of what I play is African music,” he pointed out. “I feel it’s my duty to bring light to the essence of what’s the best music in the world, which is African. Because of African music we have Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Little Richard, who were the architects of rock and roll. Elvis Presley jumped on it—okay, I don’t have a problem with that, but he’s not the one who started it. So whether you call it Latin or Spanish, I still say it’s African music.”

Spirituality has been and continues to be an integral part of Carlos Santana’s life. With help from late mentor and friend Alice Coltrane, Santana recalled how she helped him learn Eastern philosophy and how to navigate through it and life and “arrive.”

“This is the best thing anyone can have at any age, in any denomination or of any nationality. When you arrive with clarity and certainty about your life, you’re in a good place,” he admitted.

w_milagrofoundationMuch of this positivity has been channeled into The Milagro Foundation (www.milagrofoundation.org), which means hope in Spanish. This publicly supported foundation was established by the guitarist and ex-wife Debra in 1998 to benefit underserved and vulnerable children around the world. Grants are awarded to community-based tax-exempt organizations that work with children in the areas of education, health and the arts. Among the non-musical endeavors he’s pursued to raise money are alliances with companies that manufacture hats and shoes along with a number of restaurants and wineries he’s partnered with.

“We love to help people. All of that energy goes into helping people in different parts of the world. American Indians, African people, South Americans….anywhere and everywhere to help children develop a healthy and wholesome opportunity for them to get what I didn’t get when I was a kid until later on. I was really fortunate that later on I did receive some special sentient angels that were there to open the door for me like Bill Graham and Clive Davis,” he said. “So that’s what I’m doing with education or cleft lip procedures. Anything, whether it’s tequila or shoes, all that goes to the Milagro Foundation. We have a corporation that knows who to send the money to and where to send it to and make it so that it’s not wasted. It goes straight into helping someone’s spirit unfold. We do this so we can do that. We play music and by the grace of God, we have these corporations that join with me. And they do this because they feel they’re creating more traction and at the end of the day, they have more zeros to the right. And those zeros go to help children.”

While it would be easy for Santana to coast on his laurels given his Rock & Roll Hall of Fame pedigree, the sexagenarian axe-slinger is having no part of that mentality, a fact that he’s rightfully proud of.

“There are very few bands my age that played at Woodstock that can bring it one hundred times from what that was then. I’m serious. My band has a lot of energy, subtlety and it covers a lot of ground while having a lot of energy,” he said. “We don’t do rope-a-dope, coast or do any of that. If you’re going to die hitting that note, then goddamn it, die. But get that note because when you do get it, it’s like watching Evel Knievel when he jumped all those buses and he didn’t die. Like Buddy Rich and Elvin Jones said, play it like it’s your first and last time that you’re going to play. It’s not a cliché. It’s a code of honor.”

Santana will be appearing on Aug. 14 at Forest Hills Stadium, 1 Tennis Place, Forest Hills. For more information, visit www.foresthillsstadium.com.

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Dave Gil de Rubio
In addition to being editor of Massapequa Observer and Hicksville News, Dave Gil de Rubio is a regular contributor to Long Island Weekly, specializing in music and sports features. He has won several awards for writing from Press Club of Long Island (PCLI).

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