Carlos Santana: "I Tell Myself I Am Significant, I Am Meaningful, I Can Make a Difference in the World."

Carlos Santana
Carlos Santana
Rubén Martin

Editor's note: After this story was written and before it went to press, the Santana concert at Monster Mash festival in Tempe Beach Park was canceled by promoter Lucky Man Concerts. Here's the piece in its entirety. 

Carlos Santana is a man at peace with his place in the musical universe. The guitarist and band leader has been performing for nearly 50 years — since the mid-1960s — including a legendary breakout performance at Woodstock. During this time Santana, who has crossed musical idioms from jazz to blues, Latin rock to Indian ragas, soul to funk, tracks such as "Evil Ways," "Oye Como Va," and "Black Magic Woman" have become classic rock radio hits, while later-period songs "Smooth" featuring Matchbox Twenty's Rob Thomas on vocals and "Maria, Maria" (both from 1999's Supernatural) serve to cement Santana's long-standing appeal and legacy.

Having performed with a who's who of musical masters, including Miles Davis, Alice Coltrane, Tito Puente, B.B. King, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Santana admits nervousness sharing the stage with others.

"Actually, I'm always scared to death," he says with a laugh.

Still, Santana acknowledges feeling confident enough to hold his own and offer something unique in any situation.

"It's frightening, but I tell myself, I have something they don't have and therefore I am significant and meaningful and they need that," he says.

Just like his fans have proved, after all these years, he's still meaningful for them too.

Carlos Santana spoke with New Times from his Las Vegas home.

New Times: You played at Woodstock before you even had an album out. You have sold over 100 million records. Do you still go out on stage with that same fire? You don't have anything to prove.

Carlos Santana: I didn't have anything to prove then, either. I get more fired up because I have more clarity and more passion for knowing that like Bob Marley or Bob Dylan or John Lennon or [John] Coltrane or Jimi Hendrix, I'm one of them. You know, I look at myself when I'm shaving or brushing my teeth and right in my eyeballs I tell myself I am significant, I am meaningful, I can make a difference in the world.

There are a lot [of musicians] from that generation of Woodstock; they're here but they're not here with the same energy or fire or incentive or inventiveness or passion. I'm not them. After all the time that's passed, I've got more yearning, more aspiration, more fire, more clarity. I think it's because of the people I want to hang around with. Harry Belafonte, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock . . . I hang around with greatness, people with distinctive principles. People who have a real consistency of love and admiration for anything spiritual, but at the same time they have the desire to create what we call "anything goes." Only the invincible can do the impossible. That's who I want to hang around with.

NT: That is a great approach, and you are known to be a spiritual person. How does spirituality play into your music?

CS: It's pretty much like Bruce Lee said: It's how you identify. He said "become," but I say "identify," which is the same. If you identify with water — a cloud, ice cube, tea, bath tub, ocean — if you identify with being like water, you can adapt to any situation. Water has one purpose: It always brings life. Without water, I don't think there's life on this planet. So the answer is to make yourself identify with the oneness of the world.

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NT: For many, your music is bigger than life. You've worked with John McLaughlin doing spiritually oriented jazz, blues with John Lee Hooker, and other musical forms outside rock. Have you always had the confidence, and it seems like you do, to try anything?

CS: [Laughing] Thank you for looking at it that way, but actually, I'm always scared to death. [Laughing] To be in the room with Wayne Shorter or Herbie Hancock or John McLaughlin or Tito Puente or Miles, Stevie Ray — or I have to go on stage and hold my own with Buddy Guy — it's frightening. But I tell myself I have something they don't have and therefore I am significant and meaningful, and they need that. So, it's not confidence. It's not mentally convincing yourself. There's just something in my soul, my spirit, that they've got to have. What this essentially means is that people need a hug, people need to be validated, people need sex, they need food. Well, I'm like that — there's something in me people have to have, because it reminds them of their own innocence and beauty in their own self.

NT: Saying there's something in you that people need, I've noticed that since the mega-hit Supernatural came out with all the different collaborations on it — that now you're doing even more collaborations. Are people approaching you, or are you seeking them out because you think you have something to offer them?

CS: It pretty much depends on the song and how it fits: Cinderella or Cinderfella? We work with the songs first and, again, it's like the shoes to see [who] fits the song. I'm very grateful for where I am right now. I'm 68. I can close my eyes and start to play with John Lee [Hooker] or Sting or Prince or African musicians or world musicians — and it's not impossible or improbable to do something with Lady Gaga or Tony Bennett. Nothing is out of the realm of possibility. I feel really really comfortable not being blocked in by anything other than I don't want to play phony music. I don't want to do that. I want to play with real artists who care about their art. That's a requirement before I play with someone. It gives me chills, and I hope I can give them chills.

NT: Supernatural gave a lot of people chills, and it brought you back into the limelight. You never went away, but it was like a rebirth. Did that change your approach to music or perhaps people's perceptions of what Santana is going forward?

CS: I think it just made us want more. I've been collaborating since I started. I collaborated with the Grateful Dead, Michael Bloomfield, Tito Puente, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, and I haven't changed. With Supernatural, everything got magnified. I'm the same person. To me, it was always fun working with Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Jeff Beck, or Jimmy Page. Or blues musicians or jazz musicians or rock musicians. I'm very grateful to say I don't have a limitation about what I should or cannot do. I only do music I want to do.

NT: You've mentioned all these amazing artists you've worked with in a career spanning almost 50 years. You've released more than 45 albums in multiple genres. Can you look back with total satisfaction, or do you think there are things you should have done differently?

CS: I'd say total satisfaction and gratitude. I read an interview with John Lennon where he said he was totally dissatisfied with everything. I thought, "Man, I don't want to be like that." That don't work for me. If I give it my best, then I let it go. I'm not attached to an outcome. I don't over analyze things. I do my best and then let it go.

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