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‘I am not singing. My guitar is’: Carlos Santana

Shantanu Datta | Updated on February 21, 2020 Published on February 20, 2020

String theory: Carlos Santana tasted early success with his performance at Woodstock, 1969   -  REUTERS/MARIO ANZUONI

You need to choose the right song to connect with the works of younger artists, Carlos Santana tells a curious fan. An extract from a nostalgic collection of conversations with musicians

One of the Santana songs our college band Hipgnosis would often play was Let Me Inside, a slow, reggae number with a sharp guitar lick. Its progression of minor chords on the keys were doable on the guitar and the fairly steady drum pattern, that worked well with the intricate, but manageable, bass line, ultimately emboldened us to attempt it at a gig at Bengal Club. We were the support act that December 31 night, and I remember the song going off well, given its suitability as an early evening dance track that helped usher in the mood. No one remembers the song these days, much like the way we moved on too. Hipgnosis’s tenure was short-lived and my Shango LP, the album that featured the track, gradually stopped getting play time on our turntable.

Decades later, the memories of Let Me Inside came back while hearing Carlos Santana live in Bangalore. No, he didn’t play the song, having perhaps let it go just like his fans had.

Let me inside

Open up your heart, come on

Let me inside

The first time we saw Carlos playing with his band Santana was during our college years. It was a grainy VHS recording of him playing at Woodstock over two decades earlier in 1969. Evil Ways and an incredible drum solo by Michael Shrieve on Soul Sacrifice were my takeaways. They were in their twenties then and would go on to become the signature sound of a new kind of rock music, a heady mix of Latin rhythms and distinctive guitar solos. Evil Ways, in addition to Black Magic Woman, Jingo and Oye Como Va, became hits soon after, when Carlos signed up with Columbia Records, at the time helmed by Clive Davis. The two joined hands again in the 1990s. By then Davis, who had left Columbia and formed Arista Records, was supervising careers of pop music sensations. And Santana, well, was looking for a way to connect with a new audience, the bulk of which belonged to the download generation. Carlos signed up with Arista and Supernatural was born...

Supernatural reconnected old fans to Santana again and earned him a new legion of followers. Santana was back with the album going on to sell 25 million copies in ten years, prompting the release of Supernatural (Legacy Edition) in 2009-10.

Two years later, Santana was in India, playing concerts in Bangalore and Delhi...

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I was able to have a phone conversation with Carlos Santana a week before his Bangalore concert. The legend was soft-spoken, almost embarrassed by the adulatory references to his past.

Thank you for coming to India. Your first time, is it?

Namaste. And yes, it will be my first time. I am indeed very honoured and privileged to be able to go to India.

Olivia Harrison said you and George had an ‘invisible connection’. And you have maintained that you are a very visual person even when it comes to a song. What do you see when you are playing While My Guitar Gently Weeps?

Thank you for saying that. I see George, Ravi Shankar and Yo-Yo Ma (the Grammy-award-winning cellist featured alongside vocalist India Arie in the album Guitar Heaven).

Judging by the success of Supernatural, where you team up with younger musicians of today, you get on very well with the current generation of stars. How do you do that?

I am sixty-five now. But I feel that it’s not impossible to connect with the songs by say, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Adele or any other of the Grammy sensations. You only need to choose the right song.

Woodstock was incredible. I was five years old and nowhere near the place. But I heard stories about that day, it was supposed to rain, but the sun shone when you and your band came on to play.

It rained alright. But yes, the sun started to shine when we were on stage.

So many years later, you still rock. How do you manage?

I think you need to be focused if you want to learn. Anybody who is anybody, like Albert Einstein, Shri Aurobindo and Leonardo Da Vinci, they all did that. If you have to accomplish anything you have be focussed. Focus. Focus. Focus. That’s all there is.

How has your playing changed over the years?

Well... It’s very naked. I know a bit more now, I think.

Tell us something about your partnerships with jazz-rock masters John McLaughlin and Wayne Shorter.

Thank you for talking about them. They are two of my favourite musicians. When I am around them, I feel I know nothing. And I am happy to know nothing! And that’s a nice place to be in — the purity of innocence.

Your latest album, Shape Shifter, is a collection of original instrumentals. Why did you choose to keep out songs?

There are songs in it all right. But, only I am not singing. My guitar is...

****

It was a night of magic and a love supreme. The two and a quarter hour-concert left the oldies in thrall and the youngsters jiving on what was a distinctly pleasant evening offering a blast from the past, soul-stirred with the present, and hints of what the future might throw up...

As for me, I did manage to meet Santana prior to his performance and show him my Shango vinyl that I was carrying. Love, peace, he wrote on the cover as he signed the album.

Shantanu Datta is a journalist writing on politics, films, books and music since 1987

Published on February 20, 2020
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