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From Woodstock through ‘Supernatural’ to ‘Africa Speaks,’ Carlos Santana continues to make music with intention

As the lights dim in the packed house, a giant projection screen behind the stage displays clips from the 1970 documentary film Woodstock. The split-screen slides are familiar to the older concertgoers; younger fans who discovered Santana during the “Smooth” era may be seeing them for the first time. The crowd stands and claps enthusiastically as images of what was billed as “three days of peace and music” flicker across the screen.

Carlos Santana and his band take the stage to thunderous applause. As the assembled musicians start to play, live close-ups of band members are seamlessly intercut with the Woodstock footage. As old and new are interwoven onscreen, the band leans into a spirited version of “Soul Sacrifice,” one of the songs that started it all back in 1969.

Santana has arrived. But then, he never left.

Over the course of his 50-plus years of playing music, Santana has released more than two dozen studio albums; the band has a deep catalog from which to draw. But—consummate musician and performer that Carlos Santana is—this evening begins on a warm and familiar note.

“Santana’s music is very spiritual and sensual,” the guitarist explains over the phone. He discovered the power his band had 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.”

It makes sense. 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 distinct 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.”

His Mexican heritage—Santana was born in 1947 in Autlán, Mexico 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 their raw form and as 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 is branded “Global Consciousness” and will feature as its opening act another deeply rooted Northern California rock & roll institution, the Doobie Brothers. Begun in San Jose in 1970, group co-founder Tom Johnston lives in Marin County and the band was managed for many years out of Sonoma County.

Guitarist Pat Simmons says the Doobies have played with Santana a number of times over the years. “We’re complementary musically and historically. It’s always been a good show,” he says.

“It’s always been great for us to play with other bands—Journey, Chicago, Eagles,” Simmons says. The Sept. 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 in 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 is being released shortly as a live album.

Santana’s latest effort, Africa Speaks is out June 7. 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,” Santana says. “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. 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,” he says. 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.”

The first group to bear the guitarist’s name formed in 1966 as the Santana Blues Band. As he chronicles in rich detail in his memoir, The Universal Tone, Santana’s family had moved from Tijuana to San Francisco, but he stayed behind for a time. Once settled in the Bay Area, he became fully immersed in its burgeoning culture.

In ’66, 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.”

Woodstock Notion

Prior to the release of Africa Speaks, the most recent Santana album 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 2014 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. “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 in 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.

With Supernatural’s 20th anniversary coming in June of this year, 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.

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. 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.

“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 Carlos 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.”

Santa performs at BottleRock Napa Valley on Sunday, May 26, at Napa Valley Expo, 575 Third St, Napa. bottlerocknapavalley.com.

By Bill Kopp

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