Barnaby Dracup talks to Carlos Santana about his life, loves and inspirations, and about what keeps him ticking
C: When did you first realise you wanted to play guitar?
“My father taught me how to play guitar, but I got the real bug by watching this musician in Tijuana called Javier Bátiz. He was the first person I saw playing electric guitar, in the park, and hearing the sound resonate, vibrating against the cars, the trees and the sky… for me at that age it was like watching my first UFO or something! Hearing that amazing sound I knew immediately who I was, and what I wanted to do and be for the rest of my life.”
C: Who would you say your influences are on a personal and musical level?
“On a personal level, probably more than anyone, Wayne Shorter, Harry Belafonte, John Coltrane, people like that – very high, lofty people, but with humility and the power of grace. Musically, I would say everyone from John Lee Hooker, to John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and again Wayne and Herbie Hancock. My favourites, for just ‘pure feel’ guitar, are John Lee Hooker and Otis Rush. Those guys are something that I can just immerse myself in all the time.”
C: It’s said that your legendary Woodstock appearance catapulted you to wider fame – but when did you realise that you had a sound that people liked?
“I’d just left living at my mom’s and I was playing with different bands here and there, just trying to find ‘me’, trying to crystallise my existence, so to speak. There was a black musician from another band I would play with and he told me, ‘I get around, so I see everyone from Gerry Garcia to Michael Bloomfield, and I gotta tell you man, you got your own sound already man. You got “you”. Y’know a lot of people are looking for themselves, but you got “you” already, all you have to do is close your eyes and play.’ So he’s the first one to make me realise I didn’t need to look anymore, I just had to enjoy it.”
C: Do you still have the same drives and passions for creating music?
“Nothing’s changed man. But it’s more like a laser beam now. Before there were things that would get me distracted, like a new house, car, clothes all that stuff. All those things don’t have that excitement anymore. What excites me now, more than anything, is to learn the musical vocabulary of these two people who I’m really focusing 100% on, and that’s Alice Coltrane and Sonny Sharrock. That’s where I wanna go!”
C: Alice Coltrane is known for a more experimental, avant garde style of music…
“That’s one way of describing it – I call it interstellar, intergalactic music.”
C: Like Sun Ra?
“Yeah! There you go – Sun Ra, Larry Young, Pete Cosey, those guys… But right now Alice Coltrane and Sonny Sharrock, that’s my focus right now.”
C: So your focus has changed; are you finding that as you get older is there anything that affects you, or do you still just have that absolute energy to create?
“I have absolutely no awareness that I’m getting older. The only thing I’m aware of is that I’m becoming more handsome! My tone is much prettier and I’m becoming more at ease at making my mind obey me. Instead of me being like a nervous Nelly or whatever – all those things don’t exist anymore. When I go on stage I have more… not arrogance, but confidence. It’s important to have clarity and peace of mind so you can have confidence. I have noticed that as I’m getting older I’m actually getting better at everything!”
C: Does your creative process always run along the same lines, are there any rituals you have before you play or create?
“I think the only ritual I have is to take a deep breath and trust. I love these two words because they have a lot of fuel for me: velocity, and traction. Spiritual traction and velocity, which means that you get to find faster. Stop looking and start finding. Sometimes people spend their whole lives looking when they already have it in their back pocket, y’know. So my ritual right now is that.”
C: Is spirituality something that is becoming more important to you?
“It always has been, because spirituality dispels the illusion of distance and separation between you and your heart. Spirituality says, ‘All this stuff is bullshit, it’s a waste of time’. Just trust that you can access the core of ‘you’ and play notes from the core of you. Don’t over think it, in fact don’t even think. Put your mind aside, put logic aside and intellectual gibberish aside, and just feel the core of your heart and you will create like Peter Green, BB King, Michael Bloomfield, Paco Lucia. You’ll create a sound vibration that will immediately impact people’s hearts. Spirituality doesn’t fool around with ‘to be or not to be’, or ‘kind of, sort of’, it only knows it is, and it always will be.”
C: So you are transmitting that spirituality through music when it is created?
“Yes, absolutely! That is the goal, everyday. I think Charlie Parker used to say, ‘If you don’t live it, it’s not going to come out.’ And then John Lee Hooker used to say, ‘It’s in you, and it’s got to come out.’” Have you any personal highlights from your career over the years?
“Everyday there’s some more… But, being connected with Wayne Shorter or my wife. It’s a highlight, you know, because they both articulate a language, a spiritual language. When I’m around people like Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, it’s a lofty, intelligent, spiritual wisdom. When I’m around those people, I know I’m around greatness – hanging around John Mclaughlin or Paco Lucia before he passed away – I know greatness, it has the same symmetry.”
C: Is there a certain work ethic that you have developed or applied to your career over the years?
“Yes there is. Now I’m gonna ask you to help me here. There’s supposed to be seven, but I only have six. The mechanics of excellence and grace is: genuine, honest, sincere, truthful, real, and authentic. Those are six, and I need a seven – I know there’s gotta be a seven.”
“There you go! I’ll take that one. All those things create immediate results, the results are that you create memorable and beautiful music, like Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, Coltrane. You don’t want to become a disposable soundbite – you want to stick around.”
C: You mention John Coltrane, his unique style of phrasing. Is that something that’s influenced you? Are there any techniques that you may have picked up or been influenced by?
“I think the technique that John Coltrane exercised was the power of humility, he was a very humble person, you know like Mahatma Ghandi or Martin Luther King. They’re intense, but their intensity is founded in humility, not in arrogance. Arrogance is a very weak, shallow, hollow and unnecessary energy. Humility has a different kind of power that is very elevating. I love that word. May this interview, when people read it, be elevating to them wherever they are.”
Carlos Santana’s autobiography, The Universal Tone: Bringing My Story to Light, is out now.