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Carlos Santana on Drugs, Healing and His Message for Obama

"I hope they have good acid at Woodstock this summer," the guitarist says

Carlos Santana performs in Las Vegas.
David Becker/WireImage
May 26, 2014 12:10 AM ET

Four decades after Carlos Santana turned “Oye Como Va” into one of the most successful Spanish-language hits inthe history of the Billboard charts, the guitarist is finally releasing a full-on Latin-pop album – Corazón, which features guest stars Gloria Estefan, Juanes and Pitbull. This summer, the 66-year-old will hit the road with Rod Stewart, and he'll also play a show at the original site of Woodstock, where Santana performed a transcendent (and mescaline-fueled) set 45 years ago. “I hope we can celebrate the same principles again, which were peace, love and good music,” he says. “And I hope they have good acid this time.”

Read our 2000 Santana cover story

What was it like re-recording "Oye Como Va" with Pitbull? 
It was fantastic. He probably tried 17 different configurations and he didn't have to do that because all the royalties go to Tito Puente. But he was so sincere and authentic. Everything he does winds up on NBA halftime or the Super Bowl. He's an event guy. He makes songs sound like Queen's "We Will Rock You" or the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up." Pitbull is now the guy that makes that kind of energy in arenas. 

It was great to hear Ziggy Marley's "Iron Lion Zion." That's not one of his father's better-known songs
Yes. As you know, I totally identity and equate myself with Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon. I am one of them and we all have the same message to transform fear on this planet into light and love. It's the same message in "All You Need Is Love," "One Love" and "Imagine." It will never change. Those principles from the 1960s to stop the Vietnam War and just bring more harmony and unity into what's happening with humans.

Why do you think you've managed to survive while all those other people you named have passed away?
I would probably say God's grace. I don't believe in luck or chance of fortune. Some people self-destruct from within by continuing to do the wrong substances or make the wrong choices. If something I do is going to be hurtful to myself or others, I'm going to stop. If I go shop at the Apple store I'm gonna say, "No, I'm going to put that one down and find another one. I'm going to upgrade my software with something more illuminating."

I get the sense you don't see yourself as a member of one specific religious tribe. 
No. It's funny you should ask that. Right before you called I was writing this seven qualities of inner-knowing list. My faith would be holy willingness, divine confidence, perfect perception, sacred certainty, spiritual knowing, heavenly awareness, state of grace and illuminating thoughts. I'd rather have that kind of diet than an organized religion.

That makes sense. There's a lot of bureaucracy and rules in organized religion.
Yes, especially rules tainted with fear. "Thou shall fear thy God." No, no, no, no. God is love. Why shall I fear him? I love him and he loves me. That's what Bob Marley was talking about. "Emancipate yourself from mental slavery." Mental slavery is fear and lack of self-worth and thinking that you're a sinner. That's slavery because it means you are done. You've got to set somebody free so they can feel worthy of God's love. That's the same message of Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, John Lennon and Michael Jackson.

To switch gears here, I hear you've reunited with the original Santana band and have been cutting new material with them for the first time since the group split up in 1972.
Yes, I'm happy to tell you that. Everyone is healthy and very powerful. Neal Schon [who founded Journey when he left Santana] got this started. He hunted me down like a guided missile. We called up Gregg Rolie, Michael Shrieve and Michael Carabello. We're making Santana IV because we stopped at Santana III. We had three days in the studio and we put a lot of music together. I'm happy to tell you it was just like Led Zeppelin, the Beatles or Jimi Hendrix. There's a chemistry with us. These are the people who were playing with me at Woodstock. It's amazing to light that kind of dimension.

Are you going to tour with them next year?
Yes, I believe so. I really look forward to that. It's been so much fun to be back in the room with them. It's like. . .If you stand back near a woods you can really see the trees emanating oxygen. It's like that being in the studio with this band. You can hear the music coming out just looking at them. It's very inspiring. 

You also recently reunited with your original percussion player Marcus Malone, who had been living on the streets of Oakland for a very long time. What was that like emotionally to see him again? 
It was a peak of emotions. I was with him when Martin Luther King got shot. He was the one who turned me on to John Coltrane. He's an incredible person that's very significant in my life. When I saw him my inner-voice was saying, "Go see him and put an envelope of money in his hand." I won't tell you how much, but I made sure he was taken care of. I mean, really taken care of. He was living in a container on the street. My heart just went out to him. I'm going to invite him to play on at least two songs with the original Santana. All you can do is offer someone something and it's up to them to shift course, to update their software. Hopefully he's in a place where he can be victorious rather than a victim.  

It's a pretty amazing story. I know he left the group in 1969 because he murdered somebody and went to prison for a long time, but it seems to show that nobody is beyond redemption. 
Bless you for saying that. I think this is a planet of compassion. It's like a humongous university and we all major in some subject until we learn it. I'm grateful that he's alive. I still feel bad for what happened and the people that he hurt. He had to go to San Quentin for what he did. And I can't bring that person back. I only hope they can see that I'm trying to bring some sort of healing to all parties. Music is a healing force. 

You're touring with Rod Stewart this summer. Any songs you hope to play with him?
He wants me to do some things he's done with Jeff Beck. I don't know if I'm comfortable doing that. I want to do something like Otis Redding's version of "Daytripper" he did in 1967 at the Olympia. Maybe some Ben E. King, too. He's got the voice for it. He can do anything he wants. It's just a matter of willingness. I like to take people out of their comfort zones, myself included, because that's where the chills are.

You famously went onstage at Woodstock after taking a ton of mescaline. Just how much did you take? 
Looking back, it was bordering on foolishness because it can seem so scary. Imagine performing up there on LSD or mescaline or peyote. It was hard for me to even remember anything until I saw the video of it.

Was that the last time you went onstage that messed up?
No, that continued for a few more years. I told God, "I'll never do that again" because I was so scared. But he forgave me for breaking that promise. I did learn some things from all that. Once in a while, woman and man have to purge themselves from the plastic layers of illusion. 

You were just awarded the Kennedy Center Honors. Did you get to talk to Obama at the ceremony?
Yes. We talked a little bit. I made a promise to everyone around me that I would behave myself and that I would take the war paint off. That's because I did some concerts with the Black Panthers and so there's a part of me that wants to question certain things with a lot of confidence. He's the president because he promised, the first and second time he ran, that he would stop the war. He promised to spend more money on education than incarceration, which he has yet to do. 

But everyone around me — my sisters, my wife, everybody — they said, very graciously, "This is like a hug from the nation to you. Behave yourself." I was telling this to my brother and mentor Harry Belafonte. I said to him, "Everyone is telling me to take my war paint off." He looked at me, closed his eyes and said, "Don't take it all off." 

You can almost make a movie out of those three days in DC and what happened. I was talking to the President and the First Lady after the show. I said to them, "It felt so good when everyone got up when they played my music. You know why that happens? That's because we play black music for white people." They were like, "Oh lord, I hope we aren't on TV." But it does need to be said. That's what we do, and it goes back to Elvis Presley coming out of Tupelo. We play black music for white people. 

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