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Carlos Santana on New Album ‘Africa Speaks’: ‘People Need Rejoicing’

With a new Rick Rubin–produced LP and summer tour, the guitar icon reflects on his band’s half-century legacy and why the message of Woodstock still resonates

Carlos Santana discusses his new 'Africa Speaks' LP, his summer tour and the legacy of Woodstock.

Maryanne Bilham*

To this day, before Carlos Santana hits the stage, he consults a higher power. “It’s kind of the same thing I did when I was at Woodstock,” he says. “I was praying, ‘Keep me in tune and in time. I think I can do the rest.'”

He’s currently on the road with a tour in support of a new album, Africa Speaks — containing his interpretations of African songs, which he cut with producer Rick Rubin — and he’s celebrating the 20th anniversary of both his forever “Smooth” Supernatural album and the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. “We’re going to bring a lot of fury and fire,” he says of his shows. “Most of the time, we play close to two-and-a-half to three hours, so we’re going to honor yesterday, today, and tomorrow.”

Despite the marathon sets, though, he says, “Music never drains me or exhausts me.” By his own estimation, he was able to maintain Herculean energy reserves in the Seventies by buckling down and meditating with a guru when all his rocker friends were out partying. “I knew I needed spiritual discipline, so I disciplined myself from ’72 to ’81,” he says. “I had a different kind of diet, I cut the hair, dressed in white. It was like West Point or the Marines. But now I’m 71 and because I didn’t abuse my body, I have the stamina and the vibration and the energy to present myself and be any age I want.”

Thanks to his personal fountain of youth, he was able to lead his band in cutting 49 songs in 10 days at Rubin’s Shangri-La studio. He picked 11 of those tracks for Africa Speaks, brought in the Spanish vocalist Buika to sing on them (British artist Laura Mvula also sings on the record) and put the finishing touches on his love letter to the continent he calls “the cradle of civilization.” A few weeks before he kicked off the tour, dubbed Supernatural Now, he spoke with Rolling Stone about how it all came together.

Why did you want to make an album like Africa Speaks?
The state of the world is so infected with fear and separation and disharmony, I know for a fact that the frequency of this music from Africa gives people hope, courage, and joy. The ingredients and the nutrients from everything that comes from African music makes people dance and rejoice like a revival. It’s like watching a little bird with a French fry.

How did it come together?
In 1988, I was on a tour in Europe, and I used to go religiously to the Virgin Megastore in Paris and just buy everything that has to do with what I consider to be really good African music. I’d come back to the hotel with bags and bags filled with CDs. I decided way back then that I wanted to create an album with just this music. I would buy 100 CDs, and I would take one or two songs, make my own playlist, and just live with them. I call them “templates.” When it came down to recording this record … CD … 8-track … whatever it’s called now, with Rick Rubin, Buika, and my wife Cindy, we selected close to 50 songs.

How on earth did you manage to track 49 songs in 10 days?
I’ll tell you the secret. I told our rhythm guitar player, Tommy Anthony, “Take these eight songs tonight and chart them out. I don’t read music, so do it like, ‘Here comes the verse, chorus, bridge, solo,’ and I want you to have a microphone on the side of the console. The only thing I’m going to be meticulous about is the tempo, the groove, and the feel. Once I get that, we’ll start the song and then you tell us, ‘Here comes the bridge or the chorus.'” It was like having a human GPS telling you what’s coming up ahead.

How did you decide which 11 songs to put on the album?
These songs were ready to be put in the oven; the others are still in incubation.

How does a song like “Africa Speaks,” which has a David Axelrod co-writing credit, or “Oye Este Mi Canto” come together?
I originally heard “Africa Speaks” on a Cannonball Adderley record, Accent on Africa. I put the poem in there and Buika put the vocals in it. With all of the songs, it’s no different than what Jimi Hendrix did to [Bob Dylan’s] “All Along the Watchtower.” We basically took these African songs, and I asked permission in every kind of way from the writers, so we got all that with impeccable integrity, then we redid the songs our way. For me, it was basically honoring what Marvin Gaye said when he was creating What’s Going On. He basically said, “I got out of my own way and let it happen.”

What were you thinking about when you were playing some of the guitar solos? Your tone on “Paraísos Quemados” is great.
I think the tone in my guitar at first scared me because it sounded so piercing like sharp claws and teeth with ferociousness. But everything was done in one take except for two or three songs. Everything happened very natural and normal and, again, very supernatural. This music is like witnessing shamans from Siberia or aborigines or American Indians create a ritual spell. That’s the way it happened really.

Buika sings on all but one of the songs. Why did you want to work with her?
Like everybody else, I surf for new music from Africa online and she showed up. And I was like, “Oh, my God.” At 3 o’clock in the morning, I wake up my wife, “Cindy, you’ve got to listen to this.” So I downloaded her CD and the more I listened to it, the more I felt that I needed to create something with her. I liked that she had the same raw realness of Tina Turner, Nina Simone, and Etta James, but she don’t sound like them. But she’s got that essence, that rawness. And the other thing that she brings is she has this sense of jazz, African, and real flamenco. So it was just perfect.

Why do you think you and Buika clicked?
When she heard the songs, she was, I guess the word is, compelled and exalted into a place where she knew automatically what to do. It’s like automatic writing, where you don’t think about it.

Why did you choose to work with Rick Rubin on this project?
I thought he would be the person to help us create that flow. We do aspire to get onto radio like we did with Mr. Clive Davis. And in the future, I may reach out to Pharrell and other producers, Khalid, but for Africa Speaks, it just felt like Mr. Rick Rubin would be the right person to help us design this divine adventure.

Which of the new songs have been getting the best reaction when you play them live?
People like “Breaking Down the Door.” We’re in a place that people need rejoicing. People need celebrating. People need romance. Everybody is thirsty for higher consciousness, righteousness. All these words that we say are actually living things. I think that all over the world, not only in America, people are really thirsty for romance. There’s so much fear infecting everywhere. People need a hug. People need sex — but divine sex — not the kind of cheap, crass sex. People are craving your first French kiss with innocence. It’s a different kind of thing. And I can see it because I’m watching the audience sometimes and I can see how they respond to the music. It’s like watering the plants after they haven’t been watered for months.

You’ve said you want your upcoming tour to celebrate Woodstock, your Supernatural album, and Africa Speaks. Does it feel different when you play your older material now?
I swear to you, and this for real, whenever we play “Black Magic Woman,” I remember the first time we played it in a soundcheck in Fresno in a parking lot. We were in the beginning. And Gregg Rolie brought the song from Fleetwood Mac, Peter Green. And I remember saying, “Hmm, I can bring a little bit of Otis Rush here and a little bit of Wes Montgomery here.” Because I just think like that. It’s kind of like a chef, bring a little bit of oregano and jalapeños and garlic and onions. So to this day, when I play “Black Magic Woman,” I think of Otis Rush and Fresno in a parking lot. And it gives me the same results.

Do you try to replicate that feeling of the first time you played it live?
We do with some of the songs, and we don’t with some. Some of them, they don’t need to be altered. They just need to be honored from the same principle that they were giving birth.

I was reading about a week ago something that John Coltrane said that I’d never read before. He said, “Sometimes it’s important to go back and bring the music from the past and do it differently onstage.” Approach it differently.

“Breaking Down the Door” is an interpretation of “Abatina,” which Manu Chao wrote for Calypso Rose. Have you heard what Manu thinks of this one?
I haven’t heard his reaction, but I have met him before. I look forward to doing something with Manu Chao, [saxophonist] Manu Dibango, and hopefully Sting in the future. I constantly dream of pairing people together to create a certain frequency. I don’t even look at it as music anymore. It’s kind of a frequency of resonant sounds, vibrations. Do you remember with clarity when the Berlin Wall came down, when Mandela was freed, when we celebrated the year 2000? Of course, we keep talking about Woodstock. All of them have the same thing in common: People put aside politics, religion, all that kind of stuff, and we just celebrated with unity and harmony this thing that we needed. I aspire to create a Woodstock in every city, every weekend with grandparents and little children. There’s congas and music and food and balloons. We used to do love-ins in the Sixties. I think that’s more needed right now than the shootings.

Speaking of Woodstock, when we spoke earlier this year, you said you wouldn’t be playing Michael Lang’s official Woodstock 50. What made you change your mind? Were you hesitant?
I wasn’t hesitant. I was wondering if he was going to have the correct permits. You need permits to create an event like that. You need permits from the locales. People freak out when so many people show up. He’s my brother, and we’ve had a glorious relationship with him since the beginning. I am booked and I have a contract with him in Watkins Glen on Friday. I’m also booked at the shed at the original Woodstock in Bethel. So I’m going to do both no matter what. I hope that he got the right permits to do the one on Friday. But I’m ready. My band is ready. By the grace of God, we have the clarity. We have the energy. I have more energy than the first time. So we look forward to tearing it out. [Editor’s note: Since this interview took place, Watkins Glen ended its contract with Woodstock, and the festival has yet to announce a new venue.]

Michael keeps telling the press, “This is how it always is.” Was it always this chaotic with the past Woodstocks you’ve participated in?
I think the other ones were more like the stock market than Woodstock. It seemed like people were more invested in Coca-Cola or Pepsi-Cola than the music. The music was played for maybe different reasons than the first one. The first one was done, and I mean this in the most respectful way, with a bunch of long-haired freaks that wanted something different than what was happening in Vietnam or politics or religion. These people wanted the same things we want today.

I think it was Jim Morrison who said, “We want the world and we want it now,” but we want the world with peace, harmony, and unity. We want that world. That’s why we’re still talking about the original one. I think there’s something sacred about not playing to be famous or be rich but to play music. Like, there was nothing to eat other than granola. People could say it was a divine disaster, but humans showed we could coexist together, and we could share, and we could hug each other and comfort each other, and I think that is why we’re still talking about the original Woodstock. It had a different intentionality.

Your shows are so long these days, they’re almost like their own three-day celebrations of peace and love.
Yeah, in the future, I want to be able to create like they used to do — till 6 o’clock in the morning. I want to be able to do that sometime at the House of Blues. I want to book one or two days where we just play from 8 to 6 o’clock in the morning and if you can’t take it, you can go outside or go home and then somebody will be in line who wants to see it. And we’ll just play anything and everything from the whole history of Santana. I think that would be really, really exciting. Probably exhausting to some people but not to me. Because music never drains me or exhausts me. Never.

You’ve said that when you made Africa Speaks, you felt it was something that Jerry Garcia and Mike Bloomfield would have liked. How do you feel connected to these artists who’ve passed on?
They’re here, they just changed their ZIP code. Whether it’s Prince, Michael Jackson, or Whitney, I can access them just by thinking of them. I can tell you a thousand percent, in a true way, Miles Davis comes to visit me in my dreams very vividly. Stevie Ray comes to visit me. B.B. comes to visit me. And they’re so tangible and true, I call it a visitation. Not even a dream. And all of them always counsel me, like a tutor. I’m very grateful for Jerry Garcia and Michael Bloomfield. Peter Green, he’s still here, but he still comes over and we talk about music, because we love the same thing. So the connection is really an illusion that they died and went somewhere. Those are still here in spirit. You just have to quiet the noise in the mind to hear them.

Where can you hear those spirits on your album?
On the very last song, “Candombe Cumbele,” I hear a gathering, a celebration of a cluster of spirits. Just like you see a bunch of grapes all together. There’s a cluster of spirits dancing in each and every note that we play. And they’re all saying the same thing: “Elevate everyone into a place of illumination.” I said, “OK.”

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