Although Carlos Santana has been playing concerts in Paris since the early Seventies, he never set foot inside the Louvre until 2016. In fact, when his family asked if he wanted to go there, he asked, “What’s there?” “They said, ‘Oh, my God, man. You can spend a whole year in there,'” he recalls. “‘There’s Egyptian stuff and The Mona Lisa.’ I go, like, ‘Oh, OK.'” He was blown away just by the line to get in. “It was like a line you’d see for Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Rihanna or Adele,” he says, amazement still in his voice. “I was like, ‘Damn, Mona Lisa’s really popular worldwide to this day.”
He ended up having a life-altering experience. “She has her own air conditioning and everything,” he says. “I was like, ‘Damn.'” Then he was amazed by the “ocean of tourists” taking pictures. Once the crowd thinned, he got right in front of “her” (he always refers to The Mona Lisa as “her”). “I’m like, ‘Wow,'” he says. “And then I hear this voice say, ‘Hi’ — and I’m not making this up, like in telepathy — and I go ‘Hi.’ The voice goes, ‘Remember me, when we were lovers in another time?’ And I was like, ‘Whoa.'”
Four months later, he was at a gig that his wife, Cindy Blackman Santana, was playing in Baltimore, and Mona Lisa reached out to him again. “That night, I had this dream, and I woke up and The Mona Lisa was speaking to me,” he says, “and I heard the lyrics in Spanish, ‘Mujer, eres mi diosa.'” He wrote “Do You Remember Me?” in a musical style called a guajira. That song, a slow, senusous, nearly 10-minute number with a five-minute guitar solo intro, became the lead track on Santana’s new EP, In Search of Mona Lisa, which comes out January 25th.
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“I know that a lot of people dismiss me like, ‘Carlos has a very vivid imagination,” he offers. “But as I say in every interview, ‘My imagination works fine. How is your reality working for you?'”
“My imagination works fine. How is your reality working for you?”
In Search of Mona Lisa contains a triptych of tunes about Santana’s connection to Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece. It was his friend, sometime Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer Narada Michael Walden, who suggested Carlos write a guajira. “Guajira is the most effective way to, excuse the expression, penetrate a woman’s heart and then they remember the whole glory of being a female and start dancing a certain way,” he says. “It’s the most tried, true and tested frequency that makes women open up like a flower.” They played it for producer Rick Rubin, with whom Santana has recorded a new full-length, “and he was so moved.” Rubin suggested they do a full album of ballads.
The EP’s second track, “In Search of Mona Lisa,” features an update of Bo Diddley’s famous rhythm (“Bo Diddley scared more white people in the Midwest than anybody else because his music sounded like African jungle music,” Santana says) but it has a hip-hop twist, soulful vocals and plenty of Carlos’ guitar playing. The third track, the orchestral and slowly unfolding “Lovers From Another Time,” evolved after Cindy suggested he work on it with jazz bassist Ron Carter. “I said, ‘I’m going to take some of those intervals and things that Coltrane and Yusef Lateef did,’ and she goes, ‘Maybe make it more symphonic and call up Ron Carter,'” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God. OK.’ And God of the universe complied and he said yes.”
The three songs serve as a preamble to the upcoming album he made with Rubin, which he previously told Rolling Stone would be named Global Revelation. “I went to Rick to see if he would, as Miles Davis would say, ‘Would you have eyes to do something with me?'” Santana says. “‘I know you’ve worked with everybody like Johnny Cash and the Chili Peppers and Metallica,’ And he goes, ‘Well, what are you interested in doing?’ I said, ‘Nothing but African music.’ So can you believe it? We record 49 songs in 10 days. He was very gracious, because it was like a hurricane to record six, seven songs in a day. Rick said, ‘With Clive Davis, you had a bunch of guest stars and singers. Who do you want in here?’ I said, ‘I only want two women: Laura Mvula and Buika.’ And he said, ‘OK.’ So we called them and they said yes.”
Santana says he will be revealing the album’s full details at a later date, but he knows the effect he wants his music to have on people. “I like people to walk away from this experience like from Picasso, Einstein, Miles Davis, Coltrane and Wayne Shorter,” he says. “I put myself in that company because, to me, it’s the same frequency of John Lennon and Bob Marley. We want to go with totality, absoluteness, like being connected like we were connected in Woodstock with everything.”
He then clarifies what he’s trying to say by returning to his headspace at Woodstock. “I remember Crosby, Stills and Nash saying, ‘We’re scared shitless to play in this many people,'” he says. “I don’t even remember being afraid. It was 2:30 in the afternoon and if we didn’t play then, we weren’t going to play. I was totally on mescaline, which is like LSD, and I could hardly quantize anything with solidness. Everything was kind of in an amoeba state. But what I’m trying to say about totality, that ‘Santana frequency,’ is about my imagination. Since I was a child, I could see myself in the future with Eric Clapton or Sting or Prince or Stevie Ray [Vaughan], here on this plane or the next one. I didn’t wake up necessarily to please people; I have to please my spirit.”
Beyond the recording studio, Santana is hoping to conjure that same spirit onstage. He’ll be on tour this summer for a run of dates across the U.S. that he’s calling his Supernatural Now tour; he’ll be celebrating both the 20th anniversary of his blockbuster Supernatural LP, as well as the 50th anniversary of his breakthrough concert at Woodstock. He says that people should expect “more energy” from his group than other bands, including his own bands in the past.
“With all respect to the other bands that I’ve ever been to within Santana, this is the band that consistently has more eruption, Mount Everest volcano music,” he says. “So when people here this music, whether it’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, Abraxas or Supernatural or the next thing up head, there are very few bands who play like this now. Most people either are lip-syncing or they’re playing to a track, and the ones that they do play, they’re almost content or satisfied in regurgitating nostalgia.”
Santana says he once learned a valuable lesson from Miles Davis to give people things they’re familiar with, but to play them “at that moment, in a whole new different way with a whole new different effervescence of energy.” For him, that translates to passion and emotion. “I remember in the Sixties when Buddhist monks used to pour gasoline over themselves and light themselves on fire over and over, monk after monk, to protest Vietnam,” he says. “That’s what I do onstage. I burn myself on fire so people from miles around can see us burn.”
The guitarist is especially eager to tap back into that feeling this summer, when he marks the 50th anniversary of Woodstock with a performance in Bethel, New York. He had been hoping to work with original Woodstock promoter, Michael Lang, on the official Woodstock 50 but decided instead to take part in Live Nation’s tribute. “They have an amphitheater there. I’m going to invite whoever is still here, whether it’s Joan Baez or members from Sly Stone, and I’m going to play Santana music. Santana’s going to be the house band, but I want to be able to honor those who are still here and maybe invite rappers like Common or Kendrick Lamar. Santana’s very interested, like Miles Davis, into connecting with people from 7 years old to under 33. I don’t want to be just like a jukebox in the twilight zone, stuck in the Sixties.”
“I didn’t wake up necessarily to please people; I have to please my spirit.”
Santana says he sees a lot of hope in younger generations, a spirit he hasn’t seen for a few years. He’s found it heartening to see students march in protest of gun violence in schools and people who have protested the war in the Middle East. “Those are the new hippies,” he says. “Somewhere between Woodstock and this generation, a lot of people became apathetic. They look the other way or they’re just looking at their cell phones and they don’t care what’s happening.
“These new, young people who march are concerned,” he continues. “It’s not really popular to say anything against the NRA or all the presidents, whether it’s Trump or whoever, though we know they are the problem now. We know that the solution is what the Sixties were all about … the solution is really to promote love instead of fear. Donald Trump promotes fear in the Bible: ‘Thou shalt fear God.’ No, no, no, no. The reason the hippies from Woodstock are still relevant is because we were promoting peace and love. That kind of kumbaya is very much needed on this planet right now because it represents life and love. The other dimension is fear and ignorance. So Santana’s still a hippie, man.”
The guitarist hopes that his hippie message resonates with young people, since he feels his principles and aspirations align with theirs. “We believe that you can, as they say, ‘Make the table longer, not the wall taller,'” he says. “It didn’t work with the Great Wall of China. And you know how happy you felt when the Berlin Wall came down.” In his mind, he sees plenty of people out in the world who are more evolved spiritually, who don’t pay attention to today’s doomsayers. “There’s enough air, water and everything else for everyone,” he says. “I never saw Jesus packing a lot of guns like the NRA. A lot of people twist some of the things that He said. This is why I feel the Bible and the Constitution, like your cell phone, they just need some serious updating with love, because love is the only frequency anyway.”