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Guitar Legend Carlos Santana Pioneered Fusion of Rock and Latin Rhythms

Follow his magical 50-year journey creating supernatural sounds

spinner image Carlos Santana snapping his fingers while sitting on music equipment crates

The boots are more than just boots. Much like everything in Carlos Santana’s life, they provide a lesson, a microcosm. Carlos found the boots he’s wearing this day—lilac snakeskin—on a recent visit to a shop in West Hollywood. They weren’t for sale; they belonged to the shop owner’s son. But with his rock-star charm, Carlos cajoled him into selling. 

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Brian Doben

It’s just a little story he tells at the end of a lengthy interview, but one that reveals the full Santana mythos: “It’s like everything in life right now; it has to do with being in the right place at the right time,” he says. “The universe will bring you an abundance of opportunities and possibilities. It’s really all about trusting that before you got there, when you were sleeping, the universe was conspiring to give you something to blow your mind. Would you be open to receive it?”

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That sums up the 72-year journey of Carlos Santana. He became a pioneer of Latin rock primarily through talent and determination, of course. But there was a large element of being in the right places at the right times. As a boy in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, Carlos was turned on by the Latin tones and rhythms of his ancestors. His father, a violinist, taught him to play the violin, but the instrument’s nuance eluded Carlos, who describes his playing as that of “a scroungy cat in an alley in the middle of the night.” He picked up the guitar instead. He learned to make that instrument sing like Agustín Lara, the Mexican composer and bolero singer who was his father’s favorite. But Carlos also couldn’t resist the popular blues-guitar sounds coming from the U.S. “I wanted to sound like B. B. King and Otis Rush and all the people I loved,” he says. “Go inside a closet, turn the lights off, and play, and try to sound like them. And then I didn’t sound like them. I sounded like me. I didn’t realize that it was a blessing instead of a curse. But when I stopped trying to sound like somebody else and really paid attention to me, I heard that sound that goes through all people’s hearts.”

The universe did bring Carlos abundance. He moved to San Francisco (again, the right place at the right time) and became a key part of a flourishing psychedelic-rock scene. His style—melodic guitar lines soaring over Afro-Latin beats in thrilling free-form jams—was not intended as commercial music, but fans responded and made the songs hits. Among them were “Evil Ways,” “Oye Como Va” and “Black Magic Woman.” He played the Woodstock stage at age 22, which ignited his career even before his band had released an album. He went on to record some 40 LPs, including 1999’s multiple-Grammy-winning Supernatural. That was three decades into a music career, a point by which many legacy artists are relegated to the oldies circuit. Never the lead singer himself (others have performed that role in the band Santana), Carlos has been an unusual front man by rock standards—more like the bandleader of Latin-music tradition. It was a decided departure from convention. And yet, more than 50 years in, Carlos Santana is still recording and performing and drawing crowds.

Watch: Carlos Santana Wants to Make You Cry, Laugh and Dance


“He sings with his guitar,” says Colombian rock star Juanes, who collaborated with Carlos on the 2014 hit “La Flaca.” “His melodies and solos are as catchy as a singer’s. Somehow his fingers are an extension of his soul. They have his stamp, and that’s everything when you’re an artist.”

Another Carlos Santana hallmark is his way of talking—of thinking, really—in metaphors, more than specifics. He loves to dispense pearls of wisdom, not because he fancies himself a preacher or a shrink. Quite the contrary; he says he’s been to therapy maybe twice in his life. Rather, it’s that he’s figured out his path to happiness and wants to share the goods.

“You stay relevant by trusting you have something people need. You know, people need air; people need water; people need some serious rrrrrromance,” he says, rolling the “r” for emphasis.

“Humans without romance become curmudgeons and predictable with misery.” Carlos believes his music helps. “I know that we bring something to the four corners of the world. When you play music and can actually see people cry, and then laugh and dance at the same time, honey, that gives you confidence.”

As for his thoughts on self-fulfillment: “Three things: your spirit, your soul and your heart. If you find those and you really find them, you’re going to realize that innocence. Those things don’t leave you, and you don’t misplace them or lose them. Those are the ingredients for you to have a glorious existence.” One of his favorite terms is “naked awareness”—the ability to see yourself fully and make changes away from the negative.

But this way of talking, these scattered pearls of wisdom, the art and soul of being Carlos Santana—it’s all meaningful to people. He recalls a casual conversation that he had this year, about music, with a security guard at a London hotel. The right place at the right time. “The next day he came up to me with tears in his eyes.” Their chance conversation had averted the man’s thoughts of suicide. “Humans without hope and courage, it’s over,” Carlos notes. “When you have hope and courage, somehow you can will yourself to create miracles and blessings.”

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Watch: Carlos Santana Reflects on Woodstock 50 Years Later


This year marks a couple of milestone anniversaries for Carlos. Besides Woodstock’s 50th, there’s the “comeback 20th.” In the late ’90s, when Carlos’ star seemed to be waning, along came music mogul Clive Davis, who had originally signed Santana to Columbia Records in the ’60s. Davis went on to found Arista Records, and more than 20 years afterward saw Santana perform at Radio City Music Hall. Davis proposed a new album to the guitarist, one with that signature sound but full of collaborations. The result was 1999’s Supernatural. It included the smash hit “Smooth,” with Carlos’ Latin guitar alongside vocals by Rob Thomas (of pop band Matchbox Twenty). It endeared Santana to a new generation while still speaking to older fans. The album went on to sell more than 30 million copies worldwide, and Santana won eight Grammys, including for album of the year. It was the second of only three times in history that a Latin
artist has achieved that honor (Brazil’s João Gilberto won in 1965, with Stan Getz; Bruno Mars, of Puerto Rican descent, did so in 2018).

Davis recalls the skepticism in the halls of Arista—that his signing of Santana might have been “affected by nostalgia and affection.”

“At the time there was speculation that it could be Davis’ Folly,” he says. “How could someone on guitar, over 50, who didn’t sing, break through? But as soon as I played ‘Smooth’ for the head of promotion, his eyes lit up. And he said, ‘None of us thought we would have a commercial record.’ ”

For Thomas, the experience led to a lasting mentor relationship. Carlos loves to pass on his wisdom. “I met him when my band had just had an unusually successful first album,” Thomas remembers. “Carlos came along to show me the difference between being a successful musician and being a celebrity. To this day he still sends me texts to remind me that the only three things I can control are my motive, intention and purpose. And to always remember to do what I do with gratitude. I’m not the vessel; I’m the passenger. But sometimes I can be the engine.”

A Legendary Performance That Almost Wasn't

spinner image Carlos Santana (right) and bassist David Brown perform with the other members of Santana at Woodstock in 1969.
Carlos Santana (right) and bassist David Brown perform with the other members of Santana at Woodstock in 1969.
Tucker Ransom/Getty Images
Santana wasn’t supposed to play Woodstock. 

The group hadn’t released an album before the August 1969 festival. But iconic concert promoter Bill Graham insisted that the band get booked. Santana shared the bill with idols, including Sly Stone. “He had the best energy, the best presentation,” Carlos Santana says. “And then Jimi Hendrix, of course, and then everybody else had to fight for third place with Santana.” He continues: “What I learned most from Woodstock is that people are thirsty to live, to exist outside religion and politics.”

Now Carlos is delving even deeper into his roots with his new album, Africa Speaks, released in June. He explores African rhythms—which he considers the origins of Latin music—with the help of sultry singer Buika, born in Spain to Equatorial Guinean parents. The two hadn’t met before. Carlos typed “new African music” into Google late one night and Buika’s name popped up. They connected and, with legendary producer Rick Rubin at the helm, recorded fresh versions of 49 African songs in 10 days. “I want to bring new African music to the mainstream because I think people need this nutrient, this ingredient, to learn how to dance differently,” Carlos explains. “Music needs melody, rhythm and heartfelt sounds. There is too much synthesized music. Basically, it’s like the shopping malls in America—so much of it sounds the same.”

His ambitions have also moved beyond music in the past two decades. Through his Milagro (“Miracle”) Foundation, established in 1998, Carlos has given nearly $8 million in grants to almost 400 organizations around the world that support children in the areas of education, health and the arts. The grants range from $7,500 for local literacy organizations to over $100,000 for earthquake relief in
Mexico. But even with these tangible efforts, there’s still a bit of Cosmic Carlos in there: “People who are really,
really committed, 1,000 percent, roll up their sleeves and will go anywhere in the world, even if there is no landing strip. They land and bring medicine, but the main medicine they bring is the way they look at people and touch people. That’s medicine!”

Another of Carlos’ mantras is “Reinvent yourself every day.” And at 72, he has created a life with second wife Cindy Blackman Santana (a drummer whom he wed in 2010) that sounds like domestic bliss. Aside from Cindy’s daily drum practice—“She’s dedicated like Usain Bolt is as an athlete”—they let the day unfold. “All my kids, they’re all grown up, living in New York, Los Angeles or Seattle. That part is completed now, and they’re crystallizing their existence. But now with Cindy and me, we don’t have anything to tend to or be concerned about other than each other’s eyes, each other’s hearts.”

“When Cindy came in, we were so ready for each other... We’re like two kids in a sandbox, and she’s got the shovel and I’ve got the bucket.”

– Carlos Santana on his personal and professional relationship with his wife, Cindy Blackman Santana

That wasn’t always the case. His previous marriage lasted 34 years, but, Carlos says, he wasn’t always filled with “naked awareness.” “I didn’t know back then that it’s not my mission to make my mother or my ex-wife happy. I was breaking my back. I was really trying to be the good guy and please them. All of a sudden, I said, ‘Wait a minute—my job is to make myself happy, do what I need to do to make myself happy.’ ”

With Cindy, he entered a new stage of his journey, personally and musically (Cindy plays on his albums, and he can also be heard on her latest set, Give the Drummer Some). “When Cindy came in, we were so ready for each other. I’ve never had a partner where there are no issues ever, no drama mill, no issues about insecurity or someone with a laundry list of things I need to change. Nothing like that! We’re like two kids in a sandbox, and she’s got the shovel and I’ve got the bucket.”

Santana finishes his coffee and stands up (revealing the boots). He’s headed home—to Cindy, to his music, to a satisfied life. If he were to give his younger self some advice, he would say, “Strip yourself naked from anything that anyone taught you about anything. And only listen to the voice of your heart, the voice of your light.”

The universe continues to bring him an abundance of opportunities and possibilities. And Carlos Santana is still open to receiving them.

Leila Cobo is a vice president and Latin-industry lead for Billboard magazine and the director of content for Nexos, American Airlines’ in-flight magazine in Spanish and Portuguese. The Colombia native is also a classical pianist, novelist, biographer and TV host.


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