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Santana celebrates the past and present in an eventful year

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

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Carlos Santana may be 71, but the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer contends that "it feels like I'm 17 going on 27 ... energywise. So it's all relative."

And Santana certainly has the workload to support his claim.

This summer, Santana is immersed in some landmark anniversaries — 50 years since the debut album by the group that bears his name, of its legendary appearance at the first Woodstock Festival, and 20 years since his "Supernatural" album sold more than 30 million copies worldwide and won eight Grammy Awards. He's celebrating the latter with a summer tour as well.

But Santana isn't resting on those laurels, either.

Santana has released not one but two recordings during the first half of 2019. An EP titled "Mona Lisa" came out in January, while six months later he followed with "Africa Speaks," a collaborative set influenced by interest in African music which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200. It's more music than some artists half Santana's age put out in a year, and it's proof that at a time when he could be living comfortably in the past the guitarist and bandleader is more interested in what's coming in the future.

"A lot of musicians, for whatever reason, they get stuck in a jukebox from the ’60s or ’70s or ’80s," Santana says by phone. "I call it regurgitation nostalgia, and I don't want to be there. I learned from Miles (Davis) and Wayne (Shorter) and Herbie (Hancock) to keep moving and keep discovering.

"Yes, honor those (old) songs because people do come to see you, but make them fresh, restructure them with innocence and meaningfulness and significance, but move on into the next level, which is 2019 and 2020."

Both "Mona Lisa" and "Africa Speaks" feature new compositions — the latter on an 11-song set produced by fellow Grammy Award winner Rick Rubin. The project has a broad, continental scope that Santana said he's been working toward for 20 years, with contributions by Spanish vocalist Buika and a number of co-writers. "Africa Speaks" was culled from 200 tracks Santana had accumulated for the project over the years, from which 49 were recorded before the final tracklist was chosen. "Sometimes we were recording like seven songs a day, one right after the other," Santana recalls. "There were only two or three songs that we did twice — everything else was done in one take. ... It feels like a blur."

African music has long been one of Santana's interests and part of the amalgam of rock, Latin and jazz he's been pursuing since initial hit covers of Willie Bobo's "Evil Ways" and Tito Puente's "Oye Como Va."

"They have a naked joy — fearless living in troubled times," Santana explains. "That vibration from Africa immediately takes the listener, the individual, into joy, which is the opposite of fear." And he acknowledges current turmoil in the world and the United States made the time ripe for him to finally finish "Africa Speaks."

"Right now, everywhere in the world, fear is being promoted like never before — on every channel, by everyone — fear, fear, fear, fear," he says. "So when you listen to this music, fear becomes really boring, and it has now power and you move it aside and you start believing again that you have the capacity, the ingredients and the nutrients to create miracles and blessings."

Rubin — whose credits range from the Beastie Boys and Slayer to Johnny Cash and Adele — proved to be the perfect conduit for helping Santana achieve his vision, as well. "Rick is very Zenlike," Santana says. "He doesn't get in anybody's grille or face. He's a little here and there, and he'll present certain, subtle suggestions. He's like those Bonzai people who trim the little trees. It makes it easy to work." And, Santana adds, Rubin was crucial in bringing the album to the finish line.

"The way he makes the songs is really epic — it's like going from a small black-and-white TV to a full 3D. His expertise in creating this panoramic vista for the songs is incredible."

Africa will likely be speaking more through Santana's music as well. With a dedicated "Africa Speaks" tour on tap for 2020, he says the other recorded tracks are "in incubation," with every plan for them to see the light of day, too. "I plan to invite other people to complete it," he says, "but for right now I'm really focusing on this particular group (of songs). We felt like this group of songs is telling its own stories, apart from the other ones."

They will, in fact, be putting a present spin on Santana's past story. With "Supernatural" he recalls Clive Davis, who signed Santana to his first record deal, reaching out to revive his career by teaming him up with hitmakers of the day — most notably matchbox twenty singer Rob Thomas, who sang on and helped Santana create the smash hit "Smooth."

"He invited everybody — Babyface, (Eric) Clapton, Lauryn Hill, Wyclef (Jean), Rob Thomas," Santana remembers. "He just got on the phone, and to my surprise everybody either wanted to write a song for me or write a song with me or be on the album.

"(Davis) basically convinced me to discipline myself, to go to the studio with willingness and allow the magic wand from Merlin to do its thing. If you don't have willingness and you don't allow, you're not going to create miracles and blessings — and I had all of those on that album."

Woodstock, meanwhile, is just as profound a memory for Santana. His band was largely unknown at the time, especially on the East Coast, with a debut album that was just three months old. Its performance at the festival, for a bargain $2,500, and appearance in the subsequent film played a significant role in vaulting the group to start status.

"I remember the energy more than anything, how 550,000 hippies could coexist and live in harmony and unity with no fights," says Santana, who still plays crowd noises from Woodstock over the PA at his concerts. "There's a reason people still talk about the original Woodstock, almost like when Jesus was passing gluten-free bread and mercury-free fish at the mountain." He'll play a special 50th anniversary show at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts on the site of the original festival, and planned to play the official Woodstock 50th anniversary reprise before it succumbed to the weight of myriad financial and logistical problems.

The latter may give Santana a day off — but don’t be surprised if he fills it with some other endeavor. That's just the way he rolls right now.

"You know, I learned a thing from Albert Einstein — relativity," Santana says. "If you're sitting on a hot stove, 30 seconds or a minute is like eternity. But if you're sitting next to the most beautiful woman, eternity feels like a second. So 50 years or 'Supernatural' 20 years. ... Me, personally, I'm bringing more energy and more inspiration and more power than ever."

Santana and the Doobie Brothers perform at 7 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 11, at the DTE Energy Music Theatre, Sashabaw Road east of I-75, Independence Township. $47 and up. Call 313-471-7000 or visit 313Presents.com.

Web Site: www.313Presents.com

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