Carlos Santana on the conviction and charisma that inspired his rock career

December 9, 2013 at 6:00 PM EDT
Carlos Santana came to the U.S. as a teenager and decades later is regarded as one of rock's greatest guitarists. Jeffrey Brown sat down with Santana to discuss the "screaming charisma" that first inspired him to play guitar, his career as a Latino musician and being honored for lifetime achievement at the Kennedy Center.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, five leading artists were given their due for a lifetime of achievement last night at the annual Kennedy Center Honors in Washington.

This year’s group: Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, actress Shirley MacLaine, opera soprano Martina Arroyo, singer/songwriter Billy Joel, and a rock star who came to this country as a teenager from Mexico.

Jeffrey Brown has our profile of Carlos Santana.

JEFFREY BROWN: Since his emergence in the San Francisco music scene in the late 1960s, Carlos Santana has been recognized as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest guitarists. His Latin-infused sounds and rhythms, beginning with the band that bore his name, have produced hit songs and albums that have sold in the millions.

His appearance at Woodstock helped rocket him to fame and concerts around the world continue to this day. In February, he makes his first concert tour of South Africa, part of a long-held interest in the continent. And just ahead of the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, we met up at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington.

Santana’s story began in Mexico, first in the small town of Autlan de Navarro and later in Tijuana, as the son of a violinist who played mariachi and other music.

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CARLOS SANTANA: I remember my dad playing violin since I was a kid.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you remember about it? What did you hear when you were a kid?

CARLOS SANTANA: It’s a sound of screaming charisma.


JEFFREY BROWN: Screaming charisma?

CARLOS SANTANA: Oh, my dad had charisma. Just the way he put his chin on the violin, just that alone, you are like, ah. And then when he would bow that note — he taught me how to carry a melody.

A lot of musicians don’t know how to carry a melody. You know, like Billie Holiday carries a melody, you know? When you carry a melody, your music immediately becomes memorable, instead of like a sound bite, you know? So he taught me how to just really, really slow it down.

JEFFREY BROWN: It also sounds like he taught you something about charisma and performing.

CARLOS SANTANA: Yes, he did. I’m very grateful.

My mother taught me about conviction and he taught me about charisma.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really, conviction and charisma?




CARLOS SANTANA: My mom is — just pure conviction.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you got to San Francisco, the rock ‘n’ roll scene there, what do you think you brought to that scene and the music?

CARLOS SANTANA: Well, I am a child many of many things.

And so the main thing that I remember is my love for — at that time, we used to call it musica tropical. Now they call it salsa, but it’s always been African music, you know, music that comes from Africa to Cuba or Puerto Rico and — but when I went to Ghana, for example, in 1971, they asked us to stand up because they are going to do the national anthem.

And I stood up and they played — the men went…


CARLOS SANTANA: And women go…


CARLOS SANTANA: And I was like, whoa, that’s “Afro Blue” from Mongo Santamaria. They go, no.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have heard that before, right?

CARLOS SANTANA: Yes. It was Mongo Santamaria in John Coltrane. But they said, no, this is our national anthem. Before they were born, we…


CARLOS SANTANA: I was like, oh.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you see the connections right there. Yes.


There is something about the music that really — it pinches your whole existence into a state of joy that cannot be bought. That’s what I love about African music, is the intensity of spirit and joy.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the guitar? Because I have actually had the pleasure of talking to some of the great guitarists, like B.B. King.


JEFFREY BROWN: Buddy Guy, I have talked to. And I’m always wondering what makes such a distinctive sound.

CARLOS SANTANA: The sound of the guitar is the sound of a woman.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of a woman?

CARLOS SANTANA: Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson. Saxophone is a man. Guitar is a woman.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what does that mean for — how do — so you learn to play it?

CARLOS SANTANA: You learn to articulate sassiness, compassion, endurance, wisdom.


CARLOS SANTANA: You know, even with the volume off, you can just see a women going like this and you know what she’s saying. She will straighten you out, you know?


JEFFREY BROWN: You have to put your own individual stamp on that guitar.

CARLOS SANTANA: You have to feel it in your gut, soul, heart, mind, body and your vitals in one note, you know, like that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All in one, all together?

CARLOS SANTANA: All in one note. That’s what gives people chills, because if you just play mental music, people start talking. Anyway, how was your day? You know?

Real musicians, when you play, people don’t talk. They go, oh, I’m sorry. I can’t talk to you right now, you know, because real musicians remind the listener of a forgotten song inside them.

And when you hear that forgotten song, you know, you get chills, you get tears, you dance, and you don’t even know why, because a lot of people buried that forgotten song in them.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was in 1999, after an extended lull in his career, that Santana achieved the kind of second life that most artists can only dream of with the release of the album “Supernatural.”

And that project, on which he collaborated with other stars including Eric Clapton, Lauryn Hill, and on his mega-hit “Smooth” with Rob Thomas reached an entire new generation of fans, winning nine Grammy Awards, and selling more than 30 million copies worldwide.

Was what happened with “Supernatural” a surprise to you?

CARLOS SANTANA: Oh, everything is a surprise to me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Everything?


CARLOS SANTANA: You are supposed to say with conviction and soulfulness, expect a miracle. But I’m in a place now to make things happen, not wait for them to happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you talk about spirituality. Is it your sense that music is a kind of spirituality?

CARLOS SANTANA: It’s not kind. Its 150 percent only music.

Music was given to tame the beast, as they say in the Bible. You know, entertain the beast means to quiet fear and anger. Music is to glorify the light in you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Last night at the Kennedy Center, as other stars played his music, Santana joined President and Mrs. Obama and his fellow honorees.

Notable this year was the inclusion of two Latinos, a group the Kennedy Center had been criticized for ignoring in the past.

How important is it to you of being from Mexico, of being Latino and being honored?

CARLOS SANTANA: It’s supremely important, because by me personally being invited, I give a chance — I give a chance to give voice to the invisible ones, the one who clean all the sheets, who clean all the toilets, serve in all hotels.

JEFFREY BROWN: You feel that, huh?


CARLOS SANTANA: Yes. Bill Graham told me this a long time ago.

JEFFREY BROWN: The great promoter.

CARLOS SANTANA: He says — Bill Graham says, you give voice to the invisible ones.

JEFFREY BROWN: You are 66 now?


JEFFREY BROWN: Do you see a point where you might stop all this?

CARLOS SANTANA: No. Why? It’s just getting starting. It’s just getting better. You know, we finally crystallized what we’re really about. We used to be seekers. Now we’re finders.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Carlos Santana, thanks for talking to us and congratulations.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Sometimes, there are wonderful moments that don’t make the final cut when we edit a story like the one you just watched. We’re going to show you one right now.

Their interview was recorded the morning after Nelson Mandela’s death. Carlos Santana was — has long supported the fight against AIDS in South Africa. In 2003, he donated all of his tour proceeds, $2 million, to Artists for a new South Africa. He began his support of that group in 1989, when its focus was to combat apartheid.

JEFFREY BROWN: We’re talking just after Nelson Mandela has died. What are your thoughts or memories of him?

CARLOS SANTANA: A supreme warrior, you know, one that changed history, one that — he made all humans believe that nothing is impossible and that — he and Desmond Tutu impregnated my mind and my consciousness to see clearly that victory is W-O-N already.

JEFFREY BROWN: Victory is won already?

CARLOS SANTANA: Victory is won already, you know?

And the only enemy is fear. And he talked about that a lot. You transform fear with your supreme joy, you know? I was honored to celebrate Mr. Desmond Tutu’s birthday in South Africa in 2006. And we were in the presence of both of them. And it was really quite endearing to watch both of them pick on each other. You know, at that time, Mr. Desmond Tutu was saying, “For God’s sake, man, marry the woman. You know, you can’t be shacking with her,” you know, because…


JEFFREY BROWN: This is a side of them we don’t usually hear about.

CARLOS SANTANA: In front of people.

And Mandela goes, “I don’t take orders from a guy in a skirt,” you know?


CARLOS SANTANA: They were going back and forth, you know?

And, for us, it was really funny to watch two giants pick on each other like little children. I will always remember his supreme elegance and conviction. They taught me, like I said, victory is won already.