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Updated: November 3, 2012 16:44 IST

Black magic man

Deepa Kurup
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‘I feel that I live in a land where there's a social experiement... which is actually a
work in progress,’ says Carlos Santana. Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash
The Hindu ‘I feel that I live in a land where there's a social experiement... which is actually a work in progress,’ says Carlos Santana. Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

One got to hear the best of Carlos Santana at his concert in Bangalore recently, says Deepa Kurup, who found the legendary guitarist as mystical as his music.

In a recent interview, when asked about his approach to guitar distortion, legendary rock guitarist Carlos Santana took off on a tangent: he espoused the virtues of “making ugly faces”. He then told MusicRadar.com that if you’re not making ugly faces, you’re probably “faking it” — and the double entendres were not lost on anyone.

So watching Santana perform in Bangalore recently, making his “ugly faces”, cranking it up and playing those divine guitar riffs, one knew that this legendary Mexican was not looking to sell records — certainly not of the star-studded kind we’ve seen him do over the past decade. He left all the singing to his two band vocalists, and with the exception of a line here and a chorus there he simply let loose and let his guitar have its say.  This isn’t surprising, given he’s just come out with a new album Shape Shifter where he’s done just that; he’s gone back to the fundamentals, ditched the pop-ish collaborations that have brought him great commercial success over the decade, and made a comeback with the guitar-driven rock instrumentals that his older fans know him best for. 

For those familiar with his substantive body of work from “Soul Sacrifice” — the 11-minute instrumental played at Woodstock that instantly turned him into a rock guitar legend — to “Supernatural”, the concert presented the perfect opportunity to get reacquainted with the string genius that is Santana. Though he played the Grammy-winning numbers “Maria, Maria” and “Smooth” — minus MatchBox Twenty singer Rob Thomas’ smooth vocals, of course — the highlights of the evening were the more energetic, older numbers like “Oye Como Va”, the catchy Afro-inspired “Jingo Ba”, “Samba Pa Ti” and a medley of “Evil Ways” and “Love Supreme”.

What made the concert experience remarkable, besides a chance to hear this demigod of the riff, is the sheer variety of musical experiences packed into an impressive two-and-a-half-hour setlist. So there was some cha-cha, the familiar Latino tunes and jazz-infused string, Afro Congas, his bluesy electric guitar, the captivating trombone-trumpet combo and the soulful ballad; and the magic of Santana has a lot to do with the excellent 11-member team that played with him, every now and then taking centrestage jamming with his guitars, and at other times silently providing the ocean of support a musical genius like Santana needs.

At a press conference held on the eve of the concert, Santana had warned Indian fans and audiences that the experience will be no less than transformative. “The purpose of my music is to make people feel like they can make a difference,” said the Woodstock alumnus. Though back in 1969, he was in no condition to sermonise on “war and peace” like he did now — he famously confessed that he was so high at Woodstock that he thought his guitar was a snake! — Santana took the opportunity to thank “India” for what it taught him, and the world, about spirituality. This isn’t surprising, for, like many musicians of his generation, Santana too flirted long with Eastern spirituality; in fact, for nearly a decade he was a follower of the then popular Indian spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy, who named him Devadip.

Taste of India

He told the media that he was introduced to spirituality, “the kind that India is so richly filled with”, by jazz musician Alice Coltrane, and John McLaughlin. This land, he said, “showed the world, not just the Beatles” that there was a way to use music to express that which is spiritual. He spoke of Hindustani classic musician and sarod artiste Ali Akbar Khan, tabla great Alla Rakha and his son Zakir Hussain, and legendary sitar artiste Ravi Shankar, as “major influences”, and examples of those who expressed the spiritual.

At the concert, somewhere between “Evil Ways” and “Smooth”, Santana paused to speak his mind. The short speech was mostly made up of shorter phrases and catchwords on peace and universal love; all thrown at the audience as if it’s supposed to mean something. “No war,” said he, in true-Woodstock style, following it up with the predictable “One world, one humanity”. Though a bit old-school and quite out of place, the endearing musician dressed in a peaceful white shirt with a brooched hat, appeared quite comfortable riding the peace train. 

Back at the media interaction too Santana had a thing or two to say about peace and the country which the Mexican-born artiste has made his home. He told reporters that his purpose here was to introduce the world, and India, to a face of the United States that is about “spirit, beauty, excellence and elegance”.

Putting this rather odd message in context, Santana explained: “Not everything they show about the United States of America is true. Not everything is about the Pentagon and war,” he said. He paused thoughtfully for a while. The media didn’t ask him anything, but he appeared to feel compelled to explain his rather out-of-the-blue statement. He continued: “I don't come here, or go out to the world with an American flag, waving it. But I feel that I live in a land where there’s a social experiment... which is actually a work in progress.” Santana said that he represented African-Americans, the Hebrew population, the Puerto Ricans and the native Americans, among others, in a country where “we’re all trying to live together”.

It isn’t surprising that Santana was speaking about the America that we don’t see, for, even back home he’s often chosen to speak up and against regressive forces and ideas: like just last year he came down heavily on two US States that had introduced what was widely perceived to be anti-immigrant laws.

Santana briefly referred to Woodstock, and said that there are “still many” like him in the US who feel that the wars should stop.

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