Carlos Santana speaks on “Shape Shifter”, being a hippie, and dropping the violin

“I keep telling people, ‘When you make the ugliest face, you make the prettiest note.’ It’s like making love; if you’re looking pretty while making love, you’re faking it.” The legendary Carlos Santana, speaking to journalists ahead of his ‘F1 Rocks’ concert in the Capital, was answering a question on guitar players and the oft-associated facial contortions.

While guitarists have always been a symbol of cool, Santana’s skill with the strings and steadfastness with his quintessential style — a melodic mix of blues, jazz, and African and Latin styles — have put him in a one-man category. Though the band has had its share of line-up changes and commercial success and failure, in 1999 the album Supernatural (which won nine Grammys) showed the way forward; ‘Smooth’, the track that saw him work with Rob Thomas, created magic, and collaborations became the new form of adaptation. And Santana continued to play what he loved, in varying measures.

Shape Shifter, Santana’s new album, is out this year. A dozen of the 13 tracks on the album are instrumentals, which has got loyalists excited. He explains the album title, “You can rearrange the molecular structure of anything, you can go from a fish to a coyote to an eagle. For humans it means you’re not a one-trick party. A shape-shifter is not afraid to learn Rasta music from Bob Marley, or learn from Coltrane or Stravinsky or Ravi Shankar. The key to miracles is willingness, learning to get out of your own way, because you’re your biggest obstacle.”

He’s still a hippie, a ‘60s child. And he likes to stress music’s role behind the immediate and the sensory. “We carry the principle of the 60s, and we don’t apologise for it. We then believed world peace was possible. We believe we can utilise music to heal the planet. To come to India is to connect with something… Mick Jagger used to say ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’. I don’t know if he has it yet. We are light — we can implement around the world what religions and politicians failed to do.” (A day later, at the concert, he refers to this “light” again, plucking with his fingers invisible things from the air and flicking things into it in turn. It was a packed house, on the Galgotias University campus, where a chunk of the applause also went to wife Cindy Blackman during her power-packed drums solo.)

A collaboration with Paul Reed Smith led to the signature ‘Santana’ guitar. “He (Paul) had come to our concert in 1978 and brought along a guitar. He said, ‘Look, I’m making this guitar. Will you play it?’ Everything, if it’s done with love, you feel.

I was just impressed that someone would be so invested to not be scared of Fender or Gibson,” he recalls.

And to think the guitar wasn’t the first set of strings Santana picked up; he started learning the violin when he was five. Looking back, he ponders, “The violin is a very demanding instrument. If you don’t know how to play it you sound like a whining pussycat. My father was very good at it. I used to sound like an angry cat in the alley.” Good that the angry cat scared him.