Carlos Santana frowns. The look is so uncharacteristic, because this whole afternoon his expression runs consistently from beatific to boyish and back. He riffs amiably about receiving inspiration from angels and discloses secrets about his quest for the “universal tone,” about how he learned to distill longing and joy in a single note — that pristine, piercing Santana sound that’s instantly recognizable from San Francisco to Singapore.
But now he’s standing on a hotel balcony 43 stories up, where a photographer has just asked him to climb onto a table, the better to pose against the neon skyline.
The guitar player balks: “Why do I have to be put on a pedestal?”
Santana winks. He’ll do it, on the promise that the effect will not be pedestal-like.
At 66, he has an uneasy relationship with the pedestal — the one that he at once covets, disdains and sometimes doubts he deserves. The one that people want to place him upon — except when they don’t, during those dispiriting droughts when the music-buying public all but forgets him.
He certified himself a contender for the guitar-hero crown almost from the start, in a band that took his last name, at Woodstock in 1969. His frenzied solo on “Soul Sacrifice” went old-school viral, thanks to the film of the hippie music festival.
There followed a series of pioneering albums that almost single-handedly invented pop world-beat music. The congas, timbales and Afro-Latin guitar and organ rhythms on smash covers such as “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen” and “Oye Como Va” redefined the parameters of rock-and-roll. The guitar player knew what notes not to play, savoring the magic of a simple melodic line. But he grew restless, and he embarked on a decades-long quixotic musical and spiritual journey. He explored jazz and new-age horizons and, for several years, followed the guru Sri Chinmoy. Santana commanded the admiration of elite musicians but not radio programmers.
“I don’t consider myself a guitar player as much as I am a seeker who wants to manifest his vision through that particular instrument,” he said in 1978.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, his 1999 album, “Supernatural,” won nine Grammys, posted astronomical sales and lodged Santana in the download queue of a new generation. On nearly every track, his guitar accompanied — shared the pedestal with — a trendier singer, such as Dave Matthews, Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty, Everlast and Lauryn Hill. He has used that formula on several more albums and has alighted on a concert residency at the House of Blues in the Mandalay Bay casino resort.
“I’m not a seeker anymore,” he says. “I’m a finder now. It’s more fun to just will it to happen, than to hope for somebody to sort of come, part the ocean or the sky, and give it to you.”
He steps down from the makeshift pedestal. Curly black locks billow beneath a black fedora, which covers a balding pate. He’s wearing a purple shirt printed with a picture of John Coltrane. Carrying his purple guitar, he enters a private room that the House of Blues has trimmed in purple. Which puts him in the mood to play “Purple Haze.”
He jams meditatively, loses the Jimi Hendrix lick for a second — “Where is that thing?” — finds it.
All the while, he’s working out how he feels about this latest pedestal, the one they’re erecting in Washington.
“I don’t mind committing career suicide once in awhile and playing music that only musicians maybe understand,” he says. “I’m not a poodle who you just throw a little bone or a biscuit to, and I dance for you, man. That’s why, perhaps, when they’re celebrating this Mexican, Carlos Santana, in the Kennedy Center, it’s a big canasta [that is being honored]. Canasta is like a basket, with not just a guitar [inside], but a person who loves uplifting consciousness.”
He deems the Kennedy Center’s history of having rarely honored Latinos to be typical of so many American institutions trapped in an Anglo-European thrall. Yet he considers it no favor to be cast in the self-limiting role of one of the two Latinos (along with opera singer Martina Arroyo) being honored this year, to help correct that record. True, he was born in Autlan de Navarro, Mexico, and honed his guitar chops in the streets and dives of Tijuana. But the identity that matters most to Santana — his artistic and spiritual self — is bigger, embracing roots from Mali to Haiti to Cuba to the Mississippi Delta.
“I’m more than just a Mexican with a blower on the presidential lawn at the White House,” he says. “I represent a whole bunch of other people.”
The aspect of this accolade that really awes him? It’s the promise of being ushered onto the same platform as jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock, who is also being honored.
Hancock is among a select list of artists, living and dead, whom Santana reveres. Hendrix, Coltrane, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Bob Marley, Babatunde Olatunji, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Harry Belafonte, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Gabor Szabo. He jammed with as many as he could and tried to learn from the rest.
Even though he has recorded and toured with Hancock and Shorter, a little, insecure part of Santana has always worried that he couldn’t keep up with such aces.
“I’m still learning the difference between respect and fear,” he says. “They all say the same thing to me: You’re one of us. But as soon as I’m in the room, and they start playing, I’m like, oh, damn. Because they’re so — I’ll say it like this: They are an ocean. I’m a big lake. Someone else is a swimming pool. I’m somewhere in the middle.”
José Santana was a professional violin player who taught his son Carlos the instrument. The boy learned the emotional power of even a simple melody in classical pieces, Mexican folk tunes and pop standards such as “Fascination.” But when he heard American rhythm-and-blues, he set aside the violin and picked up a guitar. Barely a teenager, he supported himself with a gig accompanying dancers in a strip club.
“You learn how to strip women,” he recalls. “Yet at the same time, exalt, like ‘Ave Maria.’ It’s the same energy.”
The family immigrated to San Francisco, and by the late 1960s, Carlos Santana had co-founded a band with a rare integrated lineup of Latinos, whites and an African American. They earned coveted invitations to play at the Fillmore and then Woodstock.
“This was no peace, love, hippie thing. The band was like a street gang, and its weapon was music,” drummer Michael Shrieve recalled when the original Santana band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. In a recent interview with The Washington Post, he elaborated: “This band was very serious and rehearsed every single day. . . . If you messed up, you’d be called on it in no uncertain terms. It was like there was a mission behind the whole endeavor.”
One day after rehearsal, Shrieve asked Santana if he wanted to see a movie. Recalls Shrieve: “He stops in his tracks, and he looks at me and he says, ‘Man, what would I want to go see a movie for? I want to be the movie.’ ”
A seminal moment for Santana came when he first saw B.B. King play guitar, in 1967, when Santana was about 20, two years before Woodstock. The bluesman knew how to coax maximum ecstasy out of a single note. What caught Santana’s attention was not King’s fretwork but his transfigured expression.
“I needed to see B.B. King because once I saw his face, I said, ‘Oh, it’s not the amplifier, it’s not the guitar,’ ” Santana recalls. “It’s where he went. He metaphysically went into a place in his head beyond his mind to get that tone and that note.
“After that, my mom would always ask me, ‘Mi hijo, [my son], where do you go when you look up at the ceiling and you play differently?’ I told her it’s a place where everything’s memorable, there’s no more time, there’s no more distance, there’s no more fear. It’s called a state of grace.”
From that foundation, his music took flight.
“He loves Africa and African music, so he’s always bringing those fundamental colors, flavors and rhythms to mainstream pop culture,” says drummer and producer Narada Michael Walden, who has produced Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Barbra Steisand and Elton John. “You can revolutionize music by doing that over and over again, and that’s what he’s done — be it through pushing on the jazz side, the rock side, the blues side, the Spanish-Mexican side, even pushing into the top 10.”
The top 10 had become elusive after the early hits, until an angel and a record company executive intervened, according to Santana. The result was “Supernatural.”
“I’m not afraid to say it was an angel called Metatron that came around,” he says.
Metatron is a figure in medieval mystical writings. Santana attended seances and learned from Metatron: “You will be placed on the radio like you’ve never been before,” he recalls. “And I’m like, I haven’t been on the radio since ’72.”
In return, Santana would be expected to use that platform “to invite people to create their own masterpieces of joy.” And he would have to disclose for the first time publicly that he had been sexually molested as a child, by a man outside his family, in order to help other victims heal. Santana kept his side of the bargain in interviews after “Supernatural” was released.
His intention, he says now, was to “invite other people who have been molested sexually when they were children to look at themselves in the mirror and say, ‘I am not what happened to me. I am still with purity and innocence.’ ” By discussing it, he says, “I became totally free from it. I was released.”
At least as important as Metatron was Clive Davis, the veteran pop tastemaker and power broker. Davis drove the concept of pairing Santana with vocalists who had more contemporary appeal. After years of instrumental jamming, Santana found the commercially viable discipline invigorating.
“When I play [instrumental] melodies, I feed myself with a shovel; I don’t need to care how long — 15 bars, 16 bars, just go,” he says. “On the radio, you have to be only 4:15 or 3:30 or whatever, and you only have so much space between you and the singer. You complement all the time — not compare or compete — and when it comes to doing your solo, do it in such a way that if Jimi Hendrix was alive, he would go, ‘Hey man, that was a nice solo.’ ”
The melody for the song with Matthews, “Love of My Life,” is appropriated from a passage by Brahms, which was the first music a grieving Santana heard when he turned on the car radio, tuned to a classical station, shortly after his father died in 1997.
In 2007, Santana and his wife of more than 30 years, Deborah, divorced. They have three adult children. In 2010, Santana married esteemed jazz drummer Cindy Blackman, who played briefly in his band. He proposed to her on stage that year, after her drum solo on “Corazón Espinado” — which means “pierced heart” and is one of the hits from “Supernatural.” In Las Vegas, he is active in local charities, not just writing checks, but also visiting the city Rescue Mission to meet residents. His Milagro Foundation reports having given $5.6 million in the United States and abroad, mainly to help vulnerable children.
Since “Supernatural,” the collaborative approach has yielded three more top 10 albums, pairing the guitarist with singers as diverse as Steven Tyler and Plácido Domingo. Now he is at work on a project with a Latino accent, partnering with Juanes, Lila Downs, Gloria Estefan, Romeo Santos and others.
Yet he’s still the sonic voyager, releasing instrumental music on the side, notably the “Shape Shifter” disc last year. Say what you will about angels, the track “Metatron” is sublime, or, as Rolling Stone said in the album review: “This largely instrumental debut release on his own label has moments of s----hot playing (see the smeared runs on ‘Metatron’).”
Santana saunters onstage in a long black leather coat with his purple guitar, and the 1,300 fans packing the intimate House of Blues start to scream.
“I have been listening to Santana since I was 11,” says Angelina Gallegos, 45, from the Seattle area. Now she and her daughter listen. “He’s got some songs that touch your soul.”
John Senger, 70, of Kelowna, British Columbia, says that he has cancer and that when he and his wife of nearly 50 years, Claudette, got to Vegas and realized they could see Santana, he added the show to his bucket list. After a few songs, his eyes are brimming with tears.
The band has 10 players, including two vocalists, two horn players and three percussionists. Periodically, Santana moves to the side or the back of the stage, sharing the pedestal.
“Most artists who have reached this level of success in the music industry, when they perform, it’s generally all about them,” trumpet player Bill Ortiz said earlier. “One of the great things about him as a bandleader is he really values the input of his side people.”
Santana sheds the coat to reveal a black T-shirt. He has put on a few pounds since Woodstock, but his fingers seem as nimble.
Each song is a mini-drama. Even the radio-ready hits are expanded for a live workout. The sound builds, subsides, resolves in catharsis. At the emotional center of a tune — “Europa,” “Incident at Neshabur,” “Corazón Espinado” — Santana plants himself at the front of the stage, wringing his guitar. He looks up, sees something through the ceiling, closes his eyes, like a man who appears to have found it, a state of grace.