Meeting Carlos Santana is a surreal experience. And we’re not talking about the guitar hero reputation he carries around – not the 90 million album sales, 45 year chart career, his collaborations with everyone from Michael Jackson to Eric Clapton – we mean the man himself. The man who strides into the room clad in a knee-length, snakeskin-styled leather jacket, breathing both the confidence of an international rock star and the magnanimous warmth of a man who’s clearly found his peace with and place in the world. We don’t like the word ‘aura’, but there’s no other way to describe the reverential but joyful glow the 66-year-old Mexican-American casts on everyone present, an equally enchanting and beguiling orator who speaks in long, unfocused but unfalteringly uplifting monologues. And those monologues tend to end up winding down one of two conversational roads – his spiritual beliefs and his musical heroes. Tellingly, during our interview and the preceding TV slot we sit in on, Santana mentions Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama each at least three times – as he does Marvin Gaye, Miles Davis and Bob Marley.
First off, in your eyes, what’s the difference between Santana the band, and Santana the man?
Santana the band is a team, a collective unity. Carlos is a person who if you go to his house there’s no Santana. No Santana.
No gold records on the walls?
None of that – in the office you have all that stuff, Grammys, awards – in Carlos’ house you don’t. Because it’s important for me to constantly separate the person from the personality. When you don’t do that, you OD on yourself.
You’re a very positive person. ODing on Santana sounds like no bad thing.
You’d be surprised, because it’s very exhausting to feed a personality. A personality is very demanding – a person just needs water and air, you don’t need all the [mimes enthusiastic fan noises]. A personality is constantly ‘please tell me how great I am’ and... [mimes cutting off his own head].
So you’re saying that compartmentalism has helped to keep you sane?
Yeah, I can mention a lot of artists I love and unfortunately they became victims of their own personality, because they don’t know when to put that aside, and just be normal, natural – and you get in trouble because you get [greedy], and the next thing you know, you’re this far away from your heart. And you’re not happy unless you’re miserable. And then your art starts to suffer. That’s why I learned to keep them separate.
We understand you’re speaking from experience. You indulged in the spirit of the times during the ’60s and ’70s.
I didn’t indulge because I knew when to stop. This is important to know – every person has an inner and an outer support system. So when you listen to your support system you don’t get in trouble by doing self destructive things. Because you listen to it, you confer and defer to your spirit and your spirit says ‘no, that’s not for you, because if you go there it’s not only a distraction, but it’s destructive’. We have so much time to be in this planet. And while we’re here we’re here to make the best of reminding people, like John Lennon or Bob Marley, that everyone is significant and meaningful. You can’t do that when you’re self-destructive.
Bringing that sentiment back to the music – there was a great freedom in your records of the ’60s and ’70s which mirrored the time in which they were made. Is such freedom possible in the world of modern arena tours that you face today?
Yes absolutely, what we learned from the ’60s was multidimensional. You learn to go outside. Like a hamster you’ve got to open the cage and get out, and not be so boxed in with religion or politics, and you can go beyond that to get into the music.... What’s really exciting is to take time to go inside and figure out why that note by Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughan or Miles Davis... why it is that a note like that gives people chiiills.
Speaking of those great players – you once said ‘No one's better than me. I'm not better than anyone’...
I never said that. I would never say that. I think the people I admire of course are Paco de Lucía and John McLaughlin, and it’s subjective. Any musician who says they’re the best... mmm they’re usually not that good! [laughs]
You’re in the UAE to play the Dubai Jazz Festival, so let’s talk a little about jazz. How was it working with the legend that is Wayne Shorter [in 1988]?
Being with Wayne Shorter is extremely fun because he is like a seven year old child. With Wayne everything is fun, he’ll say things like ‘you have to think faster to play slower, and you have to think slower to play faster’. He’s says certain things and you go ‘maaan!’ He has a way of inviting you to see and feel beyond what you think you know. His association with Miles Davis gave him an insight which is beyond good and evil.
And speaking of Miles, we hear a lot of Bitches Brew in your early work. How important was that record to you and the world?
I think it should be required for children between 17 and 27 to listen to Bitches Brew while they’re doing their homework.
That would lead to some freaky creative writing assignments.
When you listen to Bitches Brew, or John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, you’re able to really use the fullness of your brain, not just a little part. And so certain musicans inspire you to have a certain latitude, and not be... where someone will say ‘my little opinion’, ‘your little two cents’ – I say why does it have to be little? Why do you belittle yourself so much? When you invest emotionally in your own light – just like you can chew gum, you can chew these words ‘I am the light’ and once you start [chants the phrase repeatedly] – pretty soon your molecules start believing it. And when you start believing it then I assure you, you can also create miracles and blessings. That energy is not only for Desmond Tutu or the Pope or Mother Theresa or the Dalai Lama...
It’s for everyone?
Yeah! So use it, but use it in a good way.
We’ll try. Now tell us, of all your many musical collaborations – from plastic pop to the greatest jazz players on the planet – which would you rate as the most and least successful?
What does that mean?
What does that mean?
Well, which do you think reached the highest level of musical expression, and which perhaps didn’t work out as you hoped they might?
None. I don’t think like that. Everything I did – from John McLaughlin to Alice Coltrane to playing with Justin Bieber at New Years’ Eve in New York – there’s a way to validate everything. I don’t feel that anything I’ve done has been a failure. I only have everything to say about victory and triumph. Because listen, I was washing dishes, and then all of a sudden I said I want to do that – not I think I can do it, I know I can do it – I know I can be onstage with Eric Clapton and BB King and I can be something. So since I quit being a dishwasher [in 1966], every day is like victory.
The day after you perform in Dubai, The Rolling Stones make their Middle Eastern debut in Abu Dhabi having recently celebrated their 50th anniversary as a band. Do you see Santana the band celebrating that anniversary soon, or even going beyond?
Going beyond. I celebrate with them. I celebrate because this legacy is incredible. In 1965 on the radio there were only two songs that were the highest – ‘Satisfaction’, and ‘Light My Fire’ by The Doors, [hums and plays air guitar to both songs with childish enthusiasm] – you play those two songs right now, four times on the radio, and they’ll be number one again. The youngster will go ‘what’s that?!’ because when all’s said and done, it really is about the songs. I’m here because of the songs, so if people pay attention to the songs, the songs will keep you... relevant. Beyond time and space and gravity.
Before you go – we must ask, where did you get that jacket (pictured above)?!
I stole it from a [homeless person] [laughs].
Santana performs at the Dubai Jazz Festival on Thursday February 20. Tickets available from www.ticketmaster.ae