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posted: 12/13/2013 5:00 AM

Carlos Santana finds his music reflecting who he is

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  • Carlos Santana is one of the 2013 recipients of Kennedy Center Honors.

    Carlos Santana is one of the 2013 recipients of Kennedy Center Honors.
    Washington Post/Marvin Joseph

  • The recipients of the 2013 Kennedy Center Honors, from left, are Billy Joel, Martina Arroyo, Herbie Hancock, Shirley MacLaine and Carlos Santana. They were honored Sunday in Washington.

    The recipients of the 2013 Kennedy Center Honors, from left, are Billy Joel, Martina Arroyo, Herbie Hancock, Shirley MacLaine and Carlos Santana. They were honored Sunday in Washington.
    Associated Press photo

By David Montgomery
The Washington Post

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.

But now he's standing on a Las Vegas hotel balcony 43 stories up, where a photographer has just asked him to climb on a table, the better to pose against the neon skyline.

The guitar player balks: "Why do I have to be put on a pedestal?"

Awkward pause.

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 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 'n' 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.

"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. 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 -- the Kennedy Center honors he received last weekend.

"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, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, 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 Mexico, and honed his guitar chops in the streets and dives of Tijuana. But the identity that matters most to Santana 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 awed him? Being ushered onto the same platform as jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock, who was also honored.

Hancock is among a select list of artists, living and dead, whom Santana reveres. Hendrix, John 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.

Santana originally learned to play the violin from his father, Jose, a professional violin player. The boy learned the emotional power of even a simple melody in classical pieces, Mexican folk tunes and pop standards. 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 in a strip club.

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.

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. "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 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.

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.

At a recent show, Santana saunters onstage with his purple guitar, and the 1,300 fans packing the intimate House of Blues start to scream.

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, 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.

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