Carlos Santana: Apostle of Love, Peace, and Healing

75-year-old rocker is ‘doing well’ after collapsing onstage

By Basab Dasgupta

“If you were stranded on a deserted island and could listen to only one musician on your sound playback device, who would that be?”

I have thought about this question many times over the years. I considered the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Led Zeppelin, Elvis, and many others including Bollywood singers Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammad Rafi, and Kishore Kumar. My answer is always the same and very definitive: “It is Carlos Santana.”

My interest in music started in my childhood with Bengali tunes by Salil Chaudhury and Sachin Dev Burman. After coming to the USA, I developed a new taste – western music – something I had never followed when I was in India. The genre I liked most is now called “Classic Rock.”

I first listened to the piece titled “Black Magic woman/Gypsy Queen” by Santana in the mid-seventies at the urging of a friend. It made my blood heat up with wild excitement, almost like being in the middle of some voodoo ritual in an African jungle, and I got instantly hooked. Even after all these years, every time I hear that twangy guitar accompanied by unmistakably unique percussionist drums, it strikes a chord inside me. Sorry Eric Clapton, Jimmy Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Slash; you guys just don’t cut it for me.

Since Santana is a guitarist, most of his music is instrumental without many lyrics, but it is hypnotic. By the way, “Santana” is also the name of his band. Just listen to the perennial favorites “Evil Ways”, “Jingo”, and “Oye Como Va”, or more recent hits like “Africa Bamba.” His live performance at the Woodstock festival was legendary. Then there are incredible instrumental masterpieces like “Sound of the Wind”, “Samba Pati”, “Bella” and more recent “Luz, Amor y Vida.”

I listen to music with total concentration. I do not do anything else, just sit there with my Bose surround sound system and listen. I follow every beat, every musical instrument, every word of the lyric, every pause, and every modulation. If I am stranded on an island, it would be an ideal environment for me with no external distraction and Santana’s music would be perfect because it would take me on some magical mystery tour.

During my professional tenure, I had the occasion of not only working but also living in Mexico for several months. Many of my colleagues and friends there were curious about different aspects of my interests and often asked me “Do you like Mexican music?”

I used to respond with a chuckle, “my most favorite musician is Mexican,” which immediately raised their curiosity about who it was. They seemed to be disappointed when I responded “It Is Carlos Santana”. The reason is simple: no one considers Santana to be just Mexican, not even the Mexicans.  He is international and belongs to everyone on this earth and his musical style is his own, not traditional Mexican. His style can only be described as some exotic fusion between Latin beat, rock – especially blues rock – and African music with a heavy dose of jazz.

His music mesmerizes me though many of his pieces are quite long. They start with some vocals, and then he turns on the guitar in full swing. Typically, they have a repetitive component which does the trick for me. It is almost like saying “Hare Rama Hare Krishna” over and over again.  One example is his “Dance sister dance…”. When I heard this song the very first time I was in a trance and wondering how he was going to end it. The ending was brilliant.

Santana does not even have to sing anything. He lets his guitar do all the talking and expresses all his emotions and passion. He once said, “When I play my guitar, I feel like I am surrendering to God or making love or both at the same time” – an ultimate confession of a true musician.

Perhaps I feel a connection with him for a totally different reason. Deep down inside he is a very spiritual person. He believes that “India is the place if someone is looking for spiritual freedom” and has a deep admiration for Mahatma Gandhi. It is not widely known that Santana adopted the middle name “Devadip” when he along with fellow guitarist, John Mahavishnu McLaughlin became a disciple of Hindu guru Sri Chinmoy. They have an album together, titled “Love, Devotion, Surrender.”

On his first trip to India, he reportedly loved South Indian food including Masala Dosa, dal, cauliflower sabzi, and mango lassi. It seems that Santana is rooted in multiple cultures – from his childhood in Mexico to his early adult life in San Francisco during the hippie era, two marriages both with African American women, his current home base in glitzy Las Vegas,  and spiritual association with Sri Chinmoy – he is everywhere. In his heart, he is a true hippy with the motto: “love, peace, and healing.”

Shockingly, in live TV interviews, Santana appears like a street person, very rough and “raw” in the way he talks and the language he uses. He comes across as a poor, uncultured, and uneducated man. I later learned that he had a tough childhood. He grew up in poverty in Tijuana, Mexico, working as a dishwasher in a diner, and graduated from high school while hospitalized for tuberculosis. This further increased my admiration of him.

In more recent years, Santana has changed his image and taken the persona of an elderly statesman and mentor to younger musicians. He released two albums “Supernatural” and “Shaman”, both of which featured a number of tracks where Santana performed with the younger rising stars. The “LIVE” version of Supernatural DVD and especially the track “Smooth”, performed with Rob Thomas, the lead singer of “Match Box 20” are amazing. The chemistry between the performers and the frenzy in the audience is unbelievable.

Later on, he performed with stars like Michael Jackson – “Whatever Happens”, Gloria Estefan – “Besos de Lejos”, and Shakira – “Illegal”. I have listened to these songs over and over just to hear Santana strumming his guitar. I also like Santana’s renditions of universally popular songs like the Beatles’ “While my guitar gently weeps.”

Santana believes that music is not a contest between the artists but to be shared and complimented. He has worked with numerous internationally famous musicians and expressed willingness to collaborate with others from Ravi Shankar to Lady Gaga.

I was horrified to learn that he collapsed on stage from heat exhaustion and dehydration during a recent live performance in Michigan and had to cancel a number of subsequent concerts. I am glad that he is alright now. He celebrated his 75th birthday on July 20. I wish him a very happy birthday and pray for a long life for him. He has entertained us for more than five decades. I would like to see, hear and feel him to eternity.

(Basab Dasgupta has a doctorate in physics from the University of Wisconsin and worked with Sony as Vice President of an operating division. Retired, he now lives in San Clemente, CA.)

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Disclaimer: The views expressed are not necessarily those of The South Asian Times 

Image courtesy of (Image Courtesy: NBC News)

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