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For Santana, 'Africa Speaks' Album Is About 'Manifesting Divine Voodoo'

Jun 17, 2019

In 1969, Carlos Santana and his band walked onto the stage at the legendary Woodstock Music Festival, as unknowns. "We had the element of surprise because nobody knew us."

Now, 50 years later, Santana operates more like a legend. But even with a genre-hopping discography and 10 Grammys to his name, Santana still approaches music making and performing with the wide-eyed vigor and vitality of a newcomer. "I'm 71, but I swear to you, if you come to see our band. you wouldn't believe just how much energy and vibrancy is flowing out of our bodies," he says.

For his latest album, Africa Speaks, Santana leaned heavily into his curiosity surrounding the "sounds of Africa." Lyrics on the 11-track project are sung in English, Spanish and Yoruba and feature vocalist Buika, who hails from the Spanish island of Mallorca.

Santana spoke with NPR's Ari Shapiro about his rapid work schedule — he recorded 49 songs in 10 days for the album — his many collaborators on Africa Speaks and his constant thirst for musical discovery. Listen to the conversation at the audio link and read on for interview highlights, including some that didn't make the broadcast.


Interview Highlights

On channeling the sounds of Africa

I turned to the "wa." I learned a long time ago, when I went to Ghana, the women showed me where the "wa" was. They said, "Santana!" And I turned around. It was, you know, maybe five women, and they go: "Hey, na na na Wa!"

And while they were doing that, they were opening their hands, like they have something. And they showed me that every music in the world must have the "wa." Without the "wa," ... See, music has the capacity to transport you beyond time and outside of gravity. If you visit the "wa" correctly.

YouTube

On working with Buika and Rick Rubin for the first time

When I hear Nina Simone and Etta James and Tina Turner, Buika is that frequency. Yet, she doesn't sound like them. But she's got the same raw sincerity and honesty.

Cindy [Blackman Santana] and I, we were in New Zealand and Australia on a tour. Buika came in for a week at [Rick Rubin's] Shangri-La Studio. And she told me when she heard the music, she was compelled to go on and create lyrics and melodies, things she'd never done before. She held my hands and she started crying, "Maestro, I've never done anything like this. Thank you for inviting me to be part of this. You don't even have to pay me. Oh, my God."

Carlos Santana with Africa Speaks vocalist Buika.
Ethan Miller / Getty Images

And so, I realized that Buika, Rick Rubin, the band, Cindy, myself — you know, we were driven to create this particular epic event.

Trust is thrust. They trust me. My band trusts me. Rick trusted me. My wife trusts me. Buika trusted me. And I trusted the spirit. So we created this spiritual attraction.

On recording songs for Africa Speaks quickly

Everything that we played on this album is pretty much like creating nutrients and ingredients for a divine spell. A divine conjuring and manifesting divine voodoo. It's the same thing when people get really passionate and they make love. When they get to that point, they say, "Oh, my God." Same thing.

On remaining musically curious

A long time ago, I heard someone say that in the Bible, it said that nothing was new under the sun. And I said, "Whoever wrote that has a crooked and twisted mind." Everything's new to me, with purity and innocence. Every second. It's all in how your heart perceives things, to create fresh, new. But you must have a consistent thirst to remain with innocence.

Producer Christina Cala edited the audio version of this story.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Fifty years ago, Carlos Santana and his band walked onstage at the legendary Woodstock music festival. Unlike almost everyone else playing there, Santana had not yet released a full-length album.

CARLOS SANTANA: We had the element of surprise because nobody knew us. But one thing we knew, a year later after we played, was that the Rolling Stones, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, everybody had congas all of a sudden. So I said, hm, something's working.

SHAPIRO: Half a century later, after 10 Grammy awards, a star on Hollywood Boulevard and a spot in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Carlos Santana is still creating new music with new collaborators.

SANTANA: I'm 71. But I swear to you, if you come and see our band, you couldn't believe and you wouldn't believe just how much energy is flowing out of our bodies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: His latest album is called "Africa Speaks." I asked Carlos Santana which sounds of Africa provided his way into this music.

SANTANA: I turned to the wa (ph). I learned a long time ago when I went to Ghana - the women showed me where the wa was. They said, Santana, and I turned around and there was, you know, maybe five women, and they go - heya, na na, na, na, na, na, heya, na, na, na, wha - wha - heya (ph) - and while they were doing that, they were opening their hands like they have something. And they show me that every music in the world must have the wa. Without the wa, it doesn't - see, music has the capacity to transport you beyond time and outside of gravity, if you visit the wa correctly.

SHAPIRO: Wow. I love that so much. Which track can you point us to where we'll hear that wa?

SANTANA: Every single one. The main one on the end, "Candombe," is the ritual ritual.

SHAPIRO: Let's listen to this track. It's called "Candombe Cumbele."

SANTANA: "Condombe" - yes, exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANDOMBE CUMBELE")

CONCHA BUIKA: (Singing in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: Where do we hear the wa in that?

SANTANA: Wa - tchk, tchk, ding, ka - wa (ph). There.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANDOMBE CUMBELE")

BUIKA: (Singing in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: Some of these tracks are in Yoruba; others are in Spanish. How did you make those decisions? Or was that the decision of Buika, your vocalist?

SANTANA: It was the decision of Buika. And Spanish and Yoruba, they are the same.

SHAPIRO: What do you mean when you say that?

SANTANA: Well, Spain music comes from the Moors where the - because the Moors conquered Spain. And so that's why you have flamenco because flamenco comes from brothers and sisters singing to Allah three or four or five times a day. It's the same frequency.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OYE ESTE MI CANTO")

BUIKA: (Singing in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: Did you think about playing the guitar in a different way that would reflect the rhythms and sounds of the African traditions you were tapping into?

SANTANA: No. You know, I was so busy. We recorded 49 songs in 10 days. So I was more concerned with the tempo, the feel and the groove of each musician in each song. So I just played. And I would - what do you call it? - overdub very minimum in the very end with Buika

SHAPIRO: Can you take me into the head space of creating nearly 50 songs in 10 days. I'm just having a hard time imagining that.

SANTANA: I'll tell you the secret. I ask Tommy Anthony, our rhythm guitar player, listen - before you go to bed, I want you to take those five songs that we're going to record tomorrow and map them out like directions to your house. We start the song, I'll crystallize the tempo, the feel and the groove (ph). So he was what I called GPS.

SHAPIRO: Wow. So were some of these tracks, like, a single take in the studio?

SANTANA: Most of them, other than two.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BATONGA")

BUIKA: (Singing in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: Buika is a vocalist who you've not worked with before. She's from Mallorca, the Spanish island, which has its own roots and connections to Africa. Why were you sure that she was the right vocalist for this particular project?

SANTANA: Her impeccable integrity to being true. For example, when I hear Nina Simone and Etta James and Tina Turner, Buika is that frequency, yet she doesn't sound like them. But she's got the same raw sincerity and honesty.

SHAPIRO: That growl, that...

SANTANA: Trueness (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BATONGA")

BUIKA: (Singing in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: Tell us about the track "Los Invisibles," which is in Yoruba, the language that is spoken in Nigeria.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOS INVISIBLES")

BUIKA: (Singing in foreign language).

SANTANA: Yeah, it's in the language of New Guinea because I think she has ties with this particular DNA in her family. So when I heard it, I needed to make it, like, funky. I asked Benny, the bass player, please play it like the way you play when you were playing with Miles Davis. Like - make that bass snap.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOS INVISIBLES")

BUIKA: (Singing in foreign language).

SANTANA: Everything that we played on this album is pretty much like creating nutrients and ingredients of a divine spell, a divine conjuring and manifesting - divine voodoo.

SHAPIRO: Divine voodoo.

SANTANA: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: What kind of a spell are you trying to cast on the listener? When somebody listens to this album, what do you hope it creates in them?

SANTANA: It's the same thing when people get really, really passionate and they make love and, when they get to that point, they say, oh, my God - same thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOS INVISIBLES")

BUIKA: (Singing in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: Do you feel like this album explores something new within your identity - focusing on Africa, songs that are in Spanish and Yoruba, kind of free of the expectations of radio play.

SANTANA: Yes. Thank you for saying that. A long time ago, I heard someone said that in the Bible, it said that nothing was new under the sun. And I said, whoever wrote that has a crooked and twisted mind. Everything's new to me with purity and innocence every second. It's all in how your heart perceives things to create fresh, new. But you must have a consistent thirst to remain with innocence.

SHAPIRO: Is it hard for you to keep everything new and innocent when you are playing "Oye Como Va" for the 5,000th time?

SANTANA: I learned a long time ago that I have the capacity to every time I play "Oye Como Va" or "Black Magic Woman" - for example, "Black Magic Woman" - the first time we played it was in a parking lot in Fresno.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK MAGIC WOMAN")

GREGG ROLIE: (Singing) Got a black magic woman, got a black magic woman.

SANTANA: And Gregg Rolie said, hey, man, I have this song that I think we should do. So he started playing it, and then I immediately in my mind said, why don't you try a couple of Wes Montgomery here and some Otis Rush here and everything. And so every time I play a "Black Magic Woman," I go to Fresno, the parking lot the first thing that we did it. Thank God my imagination is very, very solid.

SHAPIRO: That's incredible - what a great story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SANTANA SONG, "LUNA HECHICERA")

SHAPIRO: Carlos Santana, thank you so much for talking with us today. This has been a real pleasure.

SANTANA: Thank you for sharing me with the folks. Stay precious, and know that you can create miracles and blessings. Peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF SANTANA SONG, "LUNA HECHICERA")

SHAPIRO: Carlos Santana's new album is called "Africa Speaks."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LUNA HECHICERA")

BUIKA: (Singing in foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.