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Santana on Woodstock at 50: 'Kumbaya will kick your ass'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Hari Sreenivasan: Next week marks the 50th anniversary of one the iconic cultural events of America's last half century: the "Three Days of Peace and Music" that came to be known as Woodstock.

One artist who came to prominence at the festival went on to become a multi-platinum sensation with a string of hits, including one of the best selling albums of all time: Supernatural.

We're talking about musician Carlos Santana. In the conclusion of our two-part series on the guitar legend, PBS NewsHour Weekend's Tom Casciato speaks with Santana not only about history's most famous music festival, but also the road that took him there.

Tom Casciato: In this year of commemorations for 72-year old Carlos Santana, it's instructive to know that the path he set out on as a boy in Mexico didn't begin with the guitar.

Tom Casciato: Carlos it's been 20 years since Supernatural, it's been 50 years since Woodstock, and if I'm calculating correctly about 63 years or so since your first violin lessons.

Carlos Santana: Well Tom what happened was that my father's a musician, when I saw how people, specifically, women looked at my dad when he play the violin and when he sang. I looked at them and I looked at him and I was like, "Whoa." My dad would draft me once in a while, he says you know so and so is not as good, put on his mariachi suit, but I couldn't get a sound on the violin. I didn't like the way I sounded. I didn't like the way the violin smelled, and I didn't like the way it felt. But I try to please my dad as much as I could. And I won a 2, 3 contest in the fairs playing "Fascination," Doo doo doo doo doo. So they gave me the trophy.

Tom Casciato: That's not not bad for a guy who didn't like the smell of the violin.

Carlos Santana: Exactly but I had to do it to please my dad, but eventually he saw that you know I was crying a lot. And so I told him I don't want to play the violin. I want to play the guitar.

Tom Casciato: You could say right then that the world of popular music would never be the same, but that was a few years away yet. For a time Santana did whatever he could to help his father support his mom and siblings.

Carlos Santana: Whether it was washing dishes or playing the violin because we have a big family and that's what took a little longer for me to become a full musician. I was a weekend musician. They wash dishes or do something. When you're a full time musician you sound differently and you walk differently, and for me music is an invitation to visit your spirituality and visit your romance without guilt.

Tom Casciato: But when did you figure that out.

Carlos Santana: In Tijuana, watching the strippers strip.

Tom Casciato: In the 1950s Santana cut his teeth as a guitar player among the patrons and prostitutes in the strip joints on Tijuana's Avenida Revolution.

Carlos Santana You know I started noticing that you play (singing) Dad Dad Dad Dada down you know like honky tonk doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo and the woman started walking just like (singing) Dada Dada and then I was like oh!

Tom Casciato: And this is when you were a teenager.

Carlos Santana: I was barely a teenager. Yeah just become a teenager.

Tom Casciato: Eventually the young guitarist and his family migrated to San Francisco, where Carlos began to pattern himself after what he calls the magnificent American blues guitar masters. He says his influences included T. Bone Walker, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Chicago legend Otis Rush.

Carlos Santana: Otis Rush is just a pure voice of trueness. There's not one note on any record I ever heard where Otis Rush it has any distance from his heart.

Carlos Santana: The first time I saw Mr. Otis Rush it gave me the confidence right there. It's time to leave your home, it's time to leave mom and dad and really become what you were born to do.

Tom Casciato: By the time he was 22, Santana had recorded his first album with the group that bore his name. It would be released in August 1969, just around the time the band played Woodstock.

Tom Casciato: A lot of people don't remember that Santana was not an established band when you played Woodstock.

Carlos Santana: No not at all.

Tom Casciato: The group's lack of stature would play a huge role in Carlos Santana's performance that day. It started when he was approached in the morning by a guitar-playing friend from San Francisco.

Carlos Santana: Jerry Garcia he says what time you go on, I said well I think I heard that we're going two or three bands after you. He goes well man, you make, make yourself comfortable. Apparently we're not going till like twelve or twelve at night or something you know.

Tom Casciato: So you didn't think you were going to play for all day, you had a whole day to kill.

Carlos Santana: Especially because nobody knows us so we're gonna be at the mercy wherever they put us.

Tom Casciato: Garcia, he says, offered him some hallucinogens to help kill the time. But no sooner had the drugs kicked in than a call came from the stage.

Carlos Santana: They said you got to go on now. If you don't play now you're not going to play at all, so I trust that God is present and he's going to give me what I request. Please keep me in time, please keep me in tune. I'll never do this again. I promise.

Tom Casciato: And what happened.

Carlos Santana: It was, it was kind of like a wrestling match.

Tom Casciato: Were you hallucinating while you played?

Carlos Santana: Totally

Tom Casciato: Santana says his guitar "turned into an electric snake, twisting and turning" as he played, while the music took a path of its own.

Carlos Santana: I mean look you hear the sound. It's over here and then it comes down through here, through your fingers in the pickup of the guitar through a wire that goes to this P.A. out there and it goes like that to the people. Like an ocean of people. And then it comes back.

Tom Casciato: Woodstock helped change everything for Carlos Santana. Soon came a string of hits that reads like a Rock n Roll Hall of Fame playlist, "Black Magic Woman," "Evil Ways," "Oye Como Va," "No One to Depend On," but then influenced by listening to jazz artists including his friend Miles Davis, Carlos wanted to go in a different direction. With the band's 4th album, Caravanserai, he began exploring music with a decidedly spiritual bent.

Tom Casciato: And that was extraordinarily sophisticated music but not nearly as commercially viable music as "Evil Ways" or "Black Magic Woman."

Carlos Santana Exactly, same thing happened to the Beatles when they saw Bob Dylan. You know instead of like "She loves you yeah" you know go from that to like you know "Sgt. Peppers" or Revolver or Michelle. What Bob Dylan did to the Beatles Miles Davis and Weather Report, Coltrane did to us. You know it made us like grow up.

Tom Casciato: But were people in the music business telling you Carlos you're not going to have the hits man, you're not going to be on the radio.

Carlos Santana: Everybody. Clive Davis. Bill Graham, my mom, everybody.

Tom Casciato: Even your mom.

Carlos Santana: Even my mom says mijo, you know this, why you going this way? Musically why does it have to be so extreme and I said mom, "even I don't know all I know that I have to follow my heart."

Tom Casciato: In the ensuing decades Carlos Santana followed his heart all the way from mere star to legend in his adopted country.

Tom Casciato: You got the Kennedy Center Honors, and you were introduced by Harry Belafonte.

Harry Belafonte: Well I tell you folks, there's no two ways about it. We've got to do something about Mexican immigration. [laughter] Every day you have people like Carlos Santana coming into this country and taking the jobs that should be going.

Carlos Santana: You know life is so delicious for this Mexican over here man.

Carlos Santana: That's one of the things that I always treasure you know in my compartment of accomplishments

Tom Casciato: Those accomplishments are legion, but what impresses most on this occasion is the optimism he's maintained, an optimism born over 3 days half a century ago.

Tom Casciato: So many people are cynical I think 50 years after Woodstock, about Woodstock, about the Woodstock Nation, about peace and love, you don't seem to have a shred of that about you, when you look at this what do you see?

Carlos Santana: Woodstock signifies that we can coexist with unity and harmony with grace and elegance and yeah, being funky too.

Carlos Santana: If people want to say oh they're freaking hippies man they get on my nerves. Well you know what, we were so glad that you were not at Woodstock, because at Woodstock whatever we had whether it was, it was just granola, we shared it. And if you feel that hippies are like Kumbaya, bunch of, or whatever. It's OK you keep yourself with that frequency. Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King or you know all the guys who people call Kumbaya people you know they're my heroes. Kumbaya.

Tom Casciato: Because people say that critically or they say it cynically Kumbaya people.

Carlos Santana: Yeah. And I'm aware of that you know. But I always tell them Kumbaya will always kick your ass from here to eternity and back. Because Kumbaya is here to stay.

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