For the 20th anniversary of his multi-platinum ‘Shaman’ album, Carlos Santana discusses his second pop music triumph and how it reflects the purpose at the center of his work.
by Yasmine Shemesh
This week, Billboard is publishing a series of lists and articles celebrating the music of 20 years ago. Our 2002 Week continues with an interview with legendary guitarist Carlos Santana, as he looks back on his Santana band’s first album of the 21st century — and second set focused on wide-spanning collaborations with classic and contemporary artists — the multi-platinum-certified Shaman.
The cover art for Santana’s Shaman depicts the legendary guitarist as a conductor of the highest vibrations. In the swirling illustration by Rudy Gutierrez, Carlos Santana is encircled by the rich energetic tapestry weaved throughout his music, the faces of his inspirations, the pulsating vitality that radiates from his guitar strings. Draped in gold, blue, and crimson, he is a healer by way of mystical sonic powers. It’s a beautiful representation of the record, as much as it is of Santana himself – and what this particular body of work means in the context of his artistry, career, and purpose.
Shaman was released on October 22, 2002 and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. “The Game of Love,” its soaring lead single featuring Michelle Branch, is one of those pop songs that dances: sparkling melody, sublime fills, a chorus that promises to twirl in your head forever. Like on 1999’s star-studded megahit Supernatural, Santana invited contemporary artists to collaborate with him, here across genres including neo-soul, pop rock, metal, and opera. With that unmistakable guitar singing in symphony with a colorful palette of musical styles and voices, from Branch’s sweet timbre to the dramatic rumble of tenor Plácido Domingo, Shaman is the kind of pop album only Carlos Santana could make.
A pioneer of psychedelic Latin rock, Santana had been experimenting with sonic alchemy since the very beginning. When the band hit Woodstock in the summer of 1969, ending their set on a rousing rendition of “Soul Sacrifice” with its visceral fusion of rock, African polyrhythms, funk, and Latin percussion, the universe shifted. Ben Fong-Torres’ 1972 Rolling Stone profile of Santana emphasized the important “revolutions” the band “caused in pop music” after that performance. From jazz fusion to scoring La Bamba, Santana remained prolific over the years, with an influence reaching far and wide. But 1999 marked a historic turning point in his career with Supernatural, a blockbuster designed, with record executive Clive Davis, to bring Santana’s music to a new generation. Led by singles “Smooth,” a scorching duet with Rob Thomas, and “Maria Maria,” a sensual number featuring Wyclef Jean and The Product G&B, Supernatural won a record-breaking nine Grammy Awards. Shaman — Santana’s 19th studio album — would carry that momentum even further.
While it didn’t surpass the success of Supernatural, Shaman still reveled in the formula. “The Game of Love” – which originally featured Tina Turner, a version ultimately released in 2007 on Ultimate Santana – is written by Gregg Alexander of New Radicals and became one of the best-loved pop songs of the year, reaching No. 5 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and winning a Grammy Award for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals. A vibrant intersection of pop rock and Santana’s singular sound, it was the perfect choice to introduce the album: a musical mosaic brimming with diverse melodies and sing-along lyrics. Shaman felt like Santana’s most robust pop offering yet, not only cementing his relevance to a millennial audience, but also demonstrating the transcendent power of pop music—and of Santana’s cosmic guitar playing, which illuminated the individual richness of each track.
There’s his invigorating solo on “Why Don’t You & I,” a joyful album highlight and another hit single, this one featuring Chad Kroeger of Nickelback. Searing pangs that sound like an aching heart on the ballad “Sideways” with Citizen Cope. Sultry salsa rhythms that groove to Macy Gray’s distinct rasp on “Amoré (Sexo).” Moody, hard-rocking riffs on “America” featuring P.O.D., who performed with Santana at the 2002 Latin Grammys. And then instrumentals like “Foo Foo” and “Victory Is Won” that are vintage Santana: all rhythmic life-force.
Guest starring some of the most popular artists of the early aughts, Shaman fit seamlessly into 2002’s increasingly diversifying musical landscape, a time where genres like R&B, nu metal, pop rock, hip-hop, and dancehall shared space on the radio and charts. The album is a collaborative triumph that worked to expand the horizons of what constitutes pop music in the mainstream—something Santana achieved at the dawn of the ‘70s with “Evil Ways,” “Black Magic Woman,” and “Oye Como Va.”
For Santana, Shaman also importantly reflects the purpose he holds at the very center of his work. “I play to bring to life unity and harmony and bring a higher consciousness,” he tells Billboard, speaking over the telephone from Kauai. “Some people say everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die,” he muses with an audible smile. “We’re in heaven and we’re more alive than ever.”
Billboard spoke with a warm and gracious Carlos Santana about experimenting with genre, composing his sweeping guitar fills on “The Game of Love,” and what Shaman means to him today.
You have always experimented with different sounds, with fusion, throughout your entire career – and Shaman took that to another level. Why do you think genre experimentation is important?
Well, thank you. I think that every artist that I know, that I love and cherish, their goal was always to ignite an awakening, awareness, of people’s own totality. Do you remember when the Berlin Wall came down? It’s one body, from Australia all the way to Honolulu. There’s certain events that we remember – when humanity became one, and there was unity and harmony, with deep awareness of totality.
The reason we did Shaman and, you know, the main song for me in there – I love all of them, [but] – the main one is with Plácido Domingo, called “Novus.” Because we hear his voice, and what he’s talking about is looking into the future – we can see the beginning, children living in peace and harmony. That’s a song that should be played right now in Ukraine, in Russia, because deep down in their heart they both know that we really are one family.
And so, for me, I write music. I created music, since the beginning, to bring a haven for healing. And this is what shamans do. Shamans induce, like Jesus Christ, an alchemy of people awakening and accepting their own two things: their own divinity and their own light.
So, anyway, thank you. I feel really grateful that we were in a position to create this album, Shaman, because I do feel that it gives people a reminder that you’re more than the sum. We’re more than what the books say, whether it’s the Bible, the Koran, or all the holy books. God is too big to be contained in any book and that’s in your hearts as well. Sometimes you get in trouble by speaking the truth, this certain mentality that doesn’t want to accept because [we] are programmed only to believe.
And here’s another thing. Not all beliefs and ideologies are totally correct… The one that’s correct is the one that says “for the highest good.” That’s the flag that I salute, that’s the nation that I follow. For the highest good. Anything else is corrupt corporation. I don’t even call it government or religion anymore, because it’s hard to follow government or religion nowadays, because it’s kind of like a corrupt business.
But to get back to the music, see – the music don’t lie. Like Bob Marley says, music helps you and I remember our totality. Our innocence, our purity. Our divinity. That’s why I play music.
Did making Shaman, and also Supernatural in this same sense, shift your creative process in terms of how you think about your musical phrasing around lyrics, the feel of the song, the artist’s voice?
I remember clearly the moment that I discovered, with clarity, that I could memorize an entire album. All the parts. The bass part, the drum part, the guitar part, the voice part. And that was Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul. And, to this day, I listen to that one and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On a lot. So I learned how to play guitar around Aretha’s voice, or Marvin Gaye, or Dionne Warwick. I learned not to step on their words, to know when to get in there and get out, you know, to honor their space. And I knew I could do the same thing with Supernatural or Shaman. I knew that I had the clarity and confidence to complement, not compete or compare, but complement.
What informed your choices for the guest features?
First of all, it’s grace. I have a T-shirt that says “Grace is my GPS.”
I love that.
I think that people should put that as a bumper sticker outside their car. But because of grace, I’m able to connect with a lot of people – who, by the time I called, they were thinking of me. All of them said to me, “When Clive called me, I knew I was going to do something with you – because everywhere I went, all of a sudden you were on the radio. I get into the cab, all of a sudden Santana comes on. The whole day, two or three times, you appear on the radio, I said, ‘Something’s up with Santana, me and Santana.’” And so by the time Clive Davis called everyone, they were already attuned to co-creating with me.
The law of attraction and manifestation.
You have songs here written by Wyclef Jean, Rob Thomas, and Angélique Kidjo. What was the collaboration process like?
It was very natural, very normal, and my favorite two words lately are seamless ease. Nothing has ever been a job. It’s a gift. Nothing’s been work, it’s been wonderment. I tend to change words so they can have more energy and more vitality. I change work into wonderment, a job into a gift, and we can just go on. I just change words constantly, daily, to give me a different jolt.
I love jolts. I’m 74, but I still remember the jolt that I felt when I first French kissed a beautiful woman. And it tasted like lemon Coke. I was like, Ooh. And especially because she didn’t slap me or anything, I guess she liked it and it was a mutual invitation. And so that’s a jolt on a physical plane. You know, there’s something very significant about a French kiss. And that’s how I want to play. Every note that I play while I am alive, I want them to be heavenly and physically correct.
And delicious! Delightfully delicious.
“The Game of Love” featuring Michelle Branch was the breakout hit, but the song was originally meant to feature Tina Turner. Can you tell me more about that story?
Yes, you know, I was in Ireland and I was very disappointed – I was to the point of tears – because I found out that she couldn’t do it, even though we recorded [the song already]. She couldn’t do it because she couldn’t travel, she made a commitment to not travel anymore. So, of course, we need to promote it, so we need to find somebody else to do it.
I honor both [Branch and Turner], because I’m in a place where I see all the women as one, whether it’s my mom or my sisters and my wife or my daughters. And so I love Tina’s version, of course, and I also love Michelle Branch, we toured with her. And I learned so much.
I would still love to do, in the future, something with Tina. God is Tina Turner. I come from Nina Simone, Tina Turner, and Etta James – those are the ladies that I grew up with. But my main queen is Billie Holiday. And I try to phrase like her a lot, her and Aretha. I listen mostly to women singers and guitar players because I want to think like a female singer or a Miles Davis trumpet. When people go home after a concert, or anything, they go away with the melody. They always think the melody is the bed – the melody is the female, the bed is the rhythm. So, the bed don’t matter. But what matters is getting [into] the bed with the melody.
Speaking of which, the melody, your guitar on “The Game of Love,” is so breezy and fresh. It reminds me of springtime, and I always find myself listening to it during that season. What were you thinking about when composing your guitar fills?
I always think of what’s it like to be in a place like the Grand Canyon and there’s a lot of empty space and you hear—I first heard: [sings] doooo-do-do-do-do-doot-doot-doot-doot-doooot-do-dun, which is kind of like a language, you know? And so when I hear a song, by the grace of God, I always hear the melody first. So I’m very, very grateful that God gave me the gift of melody language. Melody is a universal, interdenominational language.
Shaman also features the return of original Santana drummer Michael Shrieve on “Aye Aye Aye.” What was it like making music together again?
Oh, it’s so much fun. I have such deep admiration for all the musicians on the first three albums, you know, Gregg Rolie, Michael Shrieve, Michael Carabello and [José] Chepeto [Areas], Dave Brown. So to collaborate with Michael Shrieve again, it’s always a wonderment. We did [Santana’s 1972 album] Caravanserai. And it’s a joy to always co-create with Michael Shrieve.
That’s one of my favorite songs on the record. Do you have a favorite or one that’s particularly meaningful for you?
Depends on the day, but most days and nights it’s “Novus,” No. 1, because it’s so high above everything else. I love Seal [“You Are My Kind”] and I love Macy Gray [“Amoré (Sexo)”]. I love everything. But there’s something about “Novus,” the way Plácido Domingo and myself interact with one another. It’s just galactic, you know?
I wanted to ask you about that one as well, because the string arrangements compliment—as you were saying earlier—your guitar, his voice, all of it, compliment each other beautifully. It’s so powerful.
Yes, thank you. It started with a line that I took from my friend Gábor Szabó. And the line goes: [sings] do-dah-di-da-doo-do-dah-dah-do. And he only played it twice on the one song, but to me that was the whole song… I wrote the lyrics and we took it to [Plácido Domingo] and, by the grace of God, he said yes. I can tell you a whole day’s bunch of stories just around the making of “Novus.” But, again, when I hear his voice singing after my guitar solo—[sings] looking into the future, we can see the beginning, children living in peace and harmony, that is the way it will be—that’s the song that we need to play for the Ukrainian people and Russian people, who are both our brothers.
Absolutely. Oh, it’s just heartbreaking. Heartbreaking and horrifying what’s happening.
Yes. The alchemy of Shaman is to bring unity and harmony in people’s acceptance, again, of their own divinity and their own light… You are light, spirit, and soul. And then anything else that you want to be. Any kind of positionally, nationality, or patriotism, that’s never been important to me. Never. What’s important to me is light, spirit, and soul, because all of those three things are immutable.
Shaman really helped further introduce your music to a younger generation. I was 15 when this album came out and it was so exciting to me because it brought together so many of the artists I loved – ones that I was listening to at the time – and also, with yourself, an artist whose music I had grown up with. Was that important to you?
I would recommend to any artist, the young ones today, don’t be afraid to co-create with anyone and everyone. Especially if they’re bringing their heart to you. The only two people who have ever said no [to collaborating with me] – I won’t say their names because I don’t want to hurt their feelings. But I’m glad that they [said] no, because they said, “Well, you know, I’m afraid—“ I said, “You don’t need to say anything else anymore. If you’re afraid, don’t come into the room, don’t infect the room with your fear. Bring your joy and keep your fear to yourself, and I’m glad you said no, because I don’t want to be in the studio [putting that energy into] something that is not going to work.” And so those two people, you know, I love them, but I’m glad they said no, because they were true to what they thought.
Some people say, “What will my audience, fans think if I align with Santana?” And I’m like, “I don’t care, obviously you do.” I don’t care what my fans think about [if] I want to record with Tina Turner or, you know, Miles Davis, like, I don’t wake up to please my fans – I wake up to please God. And my fans come along when they hear it. But if you wake up to please people, then you’re doing the wrong thing. And that’s not going to create a successful result.
What stands out to you when listening to Shaman now, 20 years later? And how do you hope the songs still make the listener feel?
I hope that people walk away knowing that Supernatural and Shaman and Blessings and Miracles and Abraxas—everything that I’ve done — has the capacity to replace the United Nations. A lot of those people in the United Nations, they don’t necessarily have the best intentions for their own country. A lot of them hire the most expensive prostitutes, they live in lavish penthouses, and stuff like that. I feel like it needs to be dismantled – not the building, but the people, because they don’t have the correct frequency of “for the highest good.” There it is. Here it all is. If it’s not for the highest good, you’re doing a disservice, not a service.
The only truth is for the highest good, and that’s why Supernatural and Shaman and Blessings and Miracles and Abraxas, it hangs beyond time. There’s few records, they’re going to transcend time and space. And that’s Coltrane, Billie Holiday and Miles Davis and Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan and the Beatles. There’s [artists who make] certain music that transcends generations, fads in fashion. And I’m very grateful to say that I believe I’m one of them.