A song for everybody
Before Salvador Santana was even old enough to recognize what his forebears had achieved musically, he seemed disinclined to follow in their footsteps. When Salvador was 5, his father, Carlos Santana, gave him the instrument he had become legendary for playing, the guitar. Despite having a guitar lineage on both sides – his mother’s father was Saunders King, a pioneering R&B musician – the son showed little interest. Several years later, Salvador was introduced to the violin, the instrument of his paternal grandfather, José Santana, who had been a prominent mariachi bandleader in Mexico. Salvador had a similar lack of affection for the fiddle.”I just wasn’t feeling the vibe on either instrument,” said the 24-year-old by phone from Los Angeles.It wasn’t that the younger Santana didn’t have a musical vibe. He had been banging on pots and pans from the time he was a toddler, and he showed some talent on a real drum kit by the age of 4. But he seemed to be waiting for someone to put just the right tool in his hands, and that didn’t happen till he was 7, when his father introduced him to a piano teacher in the family’s San Francisco Bay Area neighborhood.”It just kind of worked,” said Santana, who cites the great jazz pianists, especially Thelonious Monk, as his biggest musical influences. “Everything was in front of me. All my ideas, I was able to get out – rhythmically, sonically – even these little ideas at the time. Other than English, and part Spanish, piano is my primary language.”To date, Santana has appeared on several compilation CDs. His infectious, pop-inflected take on his father’s hit, “Evil Ways,” is the lead track on this year’s “A Song For My Father,” which has second-generation singers (Devon Allman, Ky-Mani Marley, Ivan Neville and more) covering tunes of their famous dads. He has toured both as an opening act for, and as a member of, his father’s long-running band, Santana. Now, the piano-playing son is set to unleash his own voice. His debut album is due for release later this summer or in early fall. His Salvador Santana Band appeared in June at the massive Bonnaroo festival and in July at the High Sierra Music Festival. This week, he makes his local debut, performing Thursday, Aug. 23, in the final show in the Snowmass Village Free Concert Series, on Fanny Hill.
Just be yourselfWhile Santana chose piano because it spoke to him most clearly, he also likes the fact that it gives him his own niche in the musical family. “That makes it more interesting,” he said. Last month, Duane Betts, the son of former Allman Brothers singer-guitarist Dickie Betts, appeared with his father’s band at Aspen’s Belly Up. The younger Betts proved himself a skilled musician, but playing the same instrument, and in the same Southern rock style as his father, opens him up to comparisons. That’s not as much of an issue with Santana who, unlike his father, has a vocalist’s role in his band. “My dad, he can play little things [on piano], but it takes him a long time to figure things out,” said Santana, whose mother, Deborah, gave him pointers on piano, and is also the author of a 2005 memoir, “The Space Between the Stars.” “That’s the way I am on guitar.”Santana, though, hasn’t insisted on too much distance between himself and his dad. The two co-wrote an instrumental tune, “El Farol,” for Carlos’ 1999 album “Supernatural.” The album – which featured such guests as Eric Clapton, Dave Matthews and Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20 – became a massive hit, and Salvador earned a Grammy, sharing the award with his father in the best pop instrumental performance category. Asked what he had learned from his father about music and career, Salvador said that the lessons went beyond choice of instrument and how to play it.”Everything,” he answered. “The main thing from both my folks was just to be myself. My dad always said, when you go out there onstage, who cares what anyone thinks? Just be yourself. That’s what gets you heard. Up to this point, I’ve had nothing but fun onstage. It’s working out.”
The music speaks for itselfStylistically, Salvador shares with his father the Latin element that has always been a signature of Carlos’ music. But there is a difference in how the two approach music styles. Where the elder Santana created a distinctive brand of Latin-edged rock, Salvador takes a broader view. His debut album, which he has been working on since January, is intended to encompass a range of styles, from hip-hop to jazz to rock to reggaeton.”I think there’s a song on there for everybody,” said Santana, who comes across as open and unaffected. “You could pass it around to elderly people, kids, people from all ethnic backgrounds – everyone will hear something familiar. That was the goal, for everybody to find something pleasing.”The album will feature the cover of “Evil Ways” that Salvador recorded for “A Song for My Father.” Apart from that, he is counting on the album to distinguish him from his father.”This record will wipe away a lot of how people will associate with me,” said Santana. “Those people who say, ‘I know your father’s music, so I know you’ – with this record, people will really know me.”Salvador said the biggest thing that separates his music from his father’s is the different eras the two existed in. Carlos was in the thick of ’60s psychedelia and the rise of guitar rock; in Salvador’s version of “Evil Ways,” there is the touch of having lived through the hip-hop era. But Salvador senses a common approach to and feel for music. He says the most interesting compliment he has received was from an old woman who had followed Carlos’ career, and came to see Salvador play.”She said, ‘If your father was growing up at this time, this is the kind of music he’d make,'” said Santana. “That’s kind of like saying, if I grew up in the ’60s, I’d be doing the kind of music my dad did. That’s pretty cool to think about.”
One aspect of his father’s career that Salvador doesn’t necessarily care to duplicate is the pop-star insanity that came with Carlos’ “Supernatural” CD. For most of Salvador’s life, he had known his father as a mid-level star, years removed from the late ’60s, when “Evil Ways” and “Oye Como Va” had made Carlos a guitar god. That changed in 1999, as “Supernatural” sold upwards of 10 million copies.”I didn’t think about it too much, till kids started coming up to me saying, ‘Hey, I heard Lauryn Hill’s going to be on your dad’s record,'” he said. “When the Grammys hit, that’s when it really hit me. That whole era – it was special. At the same time, as wonderful an opportunity as that is, is that what it’s really all about? For me, there’s more to it, more than being in that lifestyle.”Santana took a lesson from that overwhelming whirlwind and applied it to his music. After he had finished recording the song “Summer’s Day,” with DJ Newmark, for his upcoming album, the two agreed that there was simply too much in the song. “We started taking things out, pulling parts out. In the end, less is more,” he said. “For my dad, there was all this stuff, all this publicity. But I’m not looking for that. Sometimes it’s the little, subtle things.”Like finding a title for your debut CD. When asked what he would call the album, Santana groaned, probably thinking about how the title would either link him to his father, or separate him from his father.”Maybe I should call it, ‘The Music Speaks For Itself,'” he concluded.
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com