Carlos Santana: Ready to reincarnate

Carlos Santana loves his legendary rock star's life. But he's looking forward even more to the next one, hears James McNair
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"Methatron ignited in me the concept of being patient, gracious and grateful," Santana muses, fingering a gold and silver pendant which, he says, is a representation of the angel. "He made me feel like a phoenix rising out of the ashes, and he still visits me in dreams. Some people don't believe in him, but that's okay. Like I said to Rolling Stone, I'd rather live with my craziness than your sane reality. In my craziness, I get to hang out with some seriously cool people."

Today, in a high-security hotel in Mexico City, Santana is hanging out with me. I am here to quiz him about All That I Am, a new album that trades on a well-established formula. Like the two records before it, All That I Am sees Santana join forces with a cherry-picked cast of pop and rock singers, then spice the dish with a few Latin-flavoured instrumentals. Singers this time include Joss Stone, Los Lonely Boys, Mary J Blige and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler. As ever, Santana is wise to crossover appeal.

The day after we meet, the guitarist will play a free concert for 100,000-plus people in the Zócalo, Mexico City's main square. Right now, he's being photographed in front of a candle-lit screen-print of himself. His favoured pose is a kind of praying gesture, and he's wearing a John Coltrane T-shirt in psychedelic greens and purples. When he smiles, a gold tooth sets off his still dark moustache.

Likeable as he is, Santana namedrops friends and acquaintances shamelessly. Bono, Prince, Herbie Hancock and Bishop Desmond Tutu are mentioned; Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton and Tina Turner are on his roll call, too, but you learn nothing about them from him.

Where "brother Bob" (Dylan) is concerned, he proffers one titbit: "He grabbed my hands, looked into my eyes and said, 'You are about the only one left that carries the principles and ideals of the 1960s.' And when Bob Dylan says that to you, it feels like Johnny Lee Hooker has just given you a kiss." Clang! Do you see what he did there?

In truth, All That I Am has had a difficult transit, its release date in flux for most of this year. Santana, never knowingly without a flowery simile, says creating its songs was "just like creating fingers and eyes and a brain," adding: "You don't tell the baby when to be born - it comes in its own time." When pressed, he concedes that getting clearance from the lawyers, managers and accountants of the various artists involved ate up a few months, too.

There was also the delicate matter of finding the right singer for the right song. When promo samplers of the new album first appeared back in April, the AOR single "Just Feel Better" had Puddle of Mudd's Wes Scantlin on lead vocals. On the finished album, however, it's Steven Tyler in the driving seat. So what gives?

"Both singers were incredible, but Steven took it to a supernatural level," says Santana, overstating the matter somewhat. "A person of his age usually loses some of his top range, but Steven hasn't at all. I did send a letter of apology and some flowers to Wes Scantlin, and I told him I'd make myself available in whatever capacity he might need me. It's not a cold-hearted thing, I always make my appreciation known."

What, though, of the new album's approach? There are some decent tunes on there, but isn't the virtuoso solos alongside guest singers formula wearing a little thin? Wouldn't Carlos like to break with tradition and play, like, some chords?

He laughs. "No. To me, chords are very boring. I leave that to keyboard players. You know when someone sticks their tongue in your ear and it gives you a chill? Well, that's the feeling I want to give you and I do that best with lead guitar. If you're Stravinsky or Duke Ellington, I want to hear your chords - otherwise forget it."

Carlos Santana was born in the village of Autlan de Navarro in the Mexican state of Jalisco in 1947. His father, José, was a violinist adept at mariachi music. Carlos learned violin, but didn't begin to blossom as a musician until he switched to guitar aged eight. When the 12-strong Santana family moved to the border town of Tijuana in 1955, Carlos, still only 12, began playing in the local nightclubs.

"While people in junior high school were getting interested in cars and sports and dumb shit, I was attentive to how Ray Charles and John Coltrane could play from the soul," he says. "The clubs made me grow up quickly, and I noticed the women stripping, for sure, but back then even a woman's charms didn't grab me like Coltrane."

When his family relocated again, this time to San Francisco, Santana learnt English at the local Mission High School and became involved in a diverse music scene that incorporated jazz, blues, folk and classical salsa by the likes of Tito Puente. Later, mentored by The Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia, he quit his dishwashing job at a local restaurant and formed Santana, a group whose sound reflected the cultural melting-pot he had found himself immersed in.

It could never happen today, but when the group played to half a million people at Woodstock in 1969, they had yet to sign a recording contract. Their rapturous reception there led to an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, and that in turn, precipitated a deal with Columbia Records. The group's eponymous debut sold four million copies, stayed on the Billboard chart for two years and spawned the hits "Evil Ways" and "Jingo." It was 1970's Abraxas, however, that included "Samba Pa Ti", the wonderfully slothful instrumental that would become the soundtrack to a zillion Latino-rolled joints.

Santana enjoyed the stimulants and permissive perks of the era, but the untimely deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison brought an epiphany, and he became a devotee of the spiritual guru Shri Chinmoy, even going so far as to change his name to Devadip - it means "the light of the lamp of the Supreme" - in 1973.

Talking to Santana today, something of Devadip remains. There are times, too, when he seems more Carlos Castaneda than Carlos Santana. "When you start to feel other people's pain, then you are on the road to the divine," he tells me at one point, his soulful brown eyes twinkling. "Be ready to reincarnate. God is not so cruel as to only give us one life."

As well as Methatron, there is another, more tangible angel in Santana's life: his wife of the past 32 years, Deborah. The daughter of the rhythm-and-blues guitarist Sanders King - who played with Billie Holiday and Charles Mingus, among others - Deborah, like Carlos, reads a fair number of mind, body and spirit books. She and her husband tick several "common interest" boxes, especially as Deborah now handles his business accounts.

In March this year, Deborah Santana published her memoir, Space Between the Stars: My Journey to an Open Heart. The section on how her former boyfriend Sly Stone introduced her to LSD is one thing, but to what extent is the book also the story of Carlos Santana? "Less than 50 per cent," he says. "I'm in there, of course, but I am happy to say that I don't come out smelling like Ike Turner [shamed for beating up his wife Tina]. I did learn a lot of humility from Deborah about my past infidelities, though. Some people say you never miss your wife until the well runs dry, but fortunately I did learn to appreciate the importance of being true to her.

"Deborah's compassion and patience for me are immense," Santana goes on. "I can say without any squirming that she made me what I am today. I know I didn't like myself before I met her - and a lot of other people didn't like me, either. I was an intense contradiction. I'd want peace, but I'd want to kick your ass, too. Deborah taught me to be gracious."

One could be cynical about Santana's quest for personal enlightenment, but it does seem to be working for him. Amateur psychology, perhaps, but the fits of anger that once led his wife to give him a "get help or get out" ultimatum may well have been rooted in the sexual abuse the guitarist suffered as a child.

"The moment of truth for men who have been molested is to go see a psychiatrist or an analyst and shed your skin," Santana told The Los Angeles Times in 2002, broaching a subject he has rarely talked about. I'd like to ask him more, but with his Mexican PR sitting in on our interview, it seems inappropriate.

Santana says that, in seven years' time, he may retire from recording music. He hasn't had a year off since 1967 and wants to spend more time with Deborah and their three children, Salvador, Stella and Angelica. He also wants to put his back into the Milagro Foundation, the children's health, arts and education charity he founded with his wife in 1998. (To date, the foundation has donated more than $2.5m to worthy causes.)

One last question: does the man Bob Dylan sees as the living embodiment of Sixties optimism think that the world is getting better or worse? "I'm not sure," he says, "but I know we have to pay attention to the tsunamis and earthquakes and Hurricane Katrina. Nature reacts to us, just as we react to nature. If you smoke a cigar, even a nice Cuban one, near a baby, she's going to cough. And that's what Mother Nature does, too. Except that when she coughs, we get natural disasters. The problem is that our governments are wired for profit, not human evolution. So if that doesn't change, yes, the world might well get worse."

With that, in rather startling contrast to normal rock-interview-closing etiquette, Carlos Santana steps forward to embrace me in a bear hug that lasts for several seconds. "Thank you from the bottom of my heart, man," he says.

'All That I Am', reviewed on page 19, is out on Sony/BMG on Monday