'You are playing for your life'

Carlos Santana witnessed "that people can get along, with unity and harmony".
Carlos Santana witnessed "that people can get along, with unity and harmony".PHOTO: CARLOS SANTANA/ INSTAGRAM

NEW YORK • Every Woodstock musician, "when asked what performances they liked, immediately cites Santana as an obvious mega-highlight", said Andy Zax, co-producer of Woodstock - Back To The Garden: The Definitive 50th Anni-versary Archive, a 38-CD box set that was recently released.

Santana, a psychedelic jam band from San Francisco that incorporated Latin and African poly-rhythms into blues-rock, were one of the least-known acts then.

They were added to the festival because manager Bill Graham, the most powerful concert promoter in the United States, forced them on to the bill.

When Santana went on at 2pm on Saturday, the crowd was taken aback by leader Carlos Santana's scything, nimble guitar-playing and a rhythm section that included two percussion players, at the time uncommon in rock bands.

Carlos Santana, now 72, tells why Woodstock was a glorious social experiment in this edited excerpt.

We are talking about something that happened 50 years ago. Do you have a strong memory?

Yes, I have a pretty much photographic memory when it comes to music and melodies.

The band had not yet released its first album. How did you get booked at Woodstock?

Our manager, Bill Graham, invited us to his house and said: "There's a concert that's going to change your life. After this, people are going to start looking at you the way they look at The Doors and Jimi Hendrix."

Santana was rushed onto the stage, right?


  • With days to go before the 50th anniversary of Woodstock held in New York from Aug 15 to 18 in 1969, musicians Carlos Santana and The Who's Roger Daltrey go back to the festival of love, music and freedom. Woodstock, an icon of the 1960s hippie counterculture, was held against a backdrop of the Vietnam War and civil rights movement

When we landed, the first person I saw was my friend Jerry Garcia. He looked like one of those yogis in a cave in the Himalayas. He had that beatific, everything-is-all-right-already look. For me, he was assurance, confidence and a sanctuary.

They told us we were going on two bands after The Grateful Dead (Garcia's band).

Garcia goes: "Well man, you better get comfortable because, apparently, we're not going on until one o'clock in the morning."

Everyone now says it was a great set. What reaction did you get?

It was the same as seeing black and brown kids and poor white kids on the hottest day in the summer, and somebody opens up a fire hydrant with cold water. It was just glee.

That was a beautiful thing that I will hold true till the day I leave this planet. I witnessed, with my own eyes and my heart, that people can get along, with unity and harmony.

No fights. Share granola or a blanket or whatever. I got to see that humans (can) co-exist with benevolence. That is why we are still talking about Woodstock.

Who played the best sets at Woodstock? Where does Santana rate?

There were only three bands I recollect putting it all on the line. You are playing like Buddy Rich or Miles Davis - you are playing for your life.

Sly and the Family Stone for me is No 1. Jimi Hendrix is No 2. Everyone else has to fight with us for No 3.

What we brought were basically African rhythms and melody.

After Woodstock, every band all of a sudden started getting congas. Miles had congas. The Rolling Stones had congas. Because they saw that mixing congas with guitars is a win-win situation - especially with women.

I would like to hear a little bit about your big-headed phase.

(Laughs) Sure you do. You buy expensive, flashy cars and you waste a lot of time in front of the mirror changing clothes.

It becomes like what happened to Prince, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. You create this mask - called persona, like Batman and Bruce Wayne - that is draining to maintain.

That is why I made a change to drop that and become a person rather than a personality.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 12, 2019, with the headline ''You are playing for your life''. Subscribe