Carlos Santana Searches for the "Universal Tone" in Life and Music

The Universal Tone: Bringing My Story to Light By Carlos Santana with Ashley Kahn and Hal Miller 544 pp. Little, Brown $30

Legendary guitarist and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Carlos Santana vividly remembers when he realized a particular power of the instrument in his hands.

It was when he was a teenager playing backup music to the main attractions in a strip club and one patron's girlfriend - overpowered by the tones - began taking off her own clothes in the audience.

"That's when I realized," he writes in this memoir, "that a guitar could talk to a woman."

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From the profane to the sacred, he also believes in the power of music - and in particular the "Universal Tone" of the title - to mystically bring people together and show them a higher level and power.

"I used my guitar to invite people to recognize the divinity and light that is in their DNA," he continues. The Universal Tone being the "music inside the music" and "one note to communicate with all hearts," bringing a slice of heaven to the mortal flesh.

Anyone who has seen an interview with Santana knows he's a deep guy, his beliefs a mishmash of religions and paths in which Jesus, Sri Chimnoy, and John Coltrane are equal guides.

But while a good chunk of this memoir is about Santana's personal spiritual journey, and another chunk given over to his thoughts on and encounters with musical mentors (you will read more about Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Otis Rush, B.B. King, and Buddy Guy than most players in his own group), The Universal Tone is ultimately about the music of Santana.

The book's first part is about his fascinating journey between Mexico and San Francisco as a boy and then teenage musician, both encouraged and defeated by his own itinerant musician dad and an overbearing, emotionally distant mother whom he would have lifelong challenges with.

He also writes (briefly) about his molestation at the age of 11 by a American who had ingratiated himself into the Santana family and who, shockingly, got permission from his parents to take the boy into the U.S. to "show him" California.

Rock, soul, blues, jazz, traditional Latin American music - Santana soaked it all up and when he helped form the band that would bear his name, regurgitate it into one rainbow coalition of sound.

Signature songs like "Evil Ways," "Oye Como Va," "No One to Depend On," "Jingo," and an unlikely cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Black Magic Woman" would become classic rock warhorses.

"Mutt music" is what he calls the band's fusion of styles, one he's pursued for decades in constantly shifting lineups of Santana during which its namesake has been the only constant member. Though initially, he was not the band's leader - his last name just sounded the coolest  

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And the band's career-making Woodstock performance of "Soul Sacrifice" - with Carlos flying high on mescaline provided backstage by the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia - would become one of the highlights of the festival and subsequent film.

Santana's own recollection is that his drug-induced vision turned his guitar into a "snake in his hands" that he had to control. And the incident is so well known, President Barack Obama even made light of it while introducing the guitarist during a recent Kennedy Centers Honor bestowment.

Santana's popular and critical reputation went up and down since their late '60s/early '70s heyday. And there was a unlikely, but huge comeback with 1999's Supernatural, which paired the band with younger artists like Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20 ("Smooth"), Wyclef Jean ("Maria, Maria"), Dave Matthews, Everlast, and Lauryn Hill.

It would prove to be a massive success, spawning hit singles, going15X platinum, and winning eight Grammys that year. Santana gives credit to record company exec Clive Davis for initiating the project.

He also writes warmly throughout of promoter/venue owner the late Bill Graham's contributions to his career stemming back to when they billed themselves as the Santana Blues Band.

Now aged 67, Santana says he's at the happiest he's ever been in his life, much of it thanks to his second wife, former Lenny Kravitz drummer Cindy Blackman (his first spouse and mother of his three children, Deborah, left him after almost 35 years of marriage).

He's also got a busy touring schedule (including a recent stop in Houston), and several recording projects, including an album that would reunite him with original and earlier members of the band including Michael Shrieve, Michael Carabello, Gregg Rolie, and Neal Schon.

The latter two of who left Santana to form a little group called...Journey.

The book could have benefitted from some judicious editing (how many exhortations of the power of Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, and John Coltrane does one book need?) and self-criticism. And some of the more Seeking the Inner Light sections will cause rock fans to glaze over.

But The Universal Tone brings together meditation, man, and music into one package. Not that its author ever saw them as anything but combined it the first place.


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