Like most musicians, Cindy Blackman Santana expected to spend the summer of 2020 on the road. Either playing drums in the band named for her Rock and Roll Hall of Famer husband in a seat she’s occupied for over a decade, or with gigs of her own in support of her new solo record, Give the Drummer Some.
“The bad thing is that we can’t tour and we don’t have anything in sight right now. Nobody does,” she says. “The silver lining that we have found is I can hone in other things during this break. Well, it’s not really a break, it’s a pause!”
That includes learning things like filming and recording both herself and her husband and participating in online events, which she says is really helping her build technical skills. She’s says she's also learned to rely on herself more, and become more in tune with the Earth.
Give the Drummer Some was three years in the making. Its 17 tracks cover a wide berth of genres from funk (“I Need a Drummer,” “Superbad”) to rock (“We Came to Play,” “Evolution Revolution”), soul (“You Don’t Wanna Break My Heart,” “Black Pearl”), rap and hip hop (“Change Is In Your Hands,” “Social Justice”), jazz (“Velocity,” “Miles Away”) and even experimental sounds (“Twilight Mask”). Santana takes vocals on most tracks, and others are instrumentals. The sounds cover pretty much everything except opera.
“I love that! Everything except opera!” Santana laughs. “It wasn’t about showing all the different types of music I could play; I’m not just trying to say ‘Look what I can do.’ It was offering to the world things that I love and that are from my heart. That was the underlining thought and feeling. Music doesn’t have to fit in a certain [genre] box. It can fit in no box.”
She acted as her own producer, but co-produced seven of the songs with Narada Michael Walden, who has worked with Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin and Mariah Carey. Walden is also the “new” drummer for classic rock warhorses Journey.
Santana also has a writing or co-writing credit on 14 of the 17 tracks. Among those not on that list is a cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” But rather than put out another gentle, dreamy, and overly respectful version, this one turns up the rock and the funk and even won the approval of Yoko Ono herself, and is one of many entries which feature Carlos’ guitar work.
The more forceful take was at least partially inspired by Walden’s idea to take an established song in a new direction. The same thing that Santana’s old boss Lenny Kravitz took – and had a huge hit with – for his cover of the Guess Who’s “American Woman.” “I love the simplicity of the melody and the poignancy of the message in ‘Imagine,’” she says. “But I didn’t want to do it the same way I heard everybody else do it. I wanted to make a statement of our own.”
The Santanas have also made “Imagine” part of the first playlist launching the partnership of social aid organizations WhyHunger and SongAid. All proceeds from the song will go directly to the WhyHunger Rapid Response Fund.
Cindy Blackman Santana has been a drummer since childhood, and had an affinity for jazz virtuoso Max Roach in particular and later Tony Williams. She studied at the Berklee College of Music before moving to New York City to begin her career, issuing a debut solo record all the way back in 1987 with Arcane.
Before she joined Santana, she was probably best known to the general rock audience for her 15 years thumping skins in concert (and sometimes in videos) for Lenny Kravitz. After she joined Santana, a musical relationship with the band’s leader grew romantic, and Carlos proposed to Cindy onstage in 2010.
In addition to her husband, high-powered guitar guests on Give the Drummer Some include John McLaughlin, Living Colour’s Vernon Reid, and Kirk Hammett of Metallica. Reid was also a fellow member with Cindy in the supergroup Spectrum Road that also included Cream bassist Jack Bruce and organist John Medeski. She clearly has an affinity for the Living Colour co-founder and guitarist.
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“Vernon is like…he’s like the joyous salt of the earth. He just walks into the studio with a big huge smile and you can’t do anything except feel good in his presence. He’s so positive and has such a great vibe,” Santana says. “His smile lights up the whole room, and then when he picks up that guitar, oh my goodness! He is just light and joy, and brought energy, fire, and originality to all the songs he played on.”
So that begs a question: Was there ever a time when her friend and her husband – both guitar legends – turned to her and asked “Who plays better?”
“No, man!” Santana laughs. “There was no competitive pressure. It was all about love! Vernon even told me that Carlos is the reason he plays guitar. And Carlos said to me ‘I love Vernon Vernon.’ That’s what he calls him! It was only mutual admiration and respect. It was a beautiful thing.”
For more on Cindy Blackman Santana and Give the Drummer Some, visit CindyBlackmanSantana.com