Keeping the beat of Santana’s heart

Cindy Blackman has drummed her way into Carlos Santana’s band – and his life.

Cindy Blackman and Carlos Santana (photo credit: ERIK KABIK)
Cindy Blackman and Carlos Santana
(photo credit: ERIK KABIK)
Hotshot drummer Cindy Blackman tries not to bring her work home with her, but it can be a challenge when her spouse is also her boss.
Luckily her husband of six years, Carlos Santana, doesn’t have many complaints – about her drumming or any other aspect of their life together.
“I treat every gig as if I wasn’t playing with my husband.
That’s my personal way of looking at it,” said the 56-year-old Blackman earlier this month from the California home she shares with the 68-year-old rock guitar legend. The next day they, along with their Supernatural band were setting out for London to begin a month of European shows culminating in a concert at Park Hayarkon on July 30.
“From what I can tell, Carlos does the same thing.
And it’s not something that we’ve talked about, it just happens. He respects the band and I respect the band, he respects his performance and I respect my performance.”
For Blackman, raised in a musical Ohio family that immersed her in both the classics and the jazz of Miles Davis, performing has been a life force since she first encountered the drums at age 7. The same could be said of Santana, who learned the violin at age 5 and guitar at age 8 from his father, a mariachi musician in their native Mexico.
Santana, the band he formed in his adopted home of San Francisco in the late 1960s, exploded onto the rock scene thanks to an incendiary Latin-tinged performance at the Woodstock Festival in 1969 that showcased its leader as a master guitarist. In the ensuing decades, he’s become a living legend, with a lengthy resume of albums, awards and musical peaks.
Amid a revolving door of musicians and a diversification of musical styles, Santana’s guitar has remained at the center of the band’s sound. But he’s opened the door to invite a wide range of gifted musicians of the Berklee School of Music-trained Blackman’s caliber to join him on tours and in the studio.
Following closer to the blueprint of fellow musical couple Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa, who were bandmates before they were life partners, rather than Paul and Linda McCartney who were a couple before joining together musically, Blackman and Santana came together through their love of music and shared devotion to matters of spirituality.
Santana’s 34-year marriage to his first wife, Deborah, ended in divorce in 2007, a little before Blackman began to sit in on some of his performances.
“We hit it off musically quite well, and it was only after that when we kind of hit it off personally,” said Blackman, whose illustrious career as an in-demand drummer has included performing with jazz legends like Pharoah Sanders, Ron Carter and Cassandra Wilson, as well as a long stint with rocker Lenny Kravitz.
“When we started getting involved, we both thought ‘we shouldn’t really mix the business and personal together’ – and it wasn’t only coming from him or me, but also from people around us.”
Blackman was appearing onstage as a guest for one or two songs, in addition to the band’s regular drummer.
But at some point, Santana told her, ‘you should be the drummer,’ Blackman recalled, and she was soon behind the kit full time for the band’s ongoing tours.
The Santana-Blackman connection reached a new level in 2010, when Santana proposed to her onstage before a roaring Illinois crowd just after she had finished a drum solo during the band’s rendition of “Corazon Espinado.” They were married in Hawaii later that year.
“I love who Cindy is – cause we both love the same things,” Santana told Guitar World magazine in 2012.
“We love Miles and [John] Coltrane and Tony Williams...
It’s all about relationships... you and your instrument, you and your band, you and your mate. If your relationships are assigned and designed to make spiritual progress, it’s fun!” FINDING HER place in the band at the same time as setting up a home with her husband has not proven to be difficult, Blackman said.
“You get to know the band leader you’re working with, the style and temperament – there’s the Carlos at home and there’s the Carlos on stage, and they have some of the same traits,” said Blackman.
“Just from being familiar with the band and the repertoire, I knew a lot of it by ear, but I still needed to find my own way,” she said. “It started to come together, and today we’re a unit with its own sound and its own vibe.”
Santana encourages the band members to branch out in shows, but only because they are so well-rehearsed and follow his musical cues wherever he goes. But the overriding rule Santana abides by is catching the groove.
“There’s this concept he has, that everything has to feel good onstage, all the time!” said Blackman.
“Carlos is more interested in making sure the music feels good than getting everything perfect. He tells us ‘if you guys miss a break or change in the music, I’m not mad if the music feels incredible. I’d rather have that than have everyone play their parts and music feels stiff.’” “So he’s pretty loose as a band leader, and allows a certain amount of creativity from the players. He likes contributions, new things to happen in the music.”
Unlike most of his still-performing contemporaries, who are riding on their 1960-70s coattails, Santana enjoyed a mid-career resurgence, thanks mainly to his 1999 album Supernatural and the huge hit it spawned – “Smooth,” sung by Matchbox 20’s Rob Thomas. The Santana phenomenon spread to a new generation, and soon he was collaborating with other young, hip names like Wyclef Jean who name-dropped the guitarist throughout their smash hit “Maria Maria.”
That success has enabled Santana to regularly tour stadiums and arenas around the world, not so much as an oldies act but as a contemporary legend. In April, he released Santana IV, an album that reunited the band’s early 1970s lineup, including members Gregg Rolie, Neal Schon, Michael Carabello and Michael Shrieve.
“We all did a show together recently in Madison Square Garden,” said Blackman. “The original Santana band played for about three quarters of the show and the new band – the Supernatural band as Carlos calls it – finished the show. It was great.”
“We’re doing another show in California at the end of August with Journey [Rolie and Schon’s band], so I think they’ll probably join us onstage at some point.”
With Santana and Blackman on tour for much of the year and in the studio much of the rest of the time (he’s produced a record for Ron Isely and is helping Blackman record her own album), the couple’s leisure time is cherished.
“We both like to read a lot about many different subjects. We’re both really interested in spirituality, things that are happening to people around the world, the living conditions and health of the world population, and we like to send energy to those places,” said Blackman, who has practiced the Baha’i faith and has studied Kabbala. “We have a couple private spots we travel to where we can be free and untethered from the things we do and things we are responsible for.”
But even when they are offstage, relaxing in their California home, music is never far away.
“I love to play my drums, and Carlos loves to play his guitar. Every chance I get, I’m going into our practice room.” She’s not only keeping her boss happy, she’s doing it for herself.