A man of his times, Salvador Santana's sound has a difficult-to-quantify coolness that attracts his Generation Y peers, yet its gentle chug-chug beats aren't likely to alienate older Gen Xers or even their Boomer parents. He talks to PopMatters about his latest album, his self-image as an artist, and the indirect influences his famous father has had on his musical journey.
Consciously or otherwise, Salvador Santana is a man on a mission. His task: to carve out a viable musical identity while sharing the surname of one of the most distinctive and legendary rock guitarists, his dad Carlos Santana. I must confess that I’d never heard of the younger Santana when I signed up to interview him, but my interest was piqued by one critic’s assessment that his grooves resembled a Funkadelic/Meters/ Esquivel mélange. Scanning his info on the frighteningly ubiquitous Wikipedia, I noticed that Carlos was his father, and the deal was sealed (I also suddenly recalled seeing him on “The Tavis Smiley Show” with his father. So much for memory!).
We hooked up on a weekday afternoon outside L.A’s historic El Rey Theater, now a popular live music venue, and the site of the concert that evening where he would open for some jam bands whom I was unfamiliar with. Salvador was clad in acceptably hip attire: fedora hat, threads in dark earth tones, and sunglasses incongruously masking his eyes, despite the fact that sundown was fast approaching. He couldn’t have been more accessible, however, as his tour manager left us alone, and we cadged an outdoor table from an empty Mex-Indian(!) eatery next door.
Of course, I had to inquire about his musical influences and ask if his father made that list. “Yes, but not in the way most people think”, he offered. He claimed that he has taken a page from his dad’s playbook in that he’s tried to absorb as many styles as possible, mentioning, “Hancock, Coltrane, Latin jazz, classical music…in high school – Atmosphere, Tupac, Blink 182”. “Jimi Hendrix, Marley, Dylan” also came up, and it seems that Santana’s modus operandi has been to “take everything I’ve learned and combine it.” After listening to his current CD release Keyboard City, I must say that that approach shows in the final product.
This album (yes, I still use that term) certainly covers a wide-ranging sonic territory, with nods to Beck, Los Amigos Invisibles, Shuggie Otis, and any old-skool funk and hip-hop that comes to mind. On one of the best tracks, “We Got Something”, he wanders through spacey synth parts, a funky rhythm section, and Latin horns, creating a tune somewhat redolent of British retro-dance act Jamiroquai. The sci-fi synthesizer squirts re-appear on “Under The Sun”, which also seems submerged in the ocean, and the aptly-titled “Video Game, Save My Life”, perhaps an unofficial anthem for pre-teen boys from coast to coast? The song “Salaboutmoney” is straight-up rap, and apparently a timely indictment of political and corporate corruption, though it could also be taken as an unwitting satire of gangsta rap and its attendant obsessions with flashy materialism and “gettin’ mine”. “Don’t Do It” also spews tried-and-true hip-hop machismo, but mates this with studiously muddled vocals, and a 1970s-vintage funk chorus. Santana downshifts a bit with “This Day Belongs To You”, which wears a gospel influence on its sleeve.
Keyboard City isn’t Santana’s first disc. It was preceded by the eponymously-named Santana Band and Santana revealed that prior to that, “I started in 2005 with a demo record”. KC, however, is putatively his solo debut, and according to Santana, his most ambitious. I noticed that vocalizing was sparse on the album, however, and asked Santana if he viewed himself primarily as an instrumentalist as opposed to a singer. His response seemed somewhat evasive, announcing that, “I love engaging with the audience” and, “I want to be known as someone doing his own thing”, but he did offer that “sometimes, the music speaks for itself”. Arguably, Keyboard City is as driven by D.J. culture and Internet-era technology as it is by traditional song craft, but Santana clearly drinks heartily from both wells. His sound is decidedly urbane, shiny, and slick, with a difficult-to-quantify coolness that attracts his Generation Y peers. Yet its gentle chug-chug beats aren’t likely to alienate older Gen Xers or even their Boomer parents. In fact, I’d be surprised if certain tunes on K.C. were unwelcome at “Smooth Jazz” KTWV, although I like to envision the album as a fitting soundtrack for newly cosmopolitan, gentrifying downtown Los Angeles, as well as something fans of Verve’s Remixed series would probably salivate over.
Raised in the verdant New Age hub of Marin County, California, Santana, fittingly, is the product of a multi-racial upbringing, his mother Deborah being of Irish-American and African-American extraction, and his father a Latino of Mexican heritage. I laughed when Santana referred to himself as “an Irish Blaxican”, thinking that the term sounded like a hip new band. Sadly, after a union of 30+ years, Santana’s parents recently dissolved their marriage, possibly fueled by a bout of infidelity on the part of Carlos. Whatever the reasons, Santana has chosen to remain impartial, and insists that the pair are on “cordial” terms. When Keyboard City was about to drop, Santana says that “both attended my CD release party.” The Santanas actually divorced in 2006, although it would not be announced in the media until much later (refreshing, I think, in this age of relentless press intrusions).
I hung around for Santana’s show. Never before having stepped inside the El Rey, I noticed that it emits the vibes of a pre-rock café society supper club, swaddled in dark reds with multiple chandeliers dangling above. No seating exists in the center of the room, instead upholstered benches line the walls, allowing any patron a panoramic view of the interior. Eventually, Santana took the stage, still donning the fedora and dark specs. Backed by five musicians, he delivered a dense, bass-heavy sound to a distinctly diverse crowd, the youngsters grooving up front near the stage, while I watched a rubber-limbed fan dance energetically, his tie-dye t-shirt suggesting a familiarity with raves (or at least a desire to be associated with them). Santana served up numerous tracks from K.C., including “Don’t Do It”, “Under The Sun”, “Salaboutmoney”, and “Keep Smiling”, as well as turning the title cut into an entrancing workout. His onstage patter was clearly borrowed from Hip-Hop Land, but it seems that Santana stubbornly refuses to be pigeonholed into a single genre, echoing a multi-culti ideal that seems a common trope for young pop musicians today.
The music biz, in its current incarnation, contracts ominously with each passing year, as downloading, YouTube, electronic gaming, a rough economy, and an increasing indifference towards albums take their toll, with only someone like Sade seeming capable of selling records like it's 1985. It’s impossible to predict whether this classically-trained, Cal Arts-educated young man will find platinum at the end of the rainbow, but I wouldn’t bet against him. While not as inventive –- or humorously annoying –- as his forebear Beck, Salvador Santana -- at his best -- seems to bridge whatever gaps exist between Radiohead, The Chemical Brothers, and Dr. Dre. Surely that’s worth something.