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Music Smooth moves: How Carlos Santana tries to stay timeless, five decades and endless memes later

Maryanne Bilham/Handout

There may not be a better time to be Carlos Santana than right now.

It is possible, perhaps, that 1969 was a better time to be Santana, when he set the original Woodstock ablaze. Maybe, I suppose, it could have been a year later, when his cover of Black Magic Woman on the album Abraxas helped make him a household name – or would 2007 be more fair, when the song was embraced by impressionable millennials on the bestselling video game Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock?

A strong contender would be 1999, when he challenged the music industry’s cash-flush popstar era with Supernatural, the comeback-crossover masterpiece that birthed Smooth, itself one of the most perfect songs to ever be recorded. But we’re not talking about hyperboles. We’re talking about Santana: the endlessly happy Mexican-American guitarist who somehow, five decades into his career, is still actively making art as his previous work keeps winding its way into the present moment.

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So maybe there hasn’t been one moment when it’s been great to be Santana. Maybe it’s always great to be Santana. And maybe Santana is just happy to be making music, no matter when it is. He certainly prefers to think in those terms. “I keep going back to feeling like a little bird with a French fry,” the 71-year-old said by phone from San Francisco this week. “When you see a little bird with a French fry, you see pure joy.”

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Santana and his eponymous band will release a new studio album, Africa Speaks, on June 7. Produced by studio polymath Rick Rubin with vocals from Spanish singer Buika, Africa Speaks is Santana’s hopeful homage, he says, to the lineage of genres such as mambo, rumba and cumbia that themselves have underpinned the broad field of Latin music he moves in. As it happens, it’s also the 50th anniversary of the summer of Woodstock and the 20th of the summer of Supernatural. Is that a coincidence? Or is Santana playing into nostalgia?

“Angels and archangels have conspired to give me the green light to always be at the right place, with Tito Puente and B.B. King and John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis,” he says. “I'm not throwing out names. I'm just saying, these are the people who called me at my house and gave me comfort and encouragement. That's why I don't deal with nostalgia, because it still feels like I'm 7 or 17 years old, and everybody comes to offer me some kind of validation.”

He feels the same ambivalence about legacy. Duelling Woodstock anniversary festivals have been announced for this summer, one of which is under threat of cancellation; rather than worry about its legacy being in shambles, Santana seems to care more about the idea of Woodstock – not as a moment in time, but something timeless. “Instead of shootings everywhere,” he says, he’d love to see a music festival in every park in every town on every weekend. “It shows the cynical arrogant people that humans are capable to coexist with peace and harmony and unity.”

Nowhere does arrogance and peace clash more today than on the internet. Nostalgia thrives there, too. And it is there that Santana’s cultural currency has been minted in ways that he could never have expected – and in some ways he may still not comprehend.

Thanks to streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, the internet has heralded a great blending of genres. Regional hits go global in unprecedented ways – the best example of which being Latin music’s deepening infusion with American pop.

But before Bad Bunny and J Balvin shot reggaeton up the charts, before Justin Bieber hopped on a remix of Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s Despacito, Santana dropped 1999’s Supernatural, a whole album of pop crossover hits, that took home two armloads of Grammy Awards. And so it made sense when in 2017, the year of Despacito, DJ Khaled’s own collab-heavy track Wild Thoughts sampled the Supernatural track Maria Maria.

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Santana would rather credit others, such as Jose Feliciano, for helping the music of Spanish diasporas cross into pop. But he acknowledges others’ credit to him. What he might understand less is how his music – specifically Smooth, his collaboration with Rob Thomas and songwriter Itaal Shur – has become a timeless piece of internet culture.

Smooth has, in essence, become a meme – a rare one with universal appeal, with a punchline as innocuous as its continued popularity as one of the most-heard songs of all time, thanks to streaming. A “Rob Thomas Weather” Twitter account spent 2012 serving up “Man, it’s a ___ one” forecasts. Satire website The Onion heated it up with the headline “Santana And Rob Thomas’s Smooth Sweeps Grammy Awards For 13th Year In A Row.” In the ensuing years, shirts and mugs began popping up bearing the tagline “I’d rather be listening to Grammy Award-winning 1999 hit Smooth by Santana feat. Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty,” occasionally going viral.

How does he feel about the memes? It turns out he’s free from the punishment of being eternally online. “This is the first time I’ve heard about it, but it sounds really good,” he says.

Perhaps this is the key to Santana’s longevity. His legacy is digitally trapped somewhere outside the sands of time, but he doesn’t seem to care for legacy at all. He lives like the walking embodiment of a “good vibes only” sign, but he cares more about creating those vibes than reveling in their glory. And while he’s still creating those vibes – again, Africa Speaks drops Friday – Smooth may reign as the defining icon of his timelessness.

“There’s something about that song that helps people celebrate their divine sensuality,” he says. “You need sex like you need water. And if you don’t have it, you’re going to become a curmudgeon, or cynical, or arrogant, or not a nice person to live with. It’s something that you need to cherish and honour and respect. That’s what Smooth is.”

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