Santana On 'Black Magic Woman,' A Pioneering Cultural Mashup

May 9, 2016
Originally published on May 19, 2016 4:03 pm

This story was adapted from a longer interview with Carlos Santana and Michael Shrieve. Hear the full conversation on NPR's Alt.Latino podcast.


When Carlos Santana recently reunited members of his original band for a new album and short tour, it was more than a trip down memory lane. The band's members say it was a rekindling of a spiritual connection among a group of musicians who crafted a sound that proved to be not only hugely popular, but was also a pioneering cultural mashup.

The music geek in me has always wondered what inspired Santana's blend of Afro-Carribean rhythms and rock. Turns out part of it had a lot to do with the hippie ethos of mid 1960's San Francisco — specifically, communal living. Drummer Michael Shrieve says the band moved in to a house together.

"I remember when I moved in with the guys in the band, it was really fascinating to me because everybody had their own records," Shrieve says. Music was going all the time, but everybody was sharing.

From Miles Davis to Eddie Palmieri to John Coltrane to Buddy Guy to Ray Barretto, when the mix of sounds being heard in the house combined with the, let's call it, recreational activities of that time and place, pretty soon musical styles morphed. Carlos Santana himself says, "I was getting more and more fascinated with how to cross pollinate B.B. King with Tito Puente."

With that in mind, let's pull apart a song from the 1970 album Abraxas that has been on the Santana set list for over 45 years: "Black Magic Woman." (The first thing to know about the song: It's actually a cover of a Fleetwood Mac tune, written in 1968 by guitarist Peter Green.)

Original Santana keyboardist Gregg Rolie brought the song to the band, and came up with that iconic Hammond organ riff that kicks things off. Carlos Santana then added his influences from his musical home base of jazz and blues. Michael Shrieve grooved along with the congas and timbales using some licks he'd copped from an obscure B.B. King album. The climax of the song switches gears — and composers — with a double-time jam on "Gypsy Queen," a piece by a Hungarian jazz guitarist named Gábor Szabó who was living and recording in the US.

Michael Shrieve says that ultimately, the key to his contribution to the Santana sound was a 'less is more' kind of thing.

"I just tried to stay out of the way, to tell you the truth, with all the rhythm that was going on," Shrieve says. "Rather than try to be something that I wasn't, I tried to be supportive ... and make the rhythm more like a tapestry."

For Carlos Santana's part, he says the band's music has always had a spiritual quality.

"This Santana band, from the beginning, was about altering consciousness like Coltrane," he says. "To me, that's when my heart and my soul opened up to, like, 'Wow, this is a different sound than just guitars, congas and amplifiers.'"

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Our colleague Felix Contreras, who hosts NPR Music's Alt.Latino, has always had a fascination with Carlos Santana. The guitarist just had this ability to mash up all these cultures and come out with a sound that was hugely popular. Well, recently Santana reunited members of his band for new album and short tour.

And Felix thought hey, why not use this as a chance to chat with Santana and his original drummer about what they pulled off?

(SOUNDBITE OF SANTANA SONG, "OYE COMO VA")

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: The music geek in me has always wondered what inspired Santana's blend of Afro-Caribbean rhythms, rock, jazz and blues? And it turns out that part of it had a lot to do with the hippie practice of mid-1960s San Francisco - communal living. Drummer Michael Shrieve says the band moved into a house together.

MICHAEL SHRIEVE: I remember when I moved in with the guys in the band, it was really fascinating to me 'cause everybody had their own records. Music was going all the time. But everybody was sharing.

CONTRERAS: From Miles Davis to Eddie Palmieri to John Coltrane to Ray Barretto, when that mix of sounds being heard in the house combined with the - let's call it the recreational activities of that time and place, well, pretty soon musical styles morphed. Here's Carlos Santana.

CARLOS SANTANA: I was getting more and more fascinated with how to cross-pollinate B.B. King with Tito Puente.

CONTRERAS: OK, let's take apart a song from the 1970 album "Abraxas" that has been on the Santana set list for over 45 years. And the first thing to know about this song is that it's actually a cover of a Fleetwood Mac song written in 1968 by guitarist Peter Green.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK MAGIC WOMAN")

SANTANA: (Singing) Got a black magic woman.

CONTRERAS: The first Santana keyboardist, Gregg Rolie, brought the song to the band and came up with that iconic Hammond organ riff that starts the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SANTANA SONG, "BLACK MAGIC WOMAN")

CONTRERAS: Carlos Santana then added influences from his own musical base of jazz and blues.

SANTANA: OK, I'm going to put some Wes Montgomery in here. And then I'm going to put some Otis Rush over there.

SANTANA: The other members of the first Santana band added things like an Afro-Cuban tumbao feel and a traditional bongo rhythm called martillo. And finally, drummer Michael Shrieve grooved along with the congas and timbales, using some licks he copped from an obscure B.B. King album...

SHRIEVE: "B.B. King Plays The Cha-Cha." (Laughter) It even had the dance steps on the back of the record. I never got a chance to play that rhythm in any group I was in until we started working on "Black Magic Woman."

CONTRERAS: Can you vocalize the drum part you were playing?

SHRIEVE: (Imitating drums). And there you have it.

CONTRERAS: Then the song switches gears and composers. The double-time jam at the end is also a cover song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SANTANA SONG, "BLACK MAGIC WOMAN")

CONTRERAS: It's called "Gypsy Queen." And it's by a Hungarian jazz guitarist named Gabor Szabo, who was also based on the West Coast. Just as jazz musicians would do, the members of Santana were looking for songs to rework into their own collective musical vision. And Michael Shrieve says ultimately the key to his contribution to the Santana sound was a less is more kind of thing.

SHRIEVE: I just tried to stay out of the way, to tell you the truth with all of the rhythm that was going on. Rather than try to be something I wasn't, really I tried to be supportive and stay out of the way and make the rhythm more like a tapestry than trying to stand out at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF SANTANA SONG, "BLACK MAGIC WOMAN")

CONTRERAS: And for Carlos Santana, one of the key building blocks of the band's early music has always contained a spiritual element.

SANTANA: This Santana band, from the beginning it was about altering consciousness, like Coltrane, right, Michael?

SHRIEVE: That's right.

SANTANA: And to me that's when my eyes and my heart opened up to like wow, this is a different sound than just congas and timbales and amplifiers. My soul is imprinted in these songs. And the tenacity and the conviction of my soul, that's a different sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SANTANA SONG, "BLACK MAGIC WOMAN")

GREENE: Our musical guide right there, Felix Contreras, and the host of NPR Music's Alt.Latino podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.