Photo credit: Marylene Eytier

The name Carlos Santana is nearly synonymous with the sensuous guitar sound that he has been perfecting for decades, along with the ever-present rhythmic sway of the bands that play with him, but the legendary musician—now 71—doesn’t rest on his laurels, and he’s still seeking new experiences, both musical and spiritual. Even as he preps a newly announced tour that will celebrate both 50 years since his iconic performance at Woodstock as well as 20 years since his landmark collaborative album Supernatural, Santana has crafted a new three-song EP, In Search of Mona Lisa, which explores that classic Santana sound from new angles—and a bit of mysticism.

Set for release on January 25 (and to be followed by a full-length), In Search of Mona Lisa was born out of Santana’s first experience seeing Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous painting in Paris a few years ago, when the woman in the work of art spoke to him telepathically, then later returned in a dream. The EP was recorded with producers Rick Rubin and Narada Michael Walden and features a band of drummer Cindy Blackman Santana, percussionist Karl Perazzo, legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter, an array of singers and more.

Here, Santana recounts his experience with the Mona Lisa and how her dream apparition wasn’t exactly a new experience for him, how the EP came together song by song and emotion by emotion, his upcoming tour including a return to Woodstock and why he knows that his old friends like Jerry Garcia and Bill Graham continue to be proud of his work.

When did you first see the Mona Lisa, and how did that lead to this new EP?

I think it was three or four years ago. We played in Paris, and we had a great concert, then we had a day off—my wife, Cindy Blackman Santana, my two sisters and my brother-in-law—and my brother-in-law asked, “Hey, what are you doing today? Want to go to the Louvre?” And I answered, “What’s that?” I’ve been going to Paris since 1970 and I had never been to the Louvre. You’d probably need a year just to go to each room, but the main thing is Mona Lisa. So we went and I was blown away by the line to get in to see the Mona Lisa. You’d think you were in line to go see Beyoncé and Adele and Rihanna and Taylor Swift. I mean, it was a huge line and you had to go through security. It was time consuming, but we were patient. We finally went through this floor and that floor. When we got to her room, I was blown away again because she had her own air-conditioned room and there was this ocean of tourists with cameras taking pictures of her—from here, from Japan, from all over the world. I couldn’t get close to her, so I waited and waited until things thinned out. Then I walked up to her, got really close and looked at her, and I swear I heard, “Hi, remember me? When we were lovers from another time?” And I was like, “Whoa.” That started it.

People need to understand—imagination is a muscle. For me, being associated with Bill Graham and Jerry Garcia and Michael Bloomfield and all that created a muscle. I’ve really been developing this muscle since childhood. She came to me inwardly, like in telepathy. Four months later, Cindy was playing a concert in Baltimore with her own band. After the concert, we went back to the hotel and, in a dream, there comes Mona Lisa again. We talked, and she gave me the lyrics. I wrote them down immediately—which was challenging, to come out of a dream and remember all of the lyrics. [Then we went into the studio with] Rick Rubin and with Narada Michael Walden, and I explained to them what I just explained to you.

And the energy… I tell you, I know in my heart—because when I close my eyes I can just see them—that Jerry Garcia and Michael Bloomfield and all the people I love, Tito Puente, B. B. King, are all really, really proud of me, because they understand my 150% effort to continue to represent them in a light that brings unity and harmony.

Plus, this Mona Lisa thing is another way to invite people to visit their own spirituality and sensuality. [“Do You Remember Me”] is a Guajira [musical genre]. That’s the kind of stuff that I wanted to do with Prince or Derek Trucks or all the members who are still here from the Grateful Dead. There’s something about a Guajira that makes women immediately respond like flowers respond to the sun and to water. They open up.

Then I explained to Narada that I wanted to do another version [for “In Search of Mona Lisa”]. I wanted this one to possibly have the Bo Diddley beat that Buddy Holly used to do, like “I Want Candy”—boom boom boom, boom-boom. Then came the third version [“Lovers From Another Time”]. My wife Cindy said, “Hey, why don’t we do another version with a symphony, and invite [bassist] Ron Carter?” I was like “Whoa, OK!” It’s amazing that you put forward this petition request to guide the universe and voila! Here it is. Then we contacted this incredible artist named Rudy Gutierrez, who created the album cover.

I was filled with enthusiasm about life and music and doing the opposite of what’s happening with fragmented fear in the world. I think that the things that I learned from the Grateful Dead about the gathering and the love and the colors and the music are still all active in my heart right now. I can hardly wait to play this music with our band in front of people, because people need to be reminded on a molecular level that you have more in the tank than you think you do. The way the spirit manifests itself in the physical is through passion, emotion and feelings, which means S-E-X. That’s what Guajira and Mona Lisa are about.

Had you ever had that kind of experience before—seeing art and having such a pointed, specific inspiration to write a certain piece of music?

Not with art, but I had this dream a while back where I went to visit my brother Stevie Ray [Vaughan] at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz, and he said to me, “Carlos, where I am I don’t have any fingers. I’m just energy right now, because I left the body. I want you to call my brother Jimmie and ask him to lend you my 007 Dumble amplifier. And I want you to play a Strat because I miss hearing that sound, but I don’t have any fingers.” I woke up from that dream thinking, “Whoa, that was a little strange.” I let it go, but then I had this dream again. And at that time René Martinez—who’s now the guitar tech for John Mayer—was my guitar tech, and he was the guitar tech, of course, for Stevie Ray Vaughan. So I called up Jimmie Vaughan and he said, “Oh, hell no. No way, man.” I said, “OK, man. No problem. I’m just telling you what Stevie told me to tell you.” Then, guess what? I’m not making this up: René Martinez had the same dream, and he told Jimmie. After that, Jimmie let be borrow the amplifier, and I played it through a Strat. It was the only time I played an whole concert with a Strat—in Madison Square Garden.

So again, they come to me—whether it’s Mona Lisa or B. B. King or Miles Davis or Stevie Ray or Jaco [Pastorius]. They still visit me. They’re still here; they just changed their zip code. I have no problem closing my eyes and using my mind to touch Bill Graham, Jerry Garcia and Michael Bloomfield, because they were the first ones that believed in me. They were the first ones who looked at me and started laughing. I wondered to myself, “Are they laughing with me or at me?”

I was playing at the Panhandle and I was into it—I was playing “Chim Chim Cheree” and “Jingo”—and when I opened my eyes, right in front of me were Jerry Garcia and Michael Bloomfield talking with each other, then looking at me like I was some kind of I don’t know what. I was like, “Wow, this is Jerry Garcia and this is Michael Bloomfield and they’re drinking from my well.” They were the first ones—along with Bill Graham—to invest time and emotion into believing in me. They gave me courage, they gave me direction. As you know, when I was at Woodstock, the people that opened the big door for me were Bill Graham and Jerry Garcia. So this is where I am: I can tell you clearly, without fear, that I know all of them are really proud of me, because I continue to represent them in the highest light that I can.

Regarding these visions of people who were close to you that have passed onto a different plane, would you say that they’re closer to you when you play music and that’s when you see them?

It’s a practical experience for me. Sometimes I feel like Kennedy Airport and everybody who wants to land on me, or through me—Marvin Gaye or Bob Marley or John Lennon or Jerry Garcia. Sometimes I hear them saying, “OK, play me” [hums opening to “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”]. So I go into “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl.” [Back in the day,] I was listening to the Grateful Dead, and also we were listening to the same things—Buddy Guy, Junior Wells.

For me, it’s natural to make imagination very tangible. People say, “Oh, you’re tripping!” And I say, “Yeah, and you’re not!”

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