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Will Gompertz | 10:45 UK time, Thursday, 30 September 2010

The interview took place in a subterranean recording studio on Great Titchfield Street in London, which probably once housed a thriving clothes warehouse back in the days when the area was a centre for the rag trade.

A steep, narrow staircase, similar to those found in Amsterdam townhouses, led down to a small room in which a full-size recording desk had been installed along with a large black leather sofa upon which sat a diverse group of casually-clothed music PRs, pop-star minders and studio runners.

They were all big; none appeared to have anything to do. It made for the sort of mildly intimidating, slightly surreal atmosphere laced with an air of criminality that Guy Richie so loves to evoke.

There was no welcome, no civilities: just perfunctory instructions stating that the interview would take no longer than a quarter of an hour and that their sound man, not the BBC's, would record the conversation.

Two sets of glass doors were discreetly tucked away around the corner like an en-suite bathroom in a tiny one-bedroom flat. They led into a cupboard-sized room with a small round table, two chairs and two microphones.

Carlos Santana


At the far side of the table, wearing a peaked cap and sporting his trademark moustache sat the Mexican-born, guitar-playing 63-year-old rock legend, Carlos Santana.

On the table in front of him were two empty bottles of beer, an empty bottle of Coke, a page-long printed list of all the interviews he was doing during that afternoon and a square pink sticky note with a few words scribbled in biro.

Carlos Santana was welcoming, in the way a polite homeowner is welcoming after being doorstepped by a Jehovah's Witness. He was courteous, but clear that he owned the conversational threshold and would not allow it to be breached.

He talked about his moment of arrival into the public's consciousness at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. And about his first three albums, Santana I, II and III. He discussed the creative necessity to continually hire and fire musicians and of his influences from BB King to Robert Plant.

He reeled off lists of names as if calling out a school register: Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Eric Clapton, plus producers, drummers and other assorted band-members and individuals that made up the scene in the 1970s and '80s.

Sometimes he would prefix a person's name with the word "brother". At first it seemed a random gesture and not a title he was bestowing on a person to whom he was close or that he considered possessed a particular talent or humanity. But after a while it became clear it was a lyrical gesture: adding the word so that the soundscape of his sentence flowed.

He happily answered all the questions, packaging his replies with well-rehearsed anecdotes as all celebrities do after being interviewed many thousands of times. His responses fell into a recognisable pattern.

The first sentence or two was a direct reaction to the question; the beginnings of a normal conversation. Then he caught himself and bought time by reeling off a list of people, songs or places. And then he glanced at his pink sticky note and its scrawled contents. At which point he would talk about love and peace and understanding: without fail, every time and for several minutes.

He was constructing the conversation like one of his songs: a bit of jamming at the beginning followed by a verse, before a quick look down as a reminder of the words and then straight into the chorus. He was far more interested in promoting his world-view than he was his new album of rock guitar covers called Guitar Heaven.

Which was both heartening and sad. Does anyone want anything more from Carlos Santana other than his music? As with the opening of the Gauguin exhibition at Tate Modern this week, there has been much talk of that artist's character.

But faced with the magnificence of his work and achievements, who cares? Is it not what an artist does - not what they say or how they behave - that is important?

Carlos Santana finished with an anecdote about Eric Clapton charging $1 to play on his 1999 album, Supernatural, which went on to sell over 20 million units and return Santana back into the limelight after several years in the shade.

And then the glass doors opened; the interview finished. One of the burly men ushered a 20-something, clean-cut, bespectacled music journalist into the booth.

Climbing back up the steep stairs the speakers from the studio relayed the next interview. Santana answered the first question with an off-the-cuff sentence, paused, recited a list of people he had worked with, paused again, and then in his softly-spoken, rhythmical way, talked about the need for peace, love and understanding.

This extract of my conversation with Carlos Santana was broadcast on the Today programme this morning.

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  • Comment number 1.

    Great Titchfield Street is still full of the rag trade (and the best Turkish restaurant).
    Abraxas will always be the best.

  • Comment number 2.

    I could listen to Carlos play all week ;-)

  • Comment number 3. I couldn't listen to him for more than 5 minutes.

    I had Abraxas when it was released - I think we all did - but I had no idea then how much of a covers album it was. And here he is still at it.

    63 years old, he sounds more like six and a half.

  • Comment number 4.

    Oh, and message to my daughters;

    No, Daddy doesn't want this CD for Christmas. I would rather listen to a Jeremy Clarkson drum solo (and, no, that isn't a hint either).

  • Comment number 5.

    Will Gompertz.

    "Carlos Santana was welcoming, in the way a polite homeowner is welcoming after being doorstepped by a Jehovah's Witness. He was courteous, but clear that he owned the conversational threshold and would not allow it to be breached."

    he man must have the patience of a saint, polite and courteous after four decades plus of being hounded by (amongst others) music journalists and arts correspondents.

    ian-russell #3, #4.

    message to ian-russell's daughters:

    your dad has turned old before his time and is losing his faculties ("..rather listen to a Jeremy Clarkson drum solo.."), I recommend socks and a tie for his X-mas.

  • Comment number 6.

    I hope he hasn't forgotten his contribution to " Whatever Happens " a beautiful song by the unforgettable Michael jackson...


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