Driving up to what could only be described as a soulless industrial complex—an edifice with post-Communist bloc-style architecture somewhere in the bowels of North Hollywood—I made my way through a maze of studios and myriad sounds escaping from said studios to sit down with Grammy Award-winning, keyboard playing, rhyming, humanitarian, Vocoder-ing (if that’s even a word) star on the rise, Salvador Santana.
The son of guitar icon Carlos Santana and poet/author/activist Deborah Santana, Salvador co-wrote his father’s Grammy-winning track “El Farol” on the album Supernatural when he was just a teenager. As a solo artist, Salvador Santana has released several solo albums as well. His latest hard-rocking rap release is Fantasy Reality.
You incorporate many genres and use real musicians on all of your recordings. Why is using real musicians so important to you?
With the new album I just released, Fantasy, Reality, the early stages of the record [included] heavy computer programming—just my buddy Jared Meeker and me. We got together in the studio and would get an idea and plug in a keyboard, find a funky sound and just lay it down. But as the creative process went on, we would realize that certain quirky synth sounds would end up being other things, like a violin, and then I’d get a violinist to come in and he or she would do their thing and it would be perfect.
In your songs, the lyrics come out with rhythm and a lot of emotion. Let’s talk about that for a minute.
I’m inspired by hip-hop and rap. Being a lyricist, and growing up in the ’90s when hip hop was taking shape and really putting itself on the map with artists like Snoop Dogg, Mos Def, Common, Biggie—there’s something really particular about the way they approached the mic that was just so inspiring.
The public doesn’t really perceive hip hop artists or rappers as musical, as opposed to someone playing the trumpet, etc. But I think it’s just another way of expressing yourself. If you can get past the cursing and some of the negative messages, there is something beautiful in there, and I gravitated to it and I wanted to incorporate it in my music.
If I can inspire someone to look at me and say “Salvador is rapping and playing piano. Hey, I can do that!” then I’m doing more than my job.
Please explain your decision to instill positive messages in your songs.
I’m compelled to do it. There’s so much negativity in the world right now. There are so many people who are doing a great job of presenting negativity. I’d much rather go in a different direction: keep it real and show that there are positive ways to end conflict. Don’t just present the problem! Let’s present the solution. And my job through my music is to showcase the issues in the world. And as long as we are positive and can work together, we can make it through and make a difference.
You had the opportunity to visit South Africa and meet Nelson Mandela. What did you learn from that experience?
My family and I through ANSA [Artists for a New South Africa], had the opportunity to also meet Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The main reason we went was to support ANSA but also to attend the Archbishop’s birthday celebration. It was like being in the room with real-life superheroes, and it inspired me to write the song, “Rise Up” which was in the documentary film School of My Dreams. Being in South Africa showed me that music is a universal language. Wherever we went, we always heard music.
Music, to me, is one of the most important things that needs to be in schools. It’s a positive outlet and gives kids a way to express themselves. It saved me. Speaking personally, it saved me from getting into trouble. It kept me committed and focused. I chose to further my education with music and really study it. I knew that music was keeping my life on the right track.
Tell us about winning a Grammy for “El Farol”: How was it writing the song with your dad, and then winning the award?
It was incredible! I was in high school. The backstory is that “El Farol,” which was on Supernatural made the record at the very last second—a really last-minute decision. My dad asked me to work out some chords to a melody that he had. Then the phone rang and he said we had to go to my grandparents’ house, but he didn’t tell me why. We just dropped everything and went. And it was because my grandfather had passed away just then. We ended up playing the song at my grandfather’s funeral. That’s the memory that I have of the song, even before the Grammy win.
A few years later, someone on my dad’s team suggested having an instrumental on his album and suggested that song. It was really sentimental and emotional. We weren’t sure about it... but we did it and I’m so grateful we did.
How many keyboards do you own? And what is your go to?
I think I have about ten keyboards. I use three keyboards onstage. My Korg Triton Extreme—I love the sounds on there. I love the weighted keys; it feels like I’m playing a real piano. Another keyboard I like to use is the smaller studio Triton and then last, but not least, I like to use my Roland VP500 Vocoder and switch it up a little bit.
When you go on tour, what software and soft synths do you use?
I’ve been incorporating [Novation] Launchkey and Launchpad in my live rig. Keyboard here, piano solo over there, grab the mic, the digital stuff—I’m definitely looking like an octopus onstage!
If you were stranded on a desert island and you could only take one keyboard with you, what would it be?
It would have to be the Triton because I’ve gotten to know it so well over the past few years. I know it’s a beast. I know the sounds up and down the entire keyboard. The weighted action is me all day. I trust myself with it.
Everyone knows about Guitar Gods. But let’s talk about Keyboard Gods and keyboard heroes! Who are yours?
If I had to make a Mount Rushmore of keyboard players, Herbie Hancock would be number one for me—for who he is as a person and as an artist, he covers all ground. We can add Money Mark. Love me some Money Mark! I got to work with him on my record Keyboard City. I grew up with the Beastie Boys. He’s just an awesome person and being in the studio with him is like watching a mad scientist go to work. With him, he taught me that it was okay to focus on multiple things in the studio so I was writing three or four songs at a time. Then, Keith Emerson and Denis DeYoung. He’s a badass. Both of them—their interpretations of music and their setups are incredible.
What’s direction will your music take next?
Well, let’s call up a bunch of kids and find out! Seriously. People think that it’s us, the adults, that determine the direction of it. But it’s not. It’s the kids. It’s what they want.
In the meantime, I keep doing my thing. I keep incorporating the best of everything that’s happening. And growing up in the Bay Area, I had everything right there in front of me. And rather than being overwhelmed by it, I absorbed it all. I’m a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but there’s something cohesive that ties it all together. And that’s me.