Cindy Blackman Santana Finds Her Unmistakable Groove On ‘Give The Drummer Some’ (INTERVIEW)

Cindy Blackman Santana is ready to get this party started. Although she had begun work on her new album, Give The Drummer Some, a few years ago, it finally dropped last week and at just the right time. With the world having been in lockdown, with no live concerts, having some new music that gets us out of our chairs and our ho-hum blahs is indeed something to celebrate. And Cindy has given us celebration on a solid gold platter. 

With her undeniable instinct for grooves that swirl around us, the legendary drummer with a jazz heart and spiritual soul has unleashed a seventeen song extravaganza of beats, passion, fun and soul searching. Kicking off with a vibrant new telling of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and ending with a sensual “Black Pearl,” Cindy, who has been married to guitar superstar Carlos Santana since 2010, fills the in-between with sizzling fun dance-busters like “Superbad,” “She’s Got It Goin’ On” and “I Need A Drummer;” rockers with a kick, like “Evolution Revolution;” intelligent jazz spheres a la “Miles Away;” and songs with messages of peace, love and return to spiritual and human connection. Every song is Cindy to the core. 

Born in Ohio into a music-loving and playing family, Cindy became a drummer before her age ever hit double-digits. Her enlightenment moment came with Tony Williams, a drummer best known for playing with Miles Davis. What he lit within Cindy changed her life as a drummer forever, and she still strives to reach his level. Although her prowess comes in the jazz world, Cindy elevated her status as a rock drummer with Lenny Kravitz, spending over a decade touring with him around the world before backing her husband in his band. 

Speaking of, the guitar superhero joins his wife for numerous songs on Give The Drummer Some. Other guests include John McLaughlin, Vernon Reid and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, with production by Narada Michael Walden. “I wanted this album to be all-encompassing,” Cindy emphasized in her album announcement. “Pop, funk, rock, jazz – I embrace the creativity in all of it and I feel so inspired when I play it. That’s what I wanted people to feel when they listen to the album – inspired.”

I spoke with Cindy recently about her new album, putting her own spin on a Lennon classic, the inspiration she got from Williams and how being a spiritual person comes out in her music.

You’re home in Hawaii. Does just being outside there spur music within you?

Oh yeah, definitely. Just walking and connecting to the earth, the soil is so rich here. This is the first of the Hawaiian Islands to pop up so it’s like, I don’t know, a billion years old or something, so the soil is very, very rich here and you just feel the energy. If you can walk around in the grass barefooted, you feel the vibrations, you feel the energy. So it’s a great way to rev up the system, to energize the system, and to really fortify the system, because there are so many minerals in the earth that when you walk around in bare feet, it just gets absorbed. All the way around it’s a very healthy place to be because it’s so relaxed here and so chill. It’s amazing. It just really allows you to open up your creative center.

I understand your new album has been done for a while. 

Yes, we recorded some of it in stages because they were instrumentals that we recorded and then we went on tour so we kind of came in and out recording, and then recorded the vocal things that Narada Michael Walden produced. So between being in and out on tour and having the actual time to get to the studio, and then writing the songs and whatnot and just doing the physical recording, it took a little bit for it to come out. I’m so happy it’s going to fully be released on the 18th of September.

There are a lot of songs on here. It’s like a double album in the old days.

Exactly, that’s exactly it. It’s a double record. You know, we had recorded so much music that I had to narrow it down just to that. I tried to narrow it down further because some people were suggesting that I do like half that many songs instead of offering seventeen. They were saying, “Why don’t you offer eight or ten or even twelve but not seventeen.” And I tried to cut it down but in order to tell the story that I wanted to tell, I had to have those particular tracks. So I couldn’t cut it down and it just had to be a double record and I’m really happy with that because I wanted to give a lot of variety.

Yes, you’ve got jazz, you’ve got R&B, you’ve got funk, all on one record and you don’t see that very often.

No, you don’t and that’s another reason why some people were suggesting I not do that. They were saying, “The industry likes to put things in a box.” Well, I don’t want this to be in a box. I want it to be an outpouring of things that I love and messages that I feel are pertinent and important and with people I admire and love. So that had to be told in some different stories.

Spirituality has always been a big part of who you are. Where do you see it most in your music?

The spiritual aspect reigns in every note and every space that I play because that is my makeup, that is the most important thing to me. So no matter what I’m playing, there is always the influence of not only the spirit but my spirituality in there because that’s who I am and I’m honestly giving to the music. So it’s in everything. And there are some messages that are certainly more outright but the energy of my spirituality is always in everything I’m doing.

To some people, “Imagine” is a spiritual song and here you’ve taken it up to another level.

Oh yes, I agree. It’s definitely for me a spiritual song because the message is so important and it’s a timeless message because it’s so beautiful. The unfortunate thing is that as a human race we still need this message, we still need the message of unity and love. We haven’t gotten that in our thick skulls yet as a whole so we still need this message. But again, on the fortunate side, John Lennon and Yoko Ono offered this beautiful, timeless message and creating it was a joy. 

We were in the studio and my producer for the vocal tracks, Narada Michael Walden, asked me what song would I do if we were going to do a cover. That was my first and strongest choice. I said I’d want to do “Imagine” but I’d want to do it differently than the way I’ve heard other people’s renditions of the song. I’d like to do like a funk rock version. So he kind of created this beautiful templet and then we recorded it and there you go. I just changed the phrasing vocally to make it match the kind of funk rock groove that I wanted to lay down on the drums and the guitar riff. And Narada said, “Well, do you like Lenny Kravitz’s cover of ‘American Woman’?” And I said, “Yeah, of course, I love it. I’ve played it a thousand times.” And he said, “Okay, why don’t we just use that as the templet and then we build our thing from there.” And I was like, fantastic, I love it. And that’s what we did. We went to work at just laying this thing down and now we have this version that I really love because we still have this timeless message, we still have the beauty of the melody, which John Lennon did so superbly because it’s so incredible and just so simple that it just grabs you in every way, in every respect, from the melodic perspective and from the perspective of the message. It’s very easy to grasp that. So we were able to keep those elements but yet add our own thing to that.

“Twilight Mask” is full of so many different elements. What did you think when you heard it in its bare bones?

Oh my gosh, that song is a journey. It’s really telling a musical story, the way that the band builds as a whole and especially the way that Carlos builds the guitar. I just love that song. It takes you on a trip, you know. It really creates this soundstage that spurs the imagination to think of all kinds of stories, and that’s what we want to do. We want to ignite the creative centers of the listeners, because when we’re in our creative space and we’re creating things that are for the good of humanity, the good of the planet, we are directly channeling all of the energy and components we’re made of, because we all come from the Supreme Creator. The Supreme Creator allowed everything that we see and us to be here. So we can ignite that and have people remember that that’s what they are and that’s where they come from. I’m completely happy because that song takes you on a beautiful journey, like the journeys in life, you know. You go through certain things and you come out in a certain way and it expresses the journey that we as spiritual beings are having in this physical realm and in this physical space.

“Superbad” has that great Cindy Blackman Santana groove

Oh my goodness, thank you. That one, I was in my studio listening to some James Brown tracks, just a bunch of them, and Clyde [Stubblefield] and Jabo [Starks], James Brown’s drummers, were just so innovatively funky, it’s out of this world the feels and the grooves that they came up with. So I was in my practice studio, juxtaposing those beats, playing them different ways and placing the participles on different parts of the drum, just to come up with some different things, and I came up with that groove. I recorded it and I sent it to Narada and I said, “This is the next track I want to work on. I want to build a song around this groove.” And he loved it, thus “Superbad” was born.

John McLaughlin plays on that track. How long have you known him?

I’ve known him for a long time; I’ve not really worked with him very much. We played together in Montreux when I was on tour with the Santana band. Carlos loves Tony Williams Lifetime, which you know is one of my ultimate and most favorite musical groups in the planet and John McLaughlin was a part of that. The original group was Tony Williams on drums, Larry Young on organ and John McLaughlin on guitar; later they added Jack Bruce so it became a four-piece band. I’d been admiring John and wanting to play with him for a long time because I love that record so much, and so many other things that he’s done. But I love that record so much that I’ve been aching to play with him. Carlos loves that stuff too. I had already done a record called Another Lifetime, which was a tribute to that band. I played those Lifetime songs and I was doing them on the road and playing them all the time, and Carlos said, “Hey, John’s going to be here. Why don’t you guys do a mini-set and do some of those songs.” So we did. John agreed and we played some of those Lifetime songs and at the end John was smiling and he said, “Cindy, I haven’t played these songs since 1969 with Tony.” That was amazing to bring it back around and have him play and I was just honored to be the first drummer to play those songs with him since he played them with Tony. So playing with John McLaughlin, that was the first time that I actually played with him. 

After that, he asked me to go on tour with him. He has a wonderful band and something happened, his drummer couldn’t make it or something, but John asked me to do a tour and right at that point, I hurt my back so severely that I couldn’t travel. And I really wanted to do the tour and I was going to do it even with a hurt back. But then I thought, you know what, I can barely sit and I’m not going to be playing right, I won’t be able to give the energy that he needs and that it deserves and I want to go all out and play the way that I should be playing and playing with an incredible guy like John McLaughlin. So unfortunately, I had to turn down the tour because of my injury. But I was able to rest my back and get therapy for like three months and then I was better after a few months. But I couldn’t do that tour and that was my chance I’d had to tour with him. 

Then the next thing was the studio stuff that we did and when I invited him to partake, the first song was “We Came To Play,” and I was completely happy with that. I loved the way he plays on it and Matt Garrison sounds incredible, Neal Evans did some amazing padding on organ. I just love it and I was very happily astounded when John reached out to me and said, “Hey, I want to play on something else. Let’s do another track.” And that was right when we were getting ready to put together “Superbad.” You know, John plays everything – he plays creative stuff, jazz, obviously jazz rock, he plays rock, he plays funk – let’s see if he wants to play on this track. So we did a little smattering, a sample of the track, and we sent it to him and he was like, “Yeah!” (laughs) So we were able to get him on “Superbad.” And he is superbad (laughs).

Every interview I think I’ve ever read about you, you talk about Tony Williams. How did he alter your playing and your overall thinking as a drummer?

I love that question because my first time seeing Tony actually perform was at a drum clinic and that changed my life completely. Hearing him changed me, but seeing him totally changed my life and I knew from that second on, that if I wasn’t chasing that level of innovation, that level of technical expression, that level of musicality, I might as well not even play the drums. I might as well stay home and read books or something. So he definitely affected me because I knew that I had to make a life journey of pursuing the highest excellence in every regard. And that was because of seeing him.

Did you have to change much in the way you were already playing to get to the level you wanted to from seeing him?

Oh yeah, I had to get more serious and I had to really start studying hard and I had to study the concepts that all the drummers play, cause that’s where he came from, so I had to really start doing more. I was doing some history at that point but I had to start doing much more studying in terms of the history and lineage of the drums. I had to start studying HIM more. He is so in depth with everything he played and I really had to get into that mindset and start studying every single thing. 

Then, I had to start asking myself, why does he play that here? Why does he play that there? Why does he NOT play anything here? What is that point in the music that made him play that? What is that point in the song that made him play that? So that made me really start to key in on the conversations he was having with the other musicians and key in on the forms of the songs, because there is a reason something happened at this point in the song as opposed to another point in the song. Things can be open-ended where they happen wherever but you have to be aware of what the song form is so you understand where and why somebody is stretching or playing over the bar line or starting in the middle of the form or starting at the last four bars of the form. You have to understand that and understand why it’s happening. 

So I began to ask myself the questions: why is that happening here? Why is it happening there? What caused him to react to this? What caused him to be silent there? Why did he not play a fill there? He just played the right cymbal there – why only the right cymbal? What does that do to the music? So all these questions really made me delve deeper into every aspect of the music and every aspect of the drums and every aspect of the playing. I had to keep digging and digging and digging. Those are just a few of the many incredible things that studying and listening to Tony has done for me as a musician.

Did that especially help you going into rock & roll, like with Lenny, where he played the drums on the records and then you came in to play them live? Did that help you be able to add to what Lenny did?

Oh sure, because it’s the way that I think, you know. There is a certain way of thinking. In Lenny’s situation, you’re playing a lot of parts and he has a certain way that he wants to hear all the music, which is fine, he knows what he wants and that’s all good. But what I was able to do with that because I’ve transcribed so much music in terms of the drums and listening, what I was able to do was just add subtle things here and there as I heard them. And sometimes they were so subtle that only I knew what I was doing. But from my creative space and for my need to personalize things, I had to do that. I personalize everything that I play anyway. If I’m playing something, whether it’s a beat or a space, a part or something improvised or something I make up or whatever, I own it. That’s the only way I can make it feel the way it should feel – honest and true and from my heart. So playing with Lenny, yes, I absolutely played the parts verbatim the way he wanted them and then I would add things as I felt they fit musically.

You have been all around the world.  What country seems to really appreciate the drums and highlight them over other instruments?

That’s a wonderful question. I love that question. And that question will have a couple of different parts for a couple different reasons. I’ll start with Scotland because they love the drums in Scotland. I remember the first time that I went there was with Joe Henderson and I was awakened in the night to hear this Scottish marching band practicing. It was like two or three in the morning (laughs). I was like, wow, this is really incredible. These guys are up and practicing. And I peeked out my window and I could see the drumline. They were out there practicing on the street and nobody complained, people were okay with it. I’m like, this is great! They love drums here. I thought that was really amazing.

Brazil, they love the drums in Brazil. You can see that in Carnival time. I was there once when they were preparing for Carnival and one of the cats in the band, I think the piano player, knew some people who were able to get us into a rehearsal that was happening for Carnival. We went to this place and it was one of the most amazing things that I’ve ever experienced. It was standing room only and it was like shoulder to shoulder because it was so crowded. It was steaming hot in there so people were dancing and sweating – this was like a ballroom or some big huge place – and there was a balcony which is where the drummers were. And there was one main guy who was calling out all the drum keys and all the changes and just the way that the people reacted to the rhythm and to the drums was just astounding. It was really, really inspiring.

The motherland, Africa, and I’ve only been to South Africa, but the drum, obviously, is revered in the motherland. We get our rhythms and our rhythmic concepts from there and we take those rhythms and we play them between our four limbs and between the rest of the sounds. So we can get four different sounds, playing four different parts with four limbs but then we can break that up and have more parts playing because you can move your limbs around, especially your hands, you can move them around; you can move your feet around too and drummers do that very well. So Africa certainly reveres the drum.

My all-time favorite for energy for music is New York City. New York City loves the drums, New York City loves music, New York City loves creativity and jazz. New Orleans certainly loves the drums. There is an incredible history there in New Orleans with the drums. People in Paris, they love drumming and music; not as heavy domestically as say the other places that I’ve mentioned, but they love it as well. So there are some places around that really revere the drums and those are some of my favorite places that I’ve experienced.

Cindy, what is your best advice to the hurting and confused in this chaotic world? 

It’s very confusing to children especially, because they definitely don’t understand, and it’s a pity because a lot of their childhood is being robbed. So I would say to children and to adults, first and foremost, remember who you are and keep yourself as inspired as possible within the space or the realm that you have to do it in. Meditation is key, I think, and if we don’t do those things then we get sedentary and we get rust on us. Our mind gets rusty, our bodies get rusty. So we need to do things to keep ourselves fluid. We need to eat well, we need to drink lots of pure, clean water; meditation I find to be very, very helpful; exercise, we have to do that; getting out and getting as much sun as possible, getting as much fresh air as possible, doing breath exercises; keep your mind engaged, and the eyes have direct contact with the brain so when you’re reading, you are stimulating your brain censors and stimulating your imagination and stimulating your vocabulary of knowledge you’re building up. 

If somebody has a passion for something, then this is a great time to hone in on it and work on it. If they don’t have a passion, this is a great time to find one. And buy my record and listen to it (laughs). There are a lot of good messages on there – “Evolution Revolution,” “Change Is In Your Hands,” of course “Imagine,” “Social Justice.” And then there are songs that just take you on a great journey like “Miles Away,” “We Came To Play,” “Twilight Mask.” And there are some songs that are just fun like “Fun Party Splash,” “Everybody’s Dancin’” and “She’s Got It Goin’ On.” 

Portraits by Jimmy Bruch & Maryanne Bliham


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