Keeping the beat solo or with legends, and even marrying one, is only one part of this very special lady’s rhythmic journey.
By Steve Houk
From the moment she arrived in this world, it was the tapping. The rhythm. The beat.
There had to be some force of nature driving it, or given the intense spirituality that still courses through her to this day, it was likely a higher power at work.
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“Both my Mom and older sister tell me that when I came out, I was always finding something to tap a rhythm on,” Cindy Blackman Santana told me on a break from the current tour she plays drums and percussion on in her husband Carlos Santana‘s band. “My Mom said I even found it in tapping on her back as a baby. She always said to me, ‘I thought that was maybe something you’d grow out of. But you never did.’ I love playing the drums. I won’t even call it a career, I’m going to call it my existence in music, but I always just wanted to play drums. Whatever the capacity was, I just wanted to play because I love doing it.”
For Blackman, it really was never a question, what she would be spending her life doing. Percussiveness is engrained in her soul, and is truly what has guided her through her very successful 30-plus year career, all in an industry where female drummers are few, opportunities can be scarce, and where she experienced both gender and racial prejudice.
But from her early days under the loving tutelage of legendary jazz drummer Art Blakey, to being the driving rhythmic energy for Lenny Kravitz, to jamming with jazz legends past and present, and now up to her current stint as her hubby Carlos’ drummer extraordinaire, Cindy Blackman Santana has established a stellar and respected reputation as one of the best instrumentalists in the music business. She and the Santana band play Merriwether Post Pavilion on August 15th.
From those days as a beat-tapping baby, Blackman always felt the drums, they spoke to her, she seemed to pull the rest of the music aside and feed voraciously off the drum parts.
“When I would listen to a record, the drums were the instrument that would always stand out to me,” the kind and affable Blackman said. “I didn’t even know what they were at a very young age, or even what they looked like, but that was just the thing that always attracted me. Then once I saw them, oh my goodness, I completely fell in love with the drums. When I got my first drum set, changing the drum heads and smelling the wood inside, that just even got me, you know? I loved the feel of drums, the look of drums, the smell of drums, the role that a drummer plays.”
Jazz drummer Tony Williams would be her first big influence, but it would be the legendary Blakey that would take her under his wing after she arrived in New York at 23 after leaving Berklee School of Music in Boston. Blakey, who died in 1990, not only adored her as a person, but clearly saw enormous potential in her, and sensed her innate drive to soak up everything she could from one of music’s true drumming virtuosos.
“Art Blakey was like a papa to me, he called me his daughter,” Blackman said affectionately. “I used to babysit his kids, I was at his house almost every day and he told me so many stories and so many things and he was just so loving. I never took a formal lesson from Art, but it was all much better than a formal lesson, because everything that I saw and experienced when I hung out with him was a lesson. A lesson in music, a lesson in life, and he was so pleased and proud to share the lineage and the history of drumming, of jazz, of being a black person, you know? He was so incredible in sharing all of those things, and being a good human being.”
Blakeys’ protectiveness was never more evident than in something he said to her one night at his home. “He looked right in my eyes and said, ‘Cindy, don’t ever get in any trouble.’ And I said, ‘Huh?’ He said, ‘Because I’m not a person who’s looking to get into trouble, but if somebody ever did something to you, I’d have to kill him. I’d go to jail and I wouldn’t be able to play anymore!’ Yeah, it’s still one of the most amazing periods in my existence hanging with him. It was just such a blessing.”
Amidst recording with a slew of past and present jazz legends through the 80’s into the 90’s, collaborating on their records and also making her own, Blackman began perhaps the most fruitful professional relationship of her career with Kravitz, one that started with two highly unique audition experiences.
“First, Lenny asked me if I would play over the phone and I did. I was excited, I was just playing and I was hitting the drums pretty hard. I got back on the phone and said, ‘Well, I know that was pretty loud, could you hear anything?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I could hear it, I’m in L.A., can you fly out here right now?’ ”
When she arrived at the L.A. manse Kravitz was staying at, she thought it was going to be just her playing for Kravitz, but soon realized that was not the case at all. Still, things turned out for the better.
“I saw somebody come in with a snare drum, and then somebody came in with a stick bag, and another cat with a bass drum pedal, and I’m like, ‘Oh no, these are all drummers.’ This friendly, no strings attached get-together was all of a sudden this big audition, thanks to his management and unbeknownst to Lenny. So after I played, he said, ‘Okay, the auditions are off, that’s it, I choose Cindy.’ I walked out of the room and his manager said, ‘Well man you’ve got like 38 other guys in there, it’s not really fair that they’re here and don’t get to play.’ So he auditioned everybody, and the next day said, ‘I still like Cindy better.’ So I learned the music, I rehearsed with the band, and then at the end of two weeks, we did the first video that I did with Lenny called “Are You Gonna Go My Way?” At the end of the 18-hour shoot, they walked me outside and Lenny said, ‘So, you want to join my band?’ I said, ‘Sure, okay, when does it start?’ And he started laughing and he said, ‘It started two weeks ago!’ After a while, it was like they were all my brothers and I was their sister. And we really understood everybody’s flow, you know? It makes about 16, 17 years that I’ve played with him.”
Life took an unexpected turn for Blackman when she was introduced to Carlos Santana, and it was not only a musical kinship but their deep spirituality that eventually brought them closer together, resulting in Carlos proposing to Blackman onstage in 2010.
“When I met Carlos, when we started to get to know each other and started talking, I’m like, ‘Oh, this cat is really spiritual. I really like that, but I don’t want to be involved with a musician.’ I’ve done that, so I don’t think so. But he won me over because he’s so spiritual and he was right where I was in terms of what he was aligning himself with spiritually, and where he was at in terms of spirituality. And so that really was the major thing that was the bond for us. I believe that I was where he wanted a partner to be spiritually. We both did a lot of work on ourselves and we were both at a certain level spiritually, but definitely always searching to get more in line with our heart centers, with our light and with the creator’s light. It was really the major thing that bonded us.”
And as they have grown together as a couple, Blackman and Santana have found a spiritual bond that envelops them both. “It’s beautiful because that kind of light never dissipates,” she says glowingly. And as for what happens onstage during their current tour? Sounds like that legendary Santana magic is shared by his bride of seven years as well.
“You know, as close as I am to the situation, I’m still always amazed by Carlos, because his energy and his zest for not only finding new music to play but also keeping all of the music at a certain energy level and level of quality is just beautiful to behold. It’s a wonderful experience and the music soars, and he would have nothing less. If it doesn’t soar, you would hear about it.”
Santana (with drummer Cindy Blackman Santana) performs Tuesday August 15th at Merriwether Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Pkwy, Columbia, MD 21044. For tickets, click here.