Track By Track: Cindy Blackman Santana ‘Give the Drummer Some’
“There are so many disharmonies and disunities that exist in our society,” Cindy Blackman Santana observes. “I had these thoughts on my mind while we were making the album, in terms of where humanity is in general. So I wanted it to be fun, but I also wanted it to be unifying in order to make people feel good.”
As the drummer looks back on her favorite bands of all time—Tony Williams Lifetime, the mid-1960s Miles Davis Quintet and the John Coltrane Quartet—she identifies another goal. “All of that music is on such a highly creative level that it really stimulates your brain activity. It stimulates your own personal creativity; it stimulates individual thought and it’s very inspiring. We need that—we need free thinkers, we need people to expound on the Godgiven brains that we all have.”
Her new record, the aptly titled Give the Drummer Some, accomplishes all of the above through a dynamic blend of funk, jazz and rock textures. She produced the record’s instrumental tracks herself, while also working with Narada Michael Walden (Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston) on the vocal tunes. In addition, her husband Carlos Santana enlivens many of the songs, joining a stellar cast that includes John McLaughlin, Vernon Reid, Kirk Hammett, Matt Garrison and Neal Evans.
Imagine (Featuring Carlos Santana)
We are all very proud of “Imagine” because covering an iconic song can be daunting. “Imagine” was also sung by an icon, John Lennon—and Yoko Ono is an icon as well. But we wanted to do something different. So, when Narada asked me what I wanted to cover, I said “Imagine.” But I told him that I wanted to do a funk-rock version. So he started coming up with these different ideas, I started coming up with some ideas, we added Carlos and, then, bam! [Laughs.]
We wanted to do something new and fresh but also keep the beauty and the simplicity—and, of course, the poignancy—of the incredible message that the song delivers.
We Came to Play (Featuring John McLaughlin)
John McLaughlin is one of my heroes. I absolutely adore him. So when he agreed to play on this, I was just overjoyed. The track started out with Matt Garrison and me in the studio. In fact, that was the first session that we did for this record, just bass and drums— we were just getting some ideas together and getting in the creative flow. Then we added John, and man, it’s just a ball of fire. “We Came To Play” says it all. [Laughs.]
She’s Got It Goin’ On
I walked into the studio one day with Narada to do a writing session. I had my Afro out—sometimes I have my hair twisted, or braided down, or pulled back or whatever. But on that day it was a full Afro—in all its glory—and he said, “Wow, girl your hair looks electric! You’ve got it goin’ on!” Then he went, “Hey, why don’t you write that?” So I started writing lyrics and he started putting tracks together, and now we have this song.
I love this song because I wanted to commemorate and give props to a strong, confident woman. I also wanted to let women know that it’s OK to be confident, it’s OK to feel good about yourself. I don’t mean arrogance—I just mean feeling good about yourself and your accomplishments. I have a lot of role models in my life who are women—my mom, my sister, my grandmothers, a lot of great friends. They’re all beautiful, strong and incredible women, so I just wanted to nod to that.
I was hearing that beautiful Harmon mute sound that Miles has. That sound is forever etched in my soul; it’s etched in my DNA because I love it so much. And so I had that in mind as I layered that song. I started with the percussion— there’s a lot of little percussion drum stuff. There’s a lot of brushes and other little subtle things that you can’t really hear in the track. But they add to the wispiness and the mystique of the track. Then I added a chord progression that I was hearing, and built it from there. Bill Ortiz, the trumpet player, did a beautiful job. Benny Rietveld, on the bass, did a beautiful job and Neal Evans, on Fender Rhodes, is such a beautiful player as well. I love that track because it’s got the mood that I was going for.
Everybody’s Dancin’ (Featuring Carlos Santana)
“Everybody’s Dancin’” is a feelgood song. It is a unity song, a song to bring people together. In these times, we need that— we need something that unifies people in a fun way and, to me, this song does that.
When I have a chance to do something that’s positive in my life, I try to do it because I believe that it all starts with each one of us. I think to myself: What can I do to be better? What can I do to make my home situation better? What can I do to make my neighborhood better? What can I do to make my city better? What can I do to make my country better? What can I do to make this world better? So it’s a ripple effect, and it starts with each one of us. I try to speak in a way that is uplifting and positive or helpful. And, in terms of the music, I believe that those threads are divinely weaved through everything that I play.
Matt and I we were in the studio experimenting. Matt is great because he has such a vast knowledge of harmony and rhythm and he’s extremely creative, so things just happen when you play with him. And then bringing Neal in—he’s a shocker on that one. He sounds like a young Herbie Hancock; he’s so great. It is just astounding how he makes these noises that sound like an extension of Thrust, or one of those Herbie records. I just love his playing, I love Matt’s playing. I love the whole vibe on that one. It’s a great trio piece.
I Need A Drummer
I was in the studio with Narada—about to do a writing session—when he got a call and went into the other room. Then, while I was sitting in the studio waiting on him to come back, I started looking at this picture of Prince that he has in his studio. The picture is just amazing. It’s a live performance picture and Prince has this expression on his face. You can see the beads of sweat and you can see the intensity. When Narada came back in, I commented on the picture and we started talking about Prince and telling Prince stories.
I told him a story about being on the road with Lenny Kravitz one time. We were playing in Minneapolis and Lenny and Prince were friends, so we went to Paisley Park after our concert and jammed with Prince. It was really funky, really happenin’. Prince didn’t play guitar that night—Lenny was playing guitar and Craig Ross was playing guitar. He was dancing and, eventually, he went around to the organ and started playing. Then he started shouting, “I need a drummer!” He was looking at me and he kept saying, “I need a drummer!” I’m thinking, “Is Prince getting ready to get another drummer? Why is he saying, ‘I need a drummer?’” [Laughs.]
I was just telling Narada about that funny story and he said, “Girl, you need to write that.” And I said, “I can’t write a song called ‘I Need a Drummer,’ I am a drummer. I don’t need a drummer!” He said, “But it’s your experience. It’s what Prince said to you: This is your thing. You should write about this.” So I started writing out lyrics and came up with this drum groove, and then we came up with some other parts and we built this song.
Superbad (Featuring John McLaughlin)
This song began when I was in my drum room, just going over some grooves. I was taking some James Brown grooves and turning them around, displacing them and playing them my way. That’s when I came up with something, sent it to Narada and said, “I want to build a song around this groove.”
Then, when we were recording, I got a text message from John McLaughlin who said, “Cindy, I want to be on something else on your record.” He’d already recorded on “We Came to Play.” And I was like, “Whoa, John McLaughlin is telling me he wants to be on something else?!” I just couldn’t believe it; I was flabbergasted, actually. [Laughs.]
So I texted John and I said, “Well, we’re doing the vocal sessions now—we finished the instrumentals so this will be a vocal track.” And he said, “Oh, I don’t care, I’ll play on anything with you. I want to play on something.” So I expressed that to Narada and, since John can go in so many different directions, we thought this would be a great track for him. Narada and I we were both laughing because we were saying, “Yeah, he is superbad.” [Laughs.]
You Don’t Wanna Breaka My Heart (Featuring Carlos Santana)
Narada came up with the idea for this one. He gave me the title and said, “Can you write lyrics to that?” I said, “Yes” and just started writing about my personal experiences and other times I’ve seen somebody get their heart broken. It could be romantically, it could be from a friendship, it could be whatever. So I just started writing and ended up with this very emotional piece.
Evolution Revolution (Featuring Kirk Hammett & Vernon Reid)
That song was initially meant to be an instrumental. It was first recorded in Las Vegas at the Palms with all the other instrumental tracks and I was listening to it, thinking, “Oh, man, this song needs something.” Then, I started thinking, “Maybe I should put some lyrics over it?”
I was in the Bay Area and I drove over to the water. I was sitting in front of the water just looking and listening to that song and, all of a sudden, this flood of lyrics just started coming out. The words “evolution revolution,” popped out first and I wrote that down. Then I started writing down all the lyrics that followed. “Evolution Revolution” is about us evolving as spiritual beings, as human beings.
I didn’t originally anticipate that Kirk Hammett would be on the record. I love his playing but I thought that this was so different from anything that he normally does. Carlos and a couple of guys from the office were like, “You should ask him; you never know.” And I said, “You know, you’re right. Nothing beats a failure but a try.”
So I put the track on tape and I sent him a nice little letter and he accepted. I’m so happy because he’s got a ball of energy. He’s a shredder but he’s also very, very musical.
Change Is in Your Hands (Featuring Vernon Reid)
“Change Is in Your Hands” is another message song. I want people to understand that we all have the power to make things different and it’s in our own hands. Each one of us has to take responsibility for making this world a better place. We can, and it’s in our own hands to do so.
Dance Party (Featuring Carlos Santana)
I didn’t originally intend on doing a lot of vocals on the album, and “Dance Party” was the first vocal thing that we did. Yameen Allworld and Ray Angry had already put their parts down so the beatbox and the acoustic piano were already there. When they sent me that track, I added my drums and I added some little percussive slaps on bass—I can’t play bass but I can make percussive slaps with it, so I did that, just to get a little effect. It’s very subtle. I added the vocals but I felt that it needed something else, so I brought Bill Ortiz in to play trumpet. We got Carlos to fill in the gaps with some funky guitar here and there. It’s just a fun little party track.
Fun Party Splash (Featuring Carlos Santana)
Even though I was going to focus on instrumentals, once I started in the studio with Narada, things started flowing from there. We would probably still be in there now doing stuff if we hadn’t decided that we needed to stop because we already had a lot of music. [Laughs.] We got into a flow and those songs felt right for telling the story—creating the mood and the vibration, and touching on the different emotions that I wanted to express on this record.
“Fun Party Splash” came about because Narada is very creative and he said, “Cindy, what words come to mind when you just wanna have a good time?” He said, “Just write down gibberish, anything.” So I started putting things together in terms of what I thought would be fun for me and fun for anybody, in general. So “Fun Party Splash” was just something to feel good about.
Social Justice (Featuring Carlos Santana)
I’m proud of this song because it’s tied into the times and what’s happening. There’s so much injustice—we need social justice. I’m very proud of the message and I’m also proud of the concept musically. Matt Garrison and [I] recorded the rhythm stuff and then we added Carlos—the three of us recorded the music, and we were going for it. We weren’t just trying to play a backbeat. I asked Andy [Vargas] if he could rap over that. He’s one of the lead singers with Santana—a great lyricist, great rapper, great singer—and he said, “Oh, yeah, I can rap over that, I love it.”
So this song, to me, conceptually shows that you can feel a pulse regardless of whether there’s a backbeat or not. I hint at the backbeat once in a while but I’m not playing a backbeat—we’re being creative over the pulse, which is still consistent. You can feel that in the instruments and you can feel that in the vocal track. So I like this because it opens up more possibilities of what you can do with something of that style.
Twilight Mask (Featuring Carlos Santana)
Carlos, Benny [Rietveld] and I just started playing. There’s a song that we referenced called “The Mask,” which is something that Miles Davis recorded, and we all love that piece. So we referenced that and then went on this incredible journey. And, although it was a long piece, I couldn’t see editing this song. I felt that it was a journey that had to be expressed. So the song is just as we played it, with no edits to make it shorter. It’s just there; it is the journey.
I was on the way to the studio one morning and I started hearing these layers of rhythms and sounds in my head. So while I was in the car, I called my tech Jeff Ocheltree and I said, “Jeff, do we have any percussion in the studio?” He checked and said, “No, there’s nothing here.” So I said, “Well, please just go find me some cans, bottles, pots and pans from the kitchen, trash cans, anything else that I can hit and make a percussive sound with. I’ve got this idea that I want to work on when I get into the room to record.” Those guys were fast because, by the time I got there, they had found this clothing rack and some rope, and they tied all these pots and pans to it. Then, they hung all these bottles and different things. They found some trash cans, a big trash can top, a big cookie sheet from the kitchen, a broken cooler and a bunch of other stuff—just things for me to play and hit. So I started layering from there, hearing this main theme that was in my head.
“Mother Earth” was the song title I heard right away because I wanted to pay tribute to the Earth and to the fact that she’s always here for us. And now we can see that she can self-rejuvenate. We’ve seen that in COVID—for instance, I love the city of Venice in Italy, but the water is funky. It’s just so dirty. But during COVID, the water turned crystal clear because nobody was polluting it. So she was telling us, “I’m here to give you life and feed you and clothe you. I just need you to love me back.” I wanted to give tribute to the pulse of the Earth. Everything has a pulse; everything has a sound.
Black Pearl (Featuring Carlos Santana & Vernon Reid)
“Black Pearl” has got a beautiful mood. I love the bed—it’s really funky—and Vernon and Carlos have such a mutual respect and love for each other. Vernon said to me: “Cindy, Carlos is the reason that I play guitar. I love this man. I wouldn’t have picked up a guitar if it weren’t for him.” So you hear that love that he has for Carlos; you hear that respect in the way that he supports Carlos when Carlos is playing. And by the same token, Carlos loves Vernon, and you hear that in the way that Carlos complements Vernon.
So this track is beautiful. There’s a very relaxed mood and I love the textures of it. Benny Rietveld is so funky and his bass sound is so fat and full. And of course, Neal is great— very sensitive, very musical. Anything he does is always pleasurable to hear and to play with. It’s a beautiful track, and it’s Carlos’ favorite track on the record.