In the comeback of the year, a supreme axman harnessed the Supernatural to revive his blistering brand of samba soul

By Jeff Gordinier
Updated December 24, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

There is a fascinating flow-chart tucked into the liner notes of The Best of Santana. It’s like one of those ancestral trees you’d find folded up in a family Bible: It lists the 16 lineups of Santana between 1966 and 1984, and it attempts to trace the whereabouts of every wayward musician who’s ever slapped a conga or stroked a bass in Carlos Santana’s eternal samba-soul caravan. This is not an easy task. Rod Harper, the drummer in Santana’s first lineup? ”Disappeared,” says the chart. Leon Patillo, singer and pianist from Santana No. 9? ”Vanished.” David Margen, bassist in Santana No. 14? ”No idea.”

For decades, a lot of Americans assumed that such a Jimmy Hoffa-esque fate had befallen the band’s own namesake. That’s ridiculous, of course; Carlos Santana, a guy whose guitar licks are as instantly recognizable as the sear of jalapeno on your tongue, has been packing arenas for years. Not until 1999, however, did pop radio remember the mystic in its midst. Santana concocted a lineup of musicians who decidedly did not qualify as ”vanished” — Lauryn Hill, Dave Matthews, Wyclef Jean, matchbox 20’s Rob Thomas — and cut an album called Supernatural. What happened next constitutes the most astonishing comeback since John Travolta slurped a milk shake in Pulp Fiction. Supernatural ascended to the top spot on the Billboard album chart, generating a No. 1 single (the pop-salsa ”Smooth”) and selling 4 million copies. In Spanish, the word for ”miracle” is milagro.

Carlos certainly sees it that way. You can toss out all the marketing blather you want — ”cross-demographic appeal,” ”Latin boom” — but this 52-year-old veteran of the original, riot-free Woodstock considers Supernatural the product of nothing less than cosmic intervention. ”It’s not really chance or luck. It’s something more paranormal—like divine synchronicity,” he says. ”My intention was to spread a spiritual virus.”

A chat with Santana leads naturally into this sort of otherworldly realm. He talks about how music can ”rearrange your molecular structure”; he talks about brushes with the spirits of Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis; he talks about how the next century will bring a revelation from the nether reaches of the galaxy. ”I truly believe that we’re going to be visited in prime time by a landing from the so-called invisible people,” Santana says. Uh…oye como va? ”The invisible people,” he explains. ”The extraterrestrials. Pleiadians, Arturians, Andromedans, angels. I’ve been saying for a long time that we have friends outside our eyeballs and friends inside our eyeballs.”

Whichever way you’re looking, spiritual serenity has helped the Mexican-born ax divinity make the most of his blessings this time around. ”The first time I was very angry, confused,” he recalls. ”By the time we got to Woodstock, it seems like one minute I was in high school, the next I was playing with Sly Stone and Janis Joplin and going ‘Oh my God!’ It happened too fast. But now there’s so much clarity and purpose I’m able to actually enjoy everything.” And hey, if invisible people helped turn Supernatural into Santana’s first chart conqueror since 1971’s Santana III, well, you can’t argue with success. ”The reason I’m saying these strange things, man, is because this whole album is strange. It comes from a higher force,” Santana offers. ”So I’ll stay with my own hocus-pocus mumbo jumbo, and people can stay with their own meat-and-potatoes reality. If their reality works for them, fine. But look at where my reality is taking me!”