Cindy Blackman Santana: Creating Freethinkers

Photo by Jimmy Bruch

Cindy Blackman Santana. Drummer, bandleader, and inspiration. An artist who continually pushes boundaries and strengthens the power of community. An artist who makes you feel, makes you think, makes you want to be the best you can be and helps you find the confidence and belief to know that you can make a difference. An artist who inspires people across the world.

Her portfolio of work is outstanding, including working with artists such as Lenny Kravitz, Cassandra Wilson, Angela Bofill, Pharoah Sanders, Bill Laswell and of course, Santana. Cindy has literally been grooving since she was a small child and is considered one of the greatest drummers of all time. Her dedication to excellence, her kindness, her compassion for the community and her commitment and understanding of the importance of her role in society is stimulating and empowering. She is a role model for us all.

Such a joy and honour to speak to Cindy. Such warmth and honesty. Cindy makes you believe you can do anything, be anything and all the while ensuring we are aware of the importance of our role in society. We explored so much about her career, her music, her role in the world but at the heart of my questions I was trying to discover the path that led Cindy to be Cindy. That strength, that compassion – and of course that groove!

Artists find their instruments in varying ways and at different stages in their life, but Cindy had that moment – that moment when the kit spoke to her when she was seven years old and the drums have been embedded in her very being ever since. I asked Cindy to reflect on that initial connection.

You know honestly – and especially according to my mom and my older sister – I think I came here with that desire. My mom said that when I was born, I was padding out rhythms on whatever I could find, whether it was on her back or a pan or a table or whatever I could find. I don’t ever remember a time that I didn’t want to play drums, it just feels like a completely natural flow from the time I arrived here, on this planet, to now. It just feels like this is what I’m supposed to be doing and this is what I want to do. 

Known primarily for her jazz and rock work, Cindy is a truly virtuosic musician. Here she is performing a 12 minute drum solo at the Drumeo Festival a few years ago. Incredible.

Cindy was surrounded by music at an early age with both her mother and grandmother being classical musicians. Exploring her technique, Cindy references the piano and her relationship with her grandmother in particular as being very important influences.

My grandmother was incredible. Unfortunately, I only took one piano lesson from her but I learned so many incredible things in that one lesson and I wish I had really honed in on the piano but, I learned so much from her that day! She said she didn’t like to use the pedals and if she wanted to sustain a note, she would do it by playing it long and if she wanted to dampen a note, she’d just dampen it with touch, if she wanted to do a fade, she’d say, I play the fade myself. She told me she never let the engineers fade her down and she’d play the fade herself – be able to do it yourself. I didn’t really know what she was talking about, I was 8 years old, but it became clear to me later and you know my grandmother, she was an incredible little fireball. She was 4 feet 10 inches and had really tiny hands, so her hands were too small to play an octave, but she figured out how to voice chords, to get the sounds that she wanted with those tiny hands. That taught me that you can figure out and adapt and make whatever it is that you’re hearing work, you just have to figure out the method that works for you. You have to figure out how you can make it happen, but you can make it happen. I’ve carried that with me for my entire life and I really owe a lot to my grandmother because she taught me so much and she was a musician to the core. She was a powerhouse. A teeny little fireball and if she had her mind set on something, she was going to do it. She was a very focused woman and I really love and appreciate that about her.

Surrounded by inspirational women from an early age, Cindy was clearly set up to take on the world from the start and she has done exactly that, becoming one of those inspirational women herself. ‘She’s Got It Goin’ On’ released in 2020, from Cindy’s album Give The Drummer Some, is a song celebrating strong women. In the studio one day, Cindy was working with fellow drummer Narada Michael Walden and when she walked in, a stunning vision with her full afro, Narada said “Wow, girl your hair looks electric! You’ve got it goin’ on!’ He suggested writing a song, resulting in a brilliant ode to powerful women. Cindy explained ‘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.’ 

Feeling empowered in a world where female drummers have historically been in the minority, is a challenge and although there are many more female drummers being platformed now (although still work needed here), Cindy’s achievements are significant and she has – and still does – lead the way for many.

I was about 13, at a gig at a bar, with this funk rock trio, and the gig was really going great, we were having fun and people were digging the music, the band was having a great time. Afterwards some man came over to me and he says: you’re not supposed to be playing drums… you’re a girl, why are you playing drums? You’re not supposed to do that. I was a kid, still a child at 13 and so it hurt me you know? I almost started crying. I went home and I felt really bad. I took my drums back downstairs in the basement, I set them up and I started playing. I forgot all about that guy’s comment. Then when I remembered the comment later, I was, wow you know what, I forgot all about that! So that means that whatever somebody else thinks, this has no bearing on my feelings about what I’m doing. The attention to that comment is only stopping myself. If I think about that for an hour, 5 minutes, one minute, one second… that’s one second less time that I’m devoting to my progress. That’s one hour less time that I’m giving to myself to progress so I’m not going to give that person that, I’m going to give that to myself. There are still stereotypes that happen whether it’s about age, gender, race, culture or religion and those are intertwined in our society because we are imperfect. We’re still growing as a species, still growing as beings. Whether you’re black, white, red, yellow, purple,  pink, green,  gold or blue or if you’re a woman or whether you’re Islamic or Christian or Bahá’i or non-denominational or a redhead, blonde, brunette or bald, chubby, skinny or vegan or carnivore,  a mathematician,  scientist,  a drummer, a pianist, violinist – we’re all coming from that same spark.

Photo by Iron Mike Savoia

The growth that Cindy refers to is a key part to her life and work. Understanding the value of time and experience to not only ourselves and our own growth and understanding, but the role our individual growth plays in the wider community.

I believe that we come here to be examples for other people to learn lessons and so once we get that concept, we start to live that. We’re going to break down barriers. We’re going to stop having hatred. We’re going to stop hurting people. We’re going to stop these wars. We are going to stop all this stuff that is a degradation of society. We’re going to stop all that because we’ll realise that we are hurting us when we do that. We’re all one energy from the same source that’s split up and divided up into these little particles which become us individuals, to experience everything that the creator has given us on this planet to go through to fulfil our souls journey, and I believe – and this is just my belief  – but I truly believe that once we understand that and once we learn that, we will have a completely different attitude about ourselves. Respect and understanding for trees and birds, rocks, water….because it’s all coming from the divine. We have a lot of growing to do as a whole and myself included, I’m not taking myself away from that because I have growing to do as well in different ways to the next person. This is a growth journey that we’re on and I look forward to humanity embracing that and then making the changes that allow us to grow together as a whole.

And how can we actually make that change? How can we help people understand their role in developing mindsets?

It starts with each person – you know Michael Jackson and the song Man in the Mirror? It starts with yourself. I have to make sure I am an exemplary example of those qualities, of those actions and of those thoughts. We must remember that thoughts create things, so I’m responsible for whatever I’m creating and being a positive force to help uplift the consciousness of humanity, and once I’m doing that, then I become an example of that. And energy grows! Whatever you’re pushing out to the universe, it comes back to you in a snowball effect so what I’m doing, comes back to me bigger and then when I do it bigger it goes out and then comes back to me even bigger, and if we are all doing that, we’re going to create this beautiful ball of energy.  Rather than these little negative things that are eating at us all and maybe those are going to still be there to some degree, because every soul comes here at a different level of enlightenment and a different level of knowledge. There’s always somebody growing. There’s always somebody searching. There’s always somebody trying to get better, but we must tip the scales to make the weighted side be the side that is the side of positivity for the upliftment of humanity. That’s how it starts with each person and then it spreads out.

Photo by Jimmy Bruch

And music of course has a role to play here…

With my music one element is to promote people to think for themselves, to be free thinkers. There is a part of the music scene, part of its nature, is to corral people to think the same way, to listen to music that same beat, the same chord progression, the same subject matter but I love music that really invites people to use their imagination , to use their minds, to think, to feel, to create because that’s what we’re here to do. If we’re not creating, then we are not fulfilling part of what is our destiny. But then there is also the side that is just to make people feel good because when you can make somebody feel good, when you can touch somebody’s soul, somebody’s heart, that’s going to make them do something that’s loving and project energy and vibration and that is uplifting. 

Spending time with Cindy for this interview was incredibly moving. Her compassion, her warmth, her energy, her passion, all of which is so evident in her music, was so clear to see and so infectious. A true role model for us all.

This interview was originally published in the Women in Jazz Media International Women’s Day magazine and to end, I asked Cindy if she had any words of wisdom to women out there who may feel they can’t achieve what they want to achieve, that there are maybe too many barriers and perhaps have a lack of belief in themselves.

I would say to any woman to understand that just by nature of what God has given us physically, to be able to be the nurturer and bring in life, whether you want to bring life in or not, whether you do or do not, that’s the power that you have been given. So understand that you can create and you can do things and that is your God-given right, so never let anyone stop you from doing something that you want to do and that you want to achieve. Understand that where there’s a will there’s a way, you just have to figure out how to do it, but you can do anything! God has created beings of power, beings of intelligence, beings of creative force and women are half of that you know? Men have things, women  have things and so we just need to use that and not buy into any societal norms that have been created by a patriarchal society that wants to control you. Understand that you can do whatever it is that you want, and it just takes putting time into that thing – playing the bass or playing the drums, piano or violin etc – it takes time. You have to invest in yourself. Invest the time in yourself. It’s basically about knowing that you are strong enough and powerful enough to do whatever it is that you want to do because you’re naturally a creator, you’re naturally a nurturer, so nurture yourself into doing whatever it is you want and don’t let somebody else with a skewed vision and version of you, decide who you are.

Upcoming gigs:

Santana and The Counting Crows: Oneness Tour

Cindy Blackman Santana Band at Birdland NYC

Cindy Blackman Santana Website

Last modified: May 17, 2024