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Santana's Bass Master: Benny Rietveld

"It's a challenge to always play like there's no tomorrow, to play like you're absolutely possessed..."

By Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez, Contributing Editor
Published on LatinoLA: March 12, 2012


Santana's Bass Master: Benny Rietveld


Bassist Benny Rietveld is one of the more prolific modern bass players in the international music culture. He is and has been the bass player for the record-setting Grammy winning band Santana for 15 years. He brings to the stage an impressive resume, including stints with Shelia E and the Prince organization, as well as his work with the jazz icon Miles Davis.

After moving to Hawaii from his native Utrecht, Netherlands, he attended the University Of Hawaii College of Music for two years. Island dates with artists such as The Crusaders, Richie Cole, Barney Kessell, Howard Roberts, Bill Mays, and Makoto Ozone followed until he moved to San Francisco in 1983. He joined the Sheila E's 1984 tour; Sheila E was opening for Prince on the "Purple Rain" tour. Dates with Huey Lewis and the News followed that. He then signed on with Miles Davis for his 1988 World Tour, as well as working with Davis and Michel LeGrand on a Warner Bros. soundtrack.

Benny has released an album entitled "Mystery of Faith." The album can be described as "odd, eclectic, yet eminently listenable music." The CD, his first solo effort, also includes performances by Carlos Santana, Tom Coster, Barbara Higbie and other friends. The mostly instrumental collection will take you from the Middle East to Middle Earth, with various stops in between.

To learn more about Benny Rietveld or to listen to excerpts from Mystery of Faith, visit him at www.bennyworld.com.

The Santana legacy took an interesting turn in 1999 with their release of the album Supernatural. This became the most honored recording in Grammy history winning nine awards, selling nearly 30 million copies and spawning a Santana renaissance.

The band shifted gears with their latest offering Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics Of All Time, which, like Supernatural and the group's follow up albums Shaman and All That I Am, features the contributions of high-profile guest vocalists.

No less significant an element in the band's current resurgence is the presence of Rietveld, who has been Santana's low-end man for the last 14 years. It is a position that previously had been filled by many stellar bassists including Alphonso Johnson, Stanley Clarke, and Doug Rauch, all of whom contributed to the band's discography at various times. Although Benny joined forces with Carlos and company briefly in the early nineties, it wasn't until 1995 that he made a full-time commitment, effectively closing the revolving door to the Santana bass chair. He has been there ever since.

Contributing Editor, Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez, a lifelong Santana friend and fan, was privileged to have an opportunity to converse with Benny about his work as an artist and his glamorous life:

AC: What was the first moment in your life when you realized that you wanted to make music your life's work? How did your family react to you going into the music business?

BR: I always think it was the time, when I was 10 years old, that I heard the Beatles' "Hey Jude". We had a piano in the house because I had taken lessons when I was 6, although I stopped after a year or so out of disinterest. But there was something about the opening of the song, those repeated triads on that piano, that captured me, and I felt compelled to learn to play the song on our piano. The process was so easy for me and so much fun that I was immediately hooked, and I started learning as many songs as I could, totally by ear. There was never any more conscious thought as to what I was going to "do for a living." I just assumed I was going to do music for the rest of my life.

My family loved the idea of me playing music and was very supportive. Until, of course, it was time to graduate from high school and they asked me what I was going to do with my life. Was I going to college or to a trade school to learn something like carpentry (my stepfather was an excellent carpenter). I had no real plans other than to "be a musician" - whatever that meant. They almost hit the roof and we had many bitter arguments.

But they were really just being very protective of me since, as a result of knowing many entertainers on the local scene, all they knew about a life in music was that it seemed always to lead to tragedy and calamity, drugs and premature death. But in a very short while they realized that things didn't have to be that way. They never stopped being supportive of my efforts and they were always my biggest fans!

AC: Which instruments did you start on and what led you to the bass? Which were your favorite bands when you were growing up?

BR: I started on piano and soon also learned guitar, drums and bass - the four basic food groups of rock and roll. Two things led me to the bass. One was the fact that I was learning songs on guitar and I inadvertently learned the bass part to The Ballad of John and Yoko, but on the guitar. My close musical buddy at the time, Fred, pointed that out to me and so that made me listen more closely to other bass lines. The first one that really got my attention and that I learned was Lovely Rita Meter Maid. As I was showing Fred what I had learned, with my left hand jumping up and down the neck, he said, "You know, you can use more than one string for that." So I think that was what got me to investigate the art of playing bass lines.

Some of my favorite bands at the time were The Beatles, of course. They were pretty much it for awhile. Then later on I listened to a lot of Yes, Frank Zappa, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Premiata Forneria Marconi, Return To Forever, and Santana. There were a lot of other bands as well, like Sly & The Family Stone, Led Zeppelin, Black Oak Arkansas, as well as all the music on the radio like The Jackson Five, Spirit, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and lots more. There were also all those wonderful one-hit artists that I loved: The Buoys, The Blues Magoos, Desmond Dekker & The Aces, Zager & Evans, The Tee Set, Crazy Elephant, Mercy, and on and on. That was my junior high and high school musical landscape.

AC: Back in the day I interviewed your bandmate, conguero Raul Rekow. He told me the first time he saw Santana's Woodstock conga player, Mike Carabello, it inspired him to pursue congas, growing as a Santana fan, and was there when he did the Crater Festival with Buddy Miles. What was your first impression in seeing Carlos live? Did you aspire then to be in the band?

BR: Seeing Santana and Buddy Miles at the Crater Festival was an amazing experience, but I never thought about actually being in the band. That just seemed too far of a stretch of the imagination! But it was an awesome show and one of my first glimpses into "real" hippie life. Plus they got to wear such hip clothes; I was fascinated with all that as well.

AC: I understand you had a very serious music teacher in Hawaii who inspired you. What were your high school and college days at the University of Hawaii like?

BR: Mr. Henry Miyamura was one of my first musical mentors. He was my music teacher in High School. He was passionate about the performance of music and demanded that everyone be present in mind and spirit when doing so. Although he was focused on us getting the notes right, playing technique, etc., even more important to him were good tone and feel. He wanted passion and fire when we played, not just pretty little notes. He was tremendous, a lot like Miles and Carlos in this way, and he was very inspiring, even to this day.

AC: I am told you believe that growing up in Hawaii was somewhat limiting musically because you didn't get to see the same level of talent as someone who lives in New York. Do you think this helped or hindered your development?

BR: I think it all worked out. While in one sense it may be a "limitation" to not get exposed to great players, there are other ways it can be a blessing to be able to develop more uniquely. Hawaii is very unique in a lot of ways, especially in music. It may be the only state in the US to have not one, but three radio stations that play exclusively, 24 hours a day, music written, produced and recorded in their own state. New Orleans might be the only other place that I can think of. So, in fact, I'm very proud of being raised in Hawaii, and will always consider it my spiritual home.

AC: What caused you to move to San Francisco and not Los Angeles? What were the broke days in SF like?

BR: At the time I had visited both places and, in my limited 24-year-old viewpoint, Los Angeles was not "cool" enough - too "commercial" and other dumb ideas. I loved the freaky Northern California scene; it seemed at the time much more free and open-minded. Of course now I know better. There are as many closed minds there as anywhere else.

The "broke" days in San Francisco were probably like "broke" days most anywhere else - taking the bus to gigs, trying to catch rides back home across the Bay from patrons (many of them quite drunk), sleeping in various living rooms, a string of lovers (who later become angry with you), borrowing money from people (who also later become angry with you), doing sometimes three gigs and driving more than 100 miles in one day, having various roommates (some of them working as "escorts"). In other words, the usual. But a lot of it was great fun and I learned a lot. I still have much fondness for those days and for the people who helped me through them.

AC: How did you get the gig with the Shelia E band? Tell us about the film Krush Groove. What was that whole Prince-fueled-music-scene like for you? Did Prince influence your playing style?

BR: I was playing at a club called Earle's Solano Club with a friend of mine, Ray Obiedo. Sheila, who is from the Bay Area, was there and sat in on drums. She was amazing, blew everybody away, and I had a complete blast playing with her! It was remarkable; we immediately had a very good musical connection as far as bass and drums. On the rare chances I get to play with her these days it's still like that. It's just a joy to play when she's on drums.

Anyway, she asked me during the break if I wanted to join her band. She had just finished recording an album and was going to tour with it. We had just done a really hot jazz fusion set and the thought of playing with a drummer like that was just brilliant to me. So of course I said yes. I had no idea that the album she had recorded was The Glamorous Life or that it was produced by Prince. So when I got the music in the mail, I was a bit shocked and worried. And then, to top it off, we had to learn all this choreography for every song! I was a pretty lousy dancer so for me it was a bit stressful. And of course, being the 80's, we all ended up wearing tons of makeup and outrageous costumery and eventually even doing it ourselves.

I wasn't listening to any of that music at the time so it was pretty foreign to me, but I got into it pretty quickly and was amazed as to what this Prince guy could do. Even more amazing was watching him work in the studio. I learned an awful lot. And then, of course, to watch him night after night on the Purple Rain tour - that was a huge treat. He was so innovative, knew very well the art and craft of theatre and knew how to command an audience. I was very lucky to be able to see that, and as many times as I did. Yes, he certainly did influence me musically. I'm still sneaking in Prince licks on bass to this day!

Krush Groove was a seminal rap film that I'm proud to be in. There were some amazing performances by the Fat Boys, Run-D.M.C. - even LL Cool J is in there!

AC: Tell us about how Prince and Sheila E recommended you to Miles Davis.

BR: Well, the way that I heard it from Alan Leeds, it was Miles asking for a bass player who knew about that style of music from the whole Prince world of music. I had left Sheila's band about two years earlier, but supposedly they suggested me anyway. To be honest, I'm not exactly sure how it actually happened.

AC: How was the first time you met Miles? Were you intimidated? What did Miles teach you about music, about life, about becoming a serious artist?

BR: Meeting Miles was a bit surreal and yes, a little intimidating. But I had made up my mind to be myself and, if I got fired, well then so what? At least I was being fired by Miles Davis! Miles taught me about being in the moment as much as possible when playing music; to not think about the past or the future, just whatever note you are playing right now. This, to me applies to music, life and being a serious artist. I'm still working on it.

AC: You wrote the liner notes for his Paris album. Is writing something you aspire to do as more of an artistic outlet?

BR: No, actually I wrote some liner notes for the Miles Around The World album. The Paris album was actually a Warner Bros. video, as I recall. But yes, writing is something I am pursuing more. I am working on a non-fiction book at the moment, but I can't say too much about it at this time unfortunately. I'm using it to prepare myself for co-writing a screenplay for a biopic that I want to do. Again, I'm not at liberty to discuss details, but I will let everyone know when the time is right. These things take a while, especially when you're very new at it like me. I've already done a bit of writing and directing in my upcoming 2nd bass video. It's incredibly exciting for me to keep pushing myself in these other new ways and I find that it all informs my music.

AC: How was performing with Miles different from performing with Sheila E or Santana?

BR: Well, you have to keep in mind that those were three very distinct periods in my life, so my experiences with each artist played against very differing emotional backdrops. With Sheila, I was just getting started in the "big time" world of the touring musician. I'd certainly toured before and even done some high-profile gigs (three with The Crusaders), but they were more singular in nature or I was substituting for someone else.

This was the first time I actually belonged to the touring band of a "name" act. So a lot of it was learning the ropes, being shocked into certain realities and learning the labyrinthine ways of what is sometimes known as "band politics." This is really another way of saying, "Growing up." Musically, with Sheila, it was very demanding in the sense that every song was completely arranged and there was little or no improvisation, which was unusual for me. It totally made sense for the milieu in which it existed, but it was a big learning experience, and very good for me. I even learned a few dance steps!

But I have to say, in reality, there is not that much difference in essence between the three situations. Outside of details like genre and style of music, really all three artists were coming from a very "musician-y" background. All three excelled on their respective instruments, two of them carving out such individual voices that they changed the music in which they inhabited forever, creating a lexicon of expressions that are now part of their instruments. All three drew from a broad spectrum of the musical universe and mixed genres like paints on a palette. And all three have, or had, great senses of humor. Laughing and jokes are part of the daily repertoire with each of them.

AC: How did you book the Santana gig? Were you referred by Miles' management?

BR: Carlos and I met on a recording session for Paolo Rustichelli on an album called Mystic Jazz. I played on a few songs on that album while I was still with Miles, and Carlos was on one of them, Full Moon. So we met in the studio and, since Carlos was a big Miles fan, he had already seen me play a few times. We talked and exchanged numbers. I was already feeling like it was time for me to leave Miles' nest, so it just seemed like the next thing to do. And it was really like coming full circle, since Carlos was more of my musical leanings and generation.

AC: Can you remember the very first gig with Santana? What was that like?

BR: I think it was this outdoor gig in California somewhere. You'll have to ask Karim Brichi; he's the guy that knows everything as far as Santana gigs and personnel goes. All those early gigs were as exhilarating as they are now, actually. Back then I was too focused on doing a good job and plugging into the moment to really think about the reality of it all. So it really wasn't until maybe a few months later that it started to occur to me that I was playing with one of my musical heroes, playing songs that I listened to day after day, jamming to them, and getting high to them. Very surreal. In fact, sometimes I still wake up while I'm onstage and think, "Holy shit, that's Carlos Santana!"

AC: How is it to work with Karl on timbales, Raul on congas and Dennis on drums? Do you play off of them or do they play off of you? It seems complicated.

BR: We all play off of each other. Each song is different, sometimes we, as a rhythm section, are focused on Karl's cowbell, sometimes it will be Raul's tumbao, sometimes it will be Dennis' kick drum, and sometimes they'll follow my lead. And it can change from section to section, too. We'll know when we can just lay it down and let others do fills or play some crazy out-of-time stuff or vice versa. It's all balance and chemistry and feel. It is complicated, but it becomes easy if you're always listening to everything all the time and, again, not thinking about the past or the future. Oh, and it helps to be able to play with some of the best drummers in the world!

AC: You have been with Carlos for over 15 years. When joining the Santana band, did you bring a little bit of Miles with a taste of Sheila E?

BR: I would hope so! I also brought Hawaii, Henry Miyamura, my uncle Joe The Fiddler, and all my stoner high school garage bands with me as well.

AC: Tell us about Supernatural. Did you anticipate that level of success? Do you credit Clive Davis?

BR: I certainly did not anticipate anything like that, nor did practically anyone else, I would think. I think Clive played a big part in its success, as he truly seems to have a feel for what will "hit", and that feel goes beyond any technical musical knowledge or production techniques. Don't forget he also signed Miles Davis, Pink Floyd, Janis Joplin and even Santana the first time! But he also couldn't have done that without Carlos' energy and spirit, or the other participant's heartfelt contributions, or the Santana band being able to kick complete ass live practically every time. Almost all endeavors in life are a collaboration anyway, and that project certainly so.

AC: How does it feel to be in such a commercially successful band playing arenas with hundreds of thousands of people? Do you encounter groupies and paparazzi?

BR: It feels amazing; I never get over it, and am incredibly grateful for it all. This is the best of both worlds, really. It's commercially successful, but we also get out there and play hard! We still don't use click tracks, Pro Tools or Auto-Tune, and arrangements differ almost every night! Of course that drives our lighting director crazy sometimes, but he takes it in stride. You have to; it's all about being in the moment. And yes, there are groupies and paparazzi, but not nearly as many as with some super pop acts. Anyway, I'm not that interesting or flashy as a person, at least not in the People Magazine sense. I'd never get my own reality show, nobody would care!

AC: What has Carlos taught you about your art form and how is he different and/or similar to Miles?

BR: What I get from Carlos, what I've always gotten, even when I wasn't aware of it, was empowerment. Meaning room to develop and become a better and more focused version of myself. Musically, because his instincts are so finely tuned, I've learned a lot about the inner workings of music from him. Not in terms of notes or chords or rhythms on paper, but about the part of music that makes it special to non-musicians (which of course, make up the vast majority of practically any musician's audience). I've learned about the breath of life in music, about how certain types of music get their feel, about the concept of not thinking like a bass player when playing the bass, and more. It's been a great journey so far.

AC: Does Carlos' spirituality influence your approach to music? Is he a hard cat to play with? What do you think is your best Santana composition?

BR: I think I have slowly, over the years, learned a lot from Carlos' approach to life. In life and in music. He is not a "hard cat" to play with, if I'm to take your meaning correctly. He's actually one of the easiest I've played for. I mean, of course it's a challenge to always play like there's no tomorrow, to play like you're absolutely possessed, but that's a good thing! As far as my best Santana composition? So far I guess my favorite for now is Red Prophet. But I think that soon there will be another.

AC: Ever think of doing some solo and/or side musical projects? Jazz maybe?

BR: When I'm at home, I sometimes have a little band that plays around the neighborhood. I am almost finished writing my second solo CD, which I think will be offered as a dance cycle. I also have one or two other side musical projects that I'm putting proposals together for at this time, and hopefully they will bear some fruit. I regret I'm not allowed to say anything more about them at present.

AC: Tell us about your instructional video.

BR: Well, my first one is already out. It's called "Bass Essentials" and it's sold by Hal Leonard. That one is a very basic one with a lot of good stuff for beginner to intermediate players. And there's a cool version of Feelin' Alright on it as well, played by me, Dennis Chambers on drums, Jeff Cressman on trombone, and Tommy Anthony on guitar and vocals. But my second one, which I've actually been working on for a long time, will be much more of a series of performances recorded live at Skywalker Ranch with Dennis Chambers on drums, David Gilmore on guitar (no, NOT the Pink Floyd guy.

The very awesome guitarist from Brooklyn!) and many others. In between the songs there will be some interviews, vignettes and a few short films written and directed by me. It's going to be a bit more of a crazy piece. It's just taking a bit longer than anticipated since I've never done anything like it in my entire life, so I made a lot of mistakes.

AC: Tell us about your interest in scoring films and writing and directing cinematic projects?

BR: I've always loved movies, always loved movie music, and always thought about music in visual terms anyway, so I guess it makes sense for me to move into these areas.

Scoring a film is really fascinating. It's such an invisible, yet shape shifting force, rather like bass playing - sometimes an unseen character, sometimes a commentary (like a Greek chorus), sometimes part of the set design or scenery. The one film I've done so far was fun and I learned an awful lot! It's a pretty good independent film called Brooklyn Rules and Alec Baldwin is great in it. I can't wait to do another one, even though some of my friends already in that industry think I'm nuts for wanting to!

Writing and directing seem to me an extension of my music and production work. I've always held that anytime you play music, you must either make your audience feel something, take them on a journey, tell a story, or inspire them. This is, of course, what you want when you write a book or short story or movie. And directing is like when I produce an album - it's me controlling how the message is being heard, or figuring out the best or most interesting way the story can be told. To me, I guess it all blends together, and each thing informs everything else. It's a big adventure!

AC: What is the best thing about being in such a huge "A list" act?

BR: The best thing? Well, it's nice to be wanted, for one. But what's really cool is that you feel like you might just make a difference in the world. It's a much more noticeable and immediate confirmation that your efforts are not in vain, that people will be made happier and perhaps maybe start to change things in their own life. Of course, we all know that in reality everyone can make a difference all the time and we never know how our actions will affect others. But we don't often get to actually witness the effects in such an immediate fashion.

AC: Who are some of the musical people you would like to work with someday? What kinds of things are still on your bucket list?

BR: I really don't know. I guess at this point in my life I don't think about it in those specific terms. But there are plenty of artists that would be amazing to work with on some special project, like Sting, Chaka Khan, Gwen Stefani or Diana Krall. But there are a lot of great new artists that are coming up who would be fun to collaborate with in some fashion. Aaron Parks, Adele, AFI, Tune-Yards, Fleet Foxes, The Cowsills, there's a lot of great new stuff out there! I guess I don't really have a "bucket list." There are too many cool things to do while we're on this planet, why list them? It's not like we're going to finish them all anyway!

AC: How would you like the world to remember you? What would you like your legacy to be?

BR: Hmmm, let's see... it would go something like this: "God, what an absolute freak! But you know, maybe he had something... maybe we actually should stop thinking in boxes, living in fear of the unknown, and being sometimes so completely self-absorbed. Maybe it actually is better to be free and to enjoy the life we have, to keep learning and never stop growing. Sounds way more fun to me!"

About Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez, Contributing Editor:
Edited by Susan Aceves
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