Known in the music community as a “renaissance drummer,” Cynthia R. Blackman, also known as Cindy Blackman Santana, has navigated as a percussionist through jazz and rock music.
Working with several legends such as John McLaughlin, Metallica, Lenny Kravitz, Joss Stone, Carlos Santana, and many more, Cindy has contributed her percussive talents to several tours and albums, including her own.
With female jazz artists being a rarity, her talents have allowed her to beat the odds and be one of the best percussionists today. She is a musician and an innovative band leader who constantly breaks the banner with creative patterns that transcend different colors and patterns.
Born in Ohio but raised in Connecticut, drums have been in Cindy’s life from the beginning. With her parents, who were both musicians, Cindy was always around music. Her grandmother was a classical pianist, and her mother often played in the orchestra.
She credits her love of jazz music to exploring and listening to her dad’s extensive jazz collection. However, at a pool party when she was seven, she got her first personal experience with a set of drums.
After asking her parents for so long, her parents soon bought her a toy drum kit. Her grandmother once tried to teach her piano, and her uncle tried to teach her electric guitar, but her focus was always set on drums.
From that point on, she found her fascination with percussion at an early age. As she grew older, her talents evolved as well, practicing every day and being sure to learn all of the rudiments, both traditional and matched grip.
During her school years, she participated in different types of bands, such as concert and stage bands, school orchestras, a pit orchestra, and a drum corps.
While in Connecticut, Cindy was a part of her first funk band by the time she was 13. The band consisted of a trio of her older sister’s friends who paid her to play. At that point, she knew she could connect well with other musicians.
No Regard for Gender Bias
A lot of women who play the drums experience people who have an issue with gender bias while learning to play since it is such a male-dominated instrument. However, Cindy says that her parents never had a concern about it, so it was never a thought when her fascination with percussion began at age 3.
Not experiencing gender bias and not knowing any other women drummers, Cindy never let her gender stop her from feeding her desire to learn more and study the great drummers before her.
She never paid attention to gender, race, or class, just what they were playing and what she could learn from whatever technique and vibe they were giving.
Cindy’s Love for Jazz
While mastering her craft, Cindy discovered that out of all the different genres she learned, jazz was her favorite to play as a drummer because she felt it was the most intricate.
She was most inspired by a Max Roach pattern that consisted of a four-limb style of drumming which inspired her to learn more jazz. Never wanting to take away from drumming, Cindy always knew that performing would be the route she would take on as a career.
Studying Music and First Tours
She previously considered careers such as law and brain surgery but soon realized the time it would take to study would take away her time to practice drumming. With that realization, she aimed to attend Berklee College of Music. While there, she studied under legendary jazz drummer Alan Dawson.
However, Cindy only ended up studying at Berklee for 3 semesters. This is because she embarked on an opportunity that would jump-start her career.
Work With The Drifters and Her Move to NYC
She was called to do a small tour with the rock band The Drifters in the 1970s. Playing with them for three months in St. Thomas, she got an experience of what it was like to be independent with a paying gig as an adult.
After a successful run with The Drifters, Cindy went to New York to network and took on the music scene. There she observed shows and studied several components from jazz drummers and musical legends such as Miles Davis, Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Tony Williams, to name a few.
She learned that to be the best at drumming, you had to listen to what drummers played in each genre. She then realized it’s okay to blend styles to create a new experience.
She soon became close to Blakey as she deemed him as one of her mentors and even said she babysat his children.
First Work as a Session Player
Beginning a career-changing transition in New York, Cindy went from sitting in and observing live shows and recording sessions to soon being involved in those recording sessions herself.
One of her first recorded sessions was on the ‘Verses’ album by Wallace Roney in 1987. Soon after, she made her debut as a band leader on her first album ‘Arcane.’ Again, Wallace Roney returned the favor and played the trumpet on the album.
Auditioning for Lenny Kravitz
Well into living her dream of recording jazz music, Cindy’s mentor Art Blakey encouraged her to make one of her most career-changing auditions: an audition to play for rock legend Lenny Kravitz.
Impressed by his excellent ear for drums and not knowing how much of a big rockstar he was then, she flew to California for what she thought was a second audition. After being impressed with her skill on what she thought was a two-week audition, Lenny featured her in one of her videos and deemed her his official drummer.
Their work relationship was so great that the gig lasted an unpredicted seventeen years, beginning in 1993. While on tour with him, she also recorded on his album ‘Are You Gonna Go My Way.’
Focusing on Her Music
After a successful stint with Lenny Kravitz, Cindy soon began to focus back on releasing her albums as a band leader. Albums recorded include ‘Code Red,’ ‘Telepathy,’ ‘The Oracle,’ and ‘Music for the New Millennium.’
In 2010 she recorded her most famous album ‘Another Lifetime.’ It was an album created to honor her former mentor Tony Williams, in which she wrote three original tracks while the other seven were covers from Williams’ 1970’s band, ‘Lifetime’.
Clinics and Other Work
Recording and session work wasn’t the only thing Cindy worked on in the early 2000s. She did a lot of traveling and playing in small clubs. She led several clinics and some tours of her own around the world.
All of her work throughout the years has been deemed a spiritual experience, as she is often noted for her adaptability and skill of maneuvering between genres. She built a successful reputation in the music community. She is known to be flexible while collaborating with other musicians and artists.
Meeting and Working with Carlos Santana
Although Cindy had previously heard of Carlos Santana, she said she’d never seen him before until she auditioned to be a sub-in drummer at one of his shows.
Cindy and Carlos began collaborating on creative ideas over the phone, and those conversations soon became spiritual, and that’s when their friendship began to grow—brainstorming and creating together led to a deeper connection.
Always focused on her career, Cindy never had dating on her mind while playing for Carlos. She never expected the relationship between the two, both business and romantic, to grow. She embraced both sides of the relationship, and they both became successful ever since.
After proposing to her on stage after her drum solo, they were married the following year. In 2016 Cindy joined Carlos full-time as his drummer. They have recorded several albums together.
One of their most talked about projects is the Power of Peace project, a collaboration album with the legendary RnB group The Isley Brothers.
Cindy’s Latest Work
Cindy continues to travel with her band when she’s not touring and recording with her husband. The Cindy Blackman Santana Band consists of Aurelien Budynek on electric guitar, Marc Cary on keyboards, Emilio Modeste on saxophone, and Felix Pastorius on electric bass.
She also continues to focus on her love of jazz by recording albums. She has recorded so many albums that she can’t give an actual number when asked.
Her latest album ‘Give The Drummer Some‘ was released in 2020. Inspired by a quote from James Brown, the album is the first album since 2010 that she’s recorded as a band leader.
The album consists of several different genres blended into one. It includes 17 tracks composed of elements of RnB, up-tempo funk, rock, and of course, jazz. Not only is she playing the drums, but she is also singing for the first time on 11 of the tracks that she co-wrote.