Driving The Beat For Santana

With 11 Grammys, Santana’s bass player Benny Rietveld has certainly earned bragging rights — but that’s not his style

Steve Murray
Friday - February 24, 2006
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Rietveld jams between guitar icons Carlos Santana (left) and Eric Clapton
Rietveld jams between guitar icons Carlos
Santana (left) and Eric Clapton

Musicians, like actors and athletes, have a level of confidence that is imperative to their work. They must believe they are capable of performing with anyone and outplaying anyone challenging them.

So it wouldn’t be unexpected upon meeting bass player Benny Rietveld to find someone wanting to gloat about his accomplishments and try to impress you with tales from the road.

But Rietveld is different. Much different.

Funny and unassuming, he’s concerned that doing an interview in a public place would make him appear “ostentatious.” He’s earned 11 Grammy Awards but confesses to the location of the music industry’s biggest prize to being “in a box somewhere.”

The father of a 2-year-old son, Makani, Rietveld lives among the hustle and bustle of New York, a career necessity, but makes yearly pilgrimages back to Hawaii to decompress and to reconnect.

“This is my roots,” he says as slack key master Ledward Kaapana slides in for a quick hello.

He’s toured the world, but Rietveld is still an Island boy at heart

He’s toured the world, but
Rietveld is still an Island
boy at heart

Rietveld’s music career hit high gear after he moved to San Francisco and came to the attention of percussionist and former Prince protege Sheila E.

That was actually his second big break. Rietveld says the first came when he got the chance to play with famed Island sax man Gabe Baltazar.

And who could have known that a two-year gig with an ‘80s pop star would lead to a series of albums and concert tours with two of the most influential and daring musicians in the last half century: Miles Davis and Carlos Santana?

Rietveld hooked up with the legendary trumpet player after being recommended by the road manager of yet another music icon. While touring on the under-card of Prince’s Purple Rain tour with Sheila E, Rietveld caught the manager’s attention.

“He knew Miles’ manager and knew Miles wanted someone who had that kind of sound (that Rietveld was playing at the time). So they called me and asked ‘Do you want to play with Miles Davis?’ and I was, like, ‘yeah!’”

The offer to play with Davis may seem like the natural progression for a highly regarded musician with a pedigree. Rietveld counters he was far from famous.

“I really didn’t have much of a reputation,” he admits. “Miles’ manager asked me to send him a tape and a picture. I remember I didn’t really have one. I had to put together a homemade demo tape I had recorded of this weird country music I was playing. I didn’t even have a real picture so I sent a Polaroid.”

The lack of promotional polish obviously didn’t matter, and soon he was flying to L.A. to begin working with the man whose albums Birth of Cool, Milestones and Kind of Blue revolutionized not only jazz, but American music in general.

“It was very intimidating just because it was Miles,” Rietveld says. “But he was actually very cool, making a lot of jokes.”

In fact, it was harder to win the acceptance of the band members than that of the leader himself.

“Some of the members of the band had this ‘Who is the new guy?’ thing because I was following Darryl Jones. But eventually they got to know me.”

The 47-year-old bass player was born in the Netherlands after his parents, Frenchy and Ann, fled the repressive government of Indonesia. The Dutch, who had essentially controlled the archipelago from 1700 until independence in 1949, granted the family political asylum.

“They weren’t supporters (of the government) so it was basically leave or get killed,” says Rietveld.

It didn’t take long for the cool climate of Northern Europe to get the family thinking about warmer environments, and with the help of an American friend the Rietvelds moved to California and,

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