And so we ask the question for the last time in this current series – But is it Americana? Deputy Editor, Jonathan Aird, throws his rhinestone-encrusted Stetson into the ring with a well argued case for the early output of Carlos Santana and his band. Has he convinced you? We hope you’ve found this series to be a bit of fun and, perhaps, an opportunity to view some artists in a different light, and we hope to return sometime in the New Year to ask the question on behalf of other artists. Until then, “Oye Como Va mi Ritmo”!
It’s normal for these columns to lay out a sales pitch to persuade the reader that yes indeed the chosen artist is the very heart and soul of Americana, we just hadn’t acknowledged that fact yet. That’s not happening with Santana – I love a lot of the music that Carlos Santana has produced over the decades, with a general leaning towards what we’d now call quite accurately “the early stuff“. But I’m not going to argue that the funk of ‘Amigos‘ is Americana, nor am I claiming that the jazz-fusion of ‘Caravanserai‘ is anything other than jazz-fusion. That would be an ask too far. So, what do I mean when I make the suggestion that Santana’s music should be regarded as Americana? Well, I mean that some of the music that this ever-changing and evolving band produced does hit the spot – and more specifically the first three albums and even more specifically the undoubted masterpiece that is ‘Abraxas‘.
Carlos Santana’s band came out of the same San Fransisco scene that spawned Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish, Jefferson Airplane, and Big Brother and the Holding Company. And like those bands brought early influences to bear on a new fused version of those influences and the emerging rock (as opposed to rock and roll) genre. Most often these were blues and folk music roots – with Grateful Dead adding in some jug band novelty. All of these bands – and Santana – would be seized on by a counter-culture looking to express themselves in a different way and all could now be grouped under the general heading of psychedelic rock.
Santana released their first album in 1969 and in the same year were catapulted to fame through their appearance at the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair where they really owned the stage. What was it they brought to the party that no-one else was doing? They had roots in the electric blues rock, and Carlos Santana was such an admirer of Peter Green and the original Fleetwood Mac that the band covered ‘Black Magic Woman‘ on ‘Abraxas‘ but what the band also had was a strong Latin American influence stemming from Carlos’ own Mexican heritage. And if Americana is the music that comes from the folk roots of the United States and thereby encompasses music as diverse as Appalachian folk and Louisianna cajun as well as the country blues, then it is surely no great leap to say that a music that brings in the sounds of both the Southern states and the countries of Central and South America also has a claim to be a founding element of Americana. And that, my friends, is my argument encapsulated. Whatever else Santana would go on to be, across those first three albums they are a blend of American roots music and rock – and that’s a definition of Americana right there.
So let’s go on and take a look at some of the highlights of the second album from Santana.
‘Abraxas‘ is a perfect album – laying out its stall from the opening piano and chime notes of ‘Singing Winds, Crying Beasts’ which is cut across by Carlos Santana’s precise guitar work before the tom-toms and organ take over. It’s a masterpiece of instrumental music, drawing in the listener, teasing the expectation that it will burst into song and ultimately refusing to do so since the intricately layered instruments do all the speaking that is required.
There’s then the first of many segues into ‘Black Magic Woman / Gypsy Queen‘ on which Santana do the only really artistically acceptable thing with a cover – they take the song and make it fully their own.
There then comes the Latin heart of the album – ‘Oye Como Va‘, ‘Incident at Neshabur‘ and ‘Se A Cabo‘, all very different grooves, all with stunning percussion and keyboards acting as the perfect frame for Santana’s ever-inventive guitar playing. The first composition knocks you down with the force of the playing, the second is an intricate journey of reflection and the third lights a fire and burns everything down. Astonishing, after hundreds of listens.
There are other songs as well, ‘Mother’s Daughter‘ is in the same realm as ‘Black Magic Woman’, only this time it’s a kiss-off to a girlfriend which makes the (then quite shocking) suggestion that they’d have done better if she was more like her mother. Taking a more direct, and less controversial, line to positive feelings is ‘Hope You’re Feeling Better‘ which finally matches a full set of lyrics to those insistent Latin rhythms that have been such a part of the album’s instrumentals.
Across ‘Abraxas‘ what Santana achieve – uniquely for the first three albums – is a truly satisfying fulfillment of a concept as songs move from one to the next with a seamless ease which makes the whole album feel like a single piece of music. It’s majestic and mystic, it’s earthy and sublime, it’s raucous and so damn precise that it’s scary. One of the finest albums to emerge in the last sixty years and worth every moment you care to give it.
Charles Perry described the Santana of these early years in “The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll” as having avoided falling into “the lugubrious, been-stoned-too-long lethargy” trap of their contemporaries saying that instead “Santana was as tight and sharp as a patent-leather shoe” which nicely sums up that sound. It was a huge onslaught of percussion and guitar work that was truly searing – but it could be gentle, capturing an elemental quality of soft breezes and slowly moving water before skidding on a dime and pounding out deep earthy rhythms and letting that firey guitar rip once more. It brought another strand of American roots music into the rock realm, and you can hear echoes of the achievement in some of the Desert Rock that drifts around the edges of our genre. Rarely with the punch and precision of Santana, whose multi-percussionist needs briefly grew the band to double-digit membership for ‘Santana III‘. But then, after all, who can afford a band that big?
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