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Santana: Africa Speaks
by George Graham
(Concord Records as broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/10/2019)
For a music genre that in its day did not trust anyone over 30, rock has had its share of veterans who continue to maintain an active career after several decades. Some of them have contented themselves playing the oldies circuit, but a quite a significant number have remained creative making interesting new music. Among septugenerian artists are who have recently released worthwhile new albums are Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Joan Baez, Boz Scaggs, Mavis Staples, David Crosby, John Mayall, and Willie Nelson – the latter two being octogenerians – to name a few.
This week, we have another veteran rocker who 50 years after the release of his debut album is out with an interesting new recording, Carlos Santana, as the Santana band. The album is called Africa Speaks.
Mexican-born guitarist Carlos Santana was was part of the burgeoning San Francisco music scene around the Summer of Love in 1967, where his first big break was substituting for Paul Butterfield at the Fillmore West. Eventually Santana put together what was originally called the Santana Blues Band, but by the late 1960s, incorporated the Latin influence that was the trademark of the group. They were booked for Woodstock just at about the time their first album was released, and the rest is history.
Over the years, Santana and his evolving bands incorporated assorted influences, but especially a Latin tinge, with a sound dominated by Carlos Santana’s searing but lyrical guitar work. The Santana band has had some pop success over the years, with various vocalists coming and going from the lineup.
The new album Africa Speaks is well-named, with a theme of world music influence, personified by a distinctive Spanish vocalist named Buika, who has been attracting attention with her own recordings. She provides a kind of exotic sound. But in terms of what Santana himself does, it’s in many ways a flashback to the earliest Santana album, with his quickly recognizable guitar sound, and several instances of jams like the old days. Rhythmically, the album has tracks that run from straight rock to the polyrhythms of African influence.
The most prominent guest on the album is singer Buika, who wrote most of the lyrics on Africa Speaks and most of those are in Spanish. Another guest vocalist is the English world music artist Laura Mvule. Also appearing in the current incarnation of the Santana band are keyboard man David K. Matthews, Carlos Santana’s wife Cindy Blackman Santana on drums, Benny Rieveld on bass, and Tommy Anthony on rhythm guitar, plus several percussionists and backing vocalists.
The producer for Africa Speaks was Rick Rubin, who has worked with a lot of veteran artists over the years, including producing Johnny Cash’s last albums. The publicity for Africa Speaks says that the group spent 10 days in the studio and recorded 49 different pieces. They were whittled down to eleven on the album, though it’s still a generous recording clocking in at over 64 minutes.
Opening is the title piece Africa Speaks, which begins with a kind of prologue, read by Santana, setting up the piece in a kind of atmospheric way evoking the psychedelic days of the 1960s. <<>> Then it gets into a world music/rock sequence with the vocals of Buika. <<>>
Batonga also features Buika in a kind of rock jam with Carlos Santana doing his thing on his guitar. It’s a nice blend of 1969 with a world music hue. <<>>
More into the world music groove is Oye Este Mi Canto, a which transitions from an African 6-beat rhythm to straight out rock for Santana’s guitar solo. <<>>
One track with English lyrics is Blue Skies which has a guest appearance by British world music artist Laura Mvula. With keyboardist Matthews’ piano, the piece has a jazzy texture. <<>> Before it gets into an old fashioned rock guitar jam. <<>>
For me, one of the highlights of the album is Breaking Down the Door, also in English, with a kind of calypso beat. It’s quite infectious with all the album’s stylistic ingredients coming together well. <>>
With all different tracks that the band recorded for this album, there are obviously some instances of music that arose from jams. Los Invisibles is a good example. It’s based on a funk beat, with some added lyrics, but it’s basically a chance for Santana to shred on his guitar. <<>>
With more of a chill-out groove is a piece called Bembele, another of the album’s highlights. Santana’s guitar work is more spare and quite tasteful. It features mainly hand percussion, instead of a regular rock drum set. <<>>
The album ends with Candombe Cumbele providing another helping of the album’s mix of exotic sounds thanks to Buika’s vocal, and Santana’s classic guitar style. <<>>
Santana’s new album, appearing 50 years after the group’s debut release, is a worthwhile mixture of the new and old. Spanish world music vocalist Buika provides a distinctive global flavor, but Carlos Santana plays plenty of his classic, fiery guitar licks. In fact to me, this album evokes his earlier work on guitar more so than most of his recent releases. Africa Speaks is a distillation of 49 different tracks recorded over 10 days, and to my ears a lot of it has a kind of jam band feel with perhaps the lyrics set to existing jams. As a result there is a hit-or-miss quality to some of the material, though most of it is quite strong, and Santana’s guitar work is as good as ever.
Our audio quality grade is “C-minus.” The whole recording is badly over-compressed seemingly to try to win some kind of “loudness war.” The audio often sounds over-driven and not very clean and lacks clarity. An examination of the waveform shows heavy digital clipping.
After a half century of albums, Carlos Santana shows no sign of slowing down, and with the world music influence on his new release, shows that he’s still staying creative.
(c) Copyright 2019 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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