#334: Abraxas, Santana
There’s no shame in not knowing that the two hits off this album were actually covers — which is to say, please don’t mock me for not knowing that the two hits off this album were covers.
The first, “Black Magic Woman / Gypsy Queen,” is a mashup of a piercing Gábor Szabó riff and a Fleetwood Mac song written by guitar hero Peter Green. The second is an original tune from bandleader Tito Puente, who I definitely don’t only know from his appearance on The Simpsons’ “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” “Oye Como Va” is exactly the kind of sound I think of when I think of Santana: heavy rock mixed with traditional Latin rhythms and instrumentation. So funny that they didn’t write it.
But that doesn’t make Santana anything less than original. In fact, they were a jam band until a manager convinced them to tone it down if they had any hope of commercial success. And much like musical genius Sade, Santana opted to name his band after himself. And why not? They couldn’t play without him.
Santana is one of those guitarists that I can pretty much pick out “on sight.” When I hear a Santana song, I usually can figure out that it’s Santana before being told so. That’s because Carlos Santana’s guitar has such a voice. There’s no other way to describe it. It’s like singing. In fact, see “Singing Winds, Crying Beasts,” with the fat, pregnant guitar solo that just slices through the piano vamp. “Samba Pa Ti” is the most melodic, reminding me a bit of that Carpenters’ song. Santana wrote this one by himself, and told a beautiful story about writing it about a drunk man in New York City with “a saxophone and a bottle of booze in his back pocket. … He couldn’t make up his mind which one to put in his mouth first, the saxophone or the bottle, and I immediately heard a song.” What a lovely way to write a song — maybe that’s what all that voice is.
(Side note, some of the stories Santana tells about these songs are amazing. The Wikipedia page about “Incident at Neshabur” is unreal: Santana says that “Neshabur is where the army of Toussaint Louverture — who was a black revolutionary — defeated Napoleon in Haiti,” but Wikipedia says “There seems to be no place called Neshabur on Haiti… nor has there been a single event in which the French army under Napoleon (who was never on Haiti) was defeated by the rebels under Toussaint (who had by then died in a prison cell in France).” Carlos Santana: Author, Historical Fiction.)
As a casual, “Smooth” Santana fan, I was surprised that so much of this is your standard classic rock fare. I had no idea that a founding member of Santana was also a founding member of Journey — he was in Journey longer than Santana! Gregg Rolie left the group a few years after this record was released, which is a shame, because the songs where Rolie sings are the ones that rock the hardest — “Mother’s Daughter” forces Carlos to do some power chords, as does “Hope You’re Feeling Better.”
But I think that it’s fair to say, based on this pretty badass album cover, that Santana is going for something a little mystical here. Santana is trying to tap into both rock and roll and spooky primal vibes — see the dirty percussion of “Se a Cabo” and the acoustic chant of “El Nicoya.”
Regardless of what they were going for, I hardly ever get the spins from just listening to the guitar, and that was a delight.
Unfun Fact: Percussionist Marcus Malone was forced to leave the group just a year before they released this record, after he stabbed somebody. Later on, Santana reconnected with him in a video that’s sort of bittersweet.