In praise of the man and his music | Carlos Santana
"Love is sweet, devotion sweeter, surrender the sweetest". The words of Sri Chimnoy, guru of two of today's most creative electric guitarists, Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana, and responsible in part for setting these two leading lights on a path that many tread in the cause of trendy rock and roll images but few wholeheartedly believe in.
Although the styles of McLaughlin and Santana vary quite markedly (Mahavishnu's is more jazz based while Santana has his roots in blues), there's a natural affinity that comes from their devotion to guru Chimnoy and the teachings of their religion.
Carlos Santana's fairy tale rise from his impoverished Puerto Rican birthplace to international rock stardom was amazing enough. This new direction, even though attended by a larger following, and resulting in better music, still leaves Carlos unsatisfied. He is never satisfied with his latest offering, ceaselessly searching for perfection, and yet willing to follow a life apart from music if the "Supreme One" wished.
After six years as a top name, Santana (the man and the band) still has enough spark to get an old single - "Samba Pa Ti" — and his latest album with the band — Borborletta — into the charts. He remains at the peak of his career. Santana's burning need to work hasn't diminished either, and sandwiched between his five albums with the band are recordings with Buddy Miles and more recently McLaughlin and Alice Coltrane.
Carlos's early days were spent playing violin, his father's chosen instrument. Later he changed to bass — his father wasn't keen on his son's improvisations — and eventually joined a small band that worked bars playing Bobby Bland and Ray Charles material. But not until Carlos changed to electric guitar did things start to warm up.
A jam with Mike Bloomfield, Elvin Bishop, The Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia and others at a Sunday Fillmore West gig did the trick and soon Carlos had formed the original Santana band at the height of the flower power boom. Latin music wasn't Santana's strong point in those early days at the Matrix Club in San Francisco. They started on blues and hard rock and roll, later introducing what Carlos called 'Afro Rock' in the Eddie Harris vain. Blues was the Santana band's bedrock, the hits of B.B. King, Ray Charles and Jimmy Reed their early show stoppers.
Latin music was an afterthought really, surprising for a band that had a good deal of Latin American musicians in it. Carlos saw Ray Morera in a New York club and realised then that that was the sort of stuff to make Santana great. He wasn't wrong and soon they'd released their first album on CBS Records titled Santana. A big hit at Woodstock and the dizzy climb to fame had begun.
A brilliant album in the form of Abraxas followed in 1970 and the incredibly tight band just grew and grew in strength. They were a legend after only two albums and the names of the individual members were household words in musical circles. Tracks off the first two albums were classics in their own way too.
"Evil Ways", "Soul Sacrifices", "Samba Pa Ti", "Hope You're Feeling Better", Peter Green's "Black Magic Woman" conjured up the incredibly moving Santana rhythms, non-stop musical movement that captured the imagination of millions of record buyers stunned or hungry for something different after the death of flower power.
The early band was a powerful unit. Few could match the collective musicianship locked together as Santana. Carlos, drummer Mike Shrieve and keyboard player Gregg Rolie spearheaded the sixpiece that was completed by Dave Brown (bass), Mike Carrabello (conga/percussion) and Jose Chepito Areas (timbales/percussion), a pulsating, driving, rhythmic band that was second to none.
European, American and world tours followed and a new guitarist, Neal Schon, was added for the new album, again titled simply Santana. This was '71 and already the cracks were beginning to show. Unrest and a tugging of loyalties in various directions began to make their mark.
Carlos had become unhappy with the band's progress by early '72 and thought that they had stagnated. He tried to put things right within the band, removing the harmful elements, he thought, but in the end they removed him. The Santana band, without their brilliant founder member, seemed doomed to sink without a trace. After a few gigs they realised that all wasn't quite what they'd expected — Carlos Santana was the band.
The first revolution over, out went bassist David Brown and Carrabello, replaced by Doug Raunch and Mingo Lewis to record the band's fourth, and some say, most stunning album Caravanserai. This was the most definite move away from their latin vitals and Carlos had his way. The stagnation, if it was ever noticed outside the band, wasn't seen again.
Carlos himself had tired of the staple diet of Latin music. It had it's place in their repertoire but so did blues and rock. What fascinated Carlos now was Indian and Mexican music and he drew great inspiration from the late John Coltrane who ventured very heavily into Indian music toward the end of his life.
Caravanserai took a giant step toward what Carlos had seen in his musical eye for a long time — the spiritual theme so sensitive and true that it might well have been the original impetus for this flood of expression. Tracks like "Waves Within" and "Song of the Wind" evoke such inner peace that the listener can only be carried along by the sheer beauty and joy of the music.
Carlos's guitar work, underlined by the second line guitar of Schon, reaches new heights of expression, always developing as the album progresses from the steely precision of his Abraxas days but in addition there is a warmth and flowing tonal suppleness that is as immediately seductive as the swimming, wrap-around Santana rhythms.
The album feels a whole. There's no jagged switching from track to track, although the themes do move from inside the framework to include various influences - Mexican for example, with an intelligent use of castanets on "All The Love Of The Universe". Certainly some of the best Santana playing comes from this album, notes tumbling and falling from Carlos's guitar like a cascading waterfall, and all around him the shimmering cymbal work of Shrieve and enveloping, full blooded yet subtle rhythms from Lewis/Rolie/Raunch.
Staggering album that it was, two of the band weren't pleased with the way things were going and another showdown was needed to clear the air. Now long time associate Rolie was out as was guitarist Schon, neither happy with the prospects that were ahead of them, yet disillusioned with Carlos's new belief and its possible impact on the music.
If Caravanserai looked to a new musical direction, Welcome in '73 cemented it. Richard Kermode and Tom Coster had joined around this time and their influences seem to have made quite a big difference. Carlos too had moved fast and the John Coltrane influences were now beginning to surface. The title track was a Coltrane composition and John's widow Alice also had a hand in arrangements.
Welcome followed Carlos's very successful album venture with Mahavishnu John McLaughlin, Love, Devotion, Surrender, and he included the single on this album, with vocals which added a completely new feel to the track. Vocals were now becoming a more important facet of the music. Whereas before the band had handled them all, Carlos now called on Leon Thomas, a move that paid off in part.
McLaughlin and Chimnoy had a great deal to do with the making of Welcome, spiritually if not physically (although McLaughlin does play on one track), and the tranquility and serenity of the album is a key part of the overall effect. "Going Home" can't be beaten for pure beauty and simplicity and although they return to the Latin beginnings with "Samba De Sausalito", you know there's no going back for Carlos now.
But the greatest part of Santana's change in musical attitudes and expressions is that although he has moved along a lot further with his solo exploits (Mahavishnu John and more recently with Turiya Alice Coltrane), he's still sensitive enough to the prospects and possibilities of the band not to flood them with this new vision too quickly.
The most recent album Borborletta (the band's sixth) has continued to advance but still isn't as deeply committed as his solo efforts. There is absent the very definite jazz feel that the presence of Dave Holland, Jack Dejonnette and Phil Brown gave to Illuminations with Coltrane. The progression here is slower, more careful and suitably paced to allow even the most ardent '67 Santana fans to follow.
With this new found success (or should it be continued success?) Carlos has managed to introduce this new realisation to a massive audience. The band have just completed tours of America and the Far East and only last year they played to over 300,000 people on a tour of Central and South America, one of the largest tours ever undertaken by a band in the South American continent.
Although the success has continued, Santana must have lost a lot of listeners around and after Caravanserai, those who couldn't or wouldn't keep pace with the changes.
In the words of Sri Chimnoy 'surrender is the sweetest' and to surrender to the searching, fulfilling music of Santana can only prove the point.
Interview by Ben Matthews