Santana's Supernatural

Thirty years after his recording debut, Carlos Santana has the number one CD on the charts

By Abelardo de la Pe??a Jr.
Published on LatinoLA: November 12, 1999

Santana's Supernatural

Prologue: This started off as a simple review of Carlos Santana's new CD "Supernatural" before I went off into different tangents. En breve, it is a great collection of songs in a variety of styles, blessed with a wide range of singers (Lauryn Hill, Dave Matthews, Man?) and anchored by Santana's trademark screaming guitar (although there aren't nearly enough guitar solos for my taste). Anyway, go buy or borrow it. You won't be disappointed.

It's been a long, winding journey for Carlos Santana, the Mexican-born master rock guitarist and bandleader, who has been thrilling an international audience with his six-string pyrotechnics since the late sixties, creating and expanding on a genre of music that combines Latino rhythms (primarily Afro-Cuban) with rock and jazz inflections.

These days, headlines rage on how ? thirty years after his recording debut ? he has the number one CD on the charts for two weeks in a row, the recently released "Supernatural." This CD features a bunch of guest singers and musicians, from Lauryn Hill of the Fugees, former guitar god Eric Clapton, and pop en espa?ol favorites Man?.

Not bad from a 50-something Mexicano raised in Tijuana.

Exploding on the scene back in 1969 with an incredible appearance at Woodstock (I wasn't there, but I saw the movie), Santana moved to the forefront of rock consciousness with three classic albums in quick succession that featured songs that are still played on 'classic rock' radio stations and are mainstays of his live concerts. In fact, they usually enjoy the greatest response from the very mixed crowds that flock to his sold-out shows.

Old and fledgling hippies, young Latino groovers, graying cha-chas and homies, altogether we stand and cheer at the first notes of "Europa" and "Samba Pa Ti" and sing along to the suite that begins with "Black Magic Woman" and ends with Tito Puente-penned "Oye Como Va." He recently headlined at the Arrowhead Pond and the Hollywood Bowl. I was there at the Bowl (but more on that later).

I consider myself an old fan, (and not just 'cause I'm old). My first garage band attempted versions of "Evil Ways" and "Soul Sacrifice," badly, yes, but with real respect and enthusiasm. Back in the late sixties, early seventies, Santana was the only major band led by someone who kind of looked like me (although my dad wouldn't let my hair grow as long as his), and who actually used Spanish in their lyrics.

I blasted "Abraxas" at my girlfriend's house (much to the dismay of her dad, heh, heh), and when I came home from basic training before being sent overseas (and getting married in between), my friends took me out and got me loaded to the strains of "Everybody's Everything," "I Ain't Got Nobody," and "Toussaint L'Overture" from the third album.

Throughout the years, I kept in touch with Santana, the band and the man, occasionally buying or borrowing an LP or tape. Despite the many personnel moves and changes in musical direction, every now and then a cut from one of his albums would exhibit the excellence of his early recordings (the previously-mentioned "Europa", "Dance, Sister, Dance" and, you know, I can't remember any more).

But the thrill would usually be sustained for only a cut or two. Rummaging through used records shops, I would stumble onto a Santana that I'd somehow missed, take it home, slap it on, and either start dancing around, playing air guitar, or shake my head and wonder "what's up with that?"

Ironically, I'd never gone to a live show until about five years ago when a friend came in from out of town ? and wanting to show him a good time ? we drove to the Greek and scored a couple tickets from a scalper.

From the very last row, among the long-hairs and cholos, we were blown away by an incredible display of dynamic head-exploding music anchored by driving percussion, the soaring guitars screams of Carlos and his brother Jorge, and most memorably, the between-songs preachings of Carlos Santana, who spoke of Miles Davis, Bob Marley, the Virgen de Guadalupe, peace in the streets, education, etc., with a sincerity that really made me contemplate what he had to say.

In the past few years, I have attended the church of Carlos Santana whenever it descends upon LatinoLA. Whether paired with Jeff Beck, Los Lobos, or Ozomatli, the band usually comes out on top, thoroughly earning its headlining status. I would walk out charged, buzzed, spiritualized, with the feeling lasts for days.

Somehow, however, his last show this past month at the Hollywood Bowl left me rather cold. Maybe it was because I literally had a cold and the flu, a real nasty one, and had sat under the stars at the Bowl just the night before at the Latin Jazz and Salsa Festival. As I huddled under layers of sweaters, the music which Santana presented that night sounded unusually flat and predictable. I wasn't too familiar with the songs from the new CD, having only seen and heard snippets of "Maria, Maria" and the Everlast song on KROQ. I was thoroughly impressed, however, by all the young women singing along to "Smooth." Maybe ol' Carlos had something there, I thought.

The show kind of meandered along, though. Carlos didn't really speak much. A long boring drum solo gave way to a long boring bass solo. His trademark guitar solos began to sound the same, and when keyboardist started that familiar riff to "Black Magic Woman," I knew the show was finally coming to a close. People cheered, sang and danced to "Oye Como Va, " He left, came back to encore with "Jingo," just like the time before and the time before that. And the show was over.

I woke up feeling weak and crabby the next day, still wallowing in my illness, but mostly in my disappointment. Carlos let me down, damn it! I wandered to my stack of dusty LP's and pulled out a long-forgotten album ? "Love, Devotion, Surrender". This was something he recorded not long after he dissolved the group that produced the first three classic albums. Apparently, Santana had gone through a personal and professional crisis and found solace in the teachings of Sri Chinmoy, one of the gurus d'jour that were out handholding and taking advantage of rock stars, back in the day.

This album was a collaboration with jazz/rock fusion guitarist John McLaughlin, then known as Mahavishnu John McLaughlin. (For a while, Santana was going by "Devadip" Carlos Santana. I sure am glad that phase is over.) It was reviled by the critics and I think it sold about 100 copies.

It begins with a screaming meditation, a radical re-working of jazz pioneer John Coltrane's classic "A Love Supreme." The truth is, when I first acquired the album, I listened to it once or twice. It's lack of the classic Santana rock structure, the intense fury of the instrumentals, and fluid meanderings of the two lead players scared me, confused me. I very rarely brought it out.

But that morning, still medicated, mocos dripping, body aching, I finally got it! In that cut, with its whipsaw interplay and forward charges, two gifted, creative, confused individuals were talking directly to God (any and all gods) in the way they best knew, with strings and wires and electricity and intensity. And that was what was missing from the night before.

I quickly went through the albums Santana recorded about the same time: "Caravanserai", "Welcome", and "Borboleta". Listening to the cuts, reading the liner notes, I began to appreciate the confusion going on in his life, his times, when he began dabbling in jazz ouvre, adding Asian, Brazilian and bebop elements to the Afro-Cuban underpinnings. Those weird, wonderful songs sonically described the emotions I have been feeling of late, as I get more in more involved with this crazy internet project while wondering if I can afford to pay my rent and feed my family while getting this off the ground.(Maybe I need a guru, que no?)

I avoided all other music for a couple weeks, as I made peace with the fact that maybe Santana's relevance (to me) was a thing of the past.

Then, a couple weeks ago, I had a birthday. Taking me out to breakfast, my oldest daughter placed on the table a small bag. I opened it, and sure enough, it was "Supernatural" by Santana. "Thanks, Ana," I said, studied the cover, opened the pages, read the lyrics and the credits. And when I got home, I put the CD on the shelf.

And finally, last week, I brought it here, to the opulent offices of LatinoLA.com. Where it has not left the CD player, the one that is constantly on.

Starting with the timbale beat that opens the driving, chanting "(Da Le) Yaleo", Santana covers a wide ranging, thoroughly classic, yet surprisingly contemporary amalgam of styles. The guest vocalists, including Dave Matthews, Lauryn Hill, Eagle Eye Cherry, KC Porter and Rob Thomas, each bring personality and individuality to the cuts they participate in. The affect of this many vocal collaborators isn't really jarring. In thirty years, Santana has had a least twice as many singers (can you name at least one?)

From the romantic ("Love of My Life" and "Wishing It Was") to the sensual ("Smooth" and "Maria, Maria") to the political ('Migra" and "Put Your Light On") to the spiritual ("Do You Like the Way"), Santana flourishes, astounds, but, most important in this time and place, entertains. It's a very commercial collection, with something for virtually anybody, which I am thinking is it's appeal to such a wide range of people. The same mixed demographic that show up and bounce around to his shows.

It's been good background, and foreground, music during these past few days. And as it is gradually set aside for something newer, softer (or harder), more singular in its sounds, I will remain a fan and be encouraged that even an old Latino like Santana can come up with music (or any other creative endeavor) that is of its time.

?Que Dios lo bendiga, Carlos Santana!

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