What I’ve Been Listening To: Santana/Abraxas

1970 album is a highlight by the classic Santana band

Abraxas was the sophomore album by Santana. By the time it appeared in September 1970, the Latin jam rock band had gained significant popularity, fueled by a high-energy performance at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969 followed by the release of their eponymous debut record. While Santana established the sound and groove of the band’s classic lineup and was a successful album that peaked at no. 4 on the Billboard 200 in mid-November, I think Abraxas kicked things up a notch musically.

The album opens with Singing Winds, Crying Beasts, one of three all-instrumental tunes. Written by percussion and conga player Mike Carabello, the improvisational track with its mystic sounds almost feels like it wants to put listeners into a trance.

Next up: Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen, which undoubtedly is one of the record’s gems. It combines portions of the 1966 instrumental Gypsy Queen by Hungarian jazz guitarist Gábor Szabó and Black Magic Woman, a tune written by Fleetwood Mac founder and guitarist Peter Green. Fleetwood Mac, which at the time was a blues rock-oriented band, first released the track as a single in 1968. It was also included on the 1969 U.S. and UK compilation albums English Rose and The Pious Bird of Good Omen, respectively.

While doing some research for the post, I read that Green apparently encouraged Carlos Santana to record the tune. It turned out to be a good decision. Santana’s version of Black Magic Woman became a major hit, climbing to no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in January 1971. The royalties Green received from the cover became a significant source of income after he had left Fleetwood Mac.

Pretty much the same thing happened with Oye Como Va, another album highlight that has become a signature Latin rock tune. The song was written by Latin jazz and mambo artist Tito Puente in 1963. And just like with Black Magic Woman, it was Santana’s rendition that turned the song into a hit, reaching no. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. Keyboarder and lead vocalist Gregg Rolie’s Hammond B3, along with Santana’s guitar and the band’s rhythm section create a powerful sound and compelling groove that invites people to dance.

According to an NPR story, Puente autobiographer Steven Loza said Santana’s version “exposed the world to Tito Puente and to Latin music in general. And “Oye Como Va” helped catapult the salsa movement to the ’70s because it gave the music recognition all over the world. And that inspired a lot of people to go into salsa.” It also brought Puente an unexpected stream of royalties.

Samba Pa Ti is among Santana’s most popular tunes and one of the best known guitar-oriented instrumentals. An Ultimate Classic Rock story explains how the piece came about, quoting Santana: “‘Samba Pa Ti’ was conceived in New York City on a Sunday afternoon. I opened the window I saw this man in the street, he was drunk and he had a saxophone and a bottle of booze in his back pocket. And I kept looking at him because he kept struggling with himself. 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 […] I wrote the whole thing right there.”

I also found an interesting nugget about Santana’s guitar sound on the album and Samba Pa Ti in a background article on Gibson’s website titled, “Flashback 1970: How Carlos Santana Refined and Defined his Sound with Abraxas”: “Although the cornerstones of Santana’s sound on Abraxas are his Gibson SGs, volume and the pureness and control of his touch, there are spots where he audibly used a wah-wah pedal to attenuate his tone. On “Samba Pa Ti” he left the pedal cocked to an open position throughout the song, achieving a sweet, warm distortion that produced the album’s most subtle guitar tone.”

The last tune I’d like to highlight is Hope You’re Feeling Better, which was written by Rolie. His roaring Hammond B3 and Santana’s wah-wah-accentuated guitar make for an awesome sound. The song also became the album’s third single, though unlike Black Magic Woman and Oye Como Va, it didn’t chart.

Produced by Fred Catero and Carlos Santana in San Francisco, Abraxas became another major success for the band. It hit no. 1 on the Billboard 200 in October 1970 and remained in the chart for 88 weeks. The album also topped the charts in Australia and reached no. 2 in Canada, while in the UK it climbed to no. 7. It was certified 5X Multi-Platinum in April 2000 by the Recording Industry Association of America.

Abraxas was ranked number 207 on Rolling Stone magazine’s The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list from 2003. And last year, the record was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry due to its “cultural, historic, or artistic significance.”

In addition to Santana, Rolie and Carabello, the band’s members included David Brown (bass), Michael Shrieve (drums) and José “Chepito” Areas (percussion, conga, timbales). The same lineup plus guitarist Neal Schon would record Santana III, the next and last studio album of the classic Santana band, which appeared in September 1971. In 2013, most of the band – Santana, Rolie, Carabello, Schon and Shrieve – reunited for another album, Santana IV, which was recorded together with Benny Rietveld (bass) and Karl Perazzo (timbales, percussion, vocals).

Sources: Wikipedia, NPR, Ultimate Classic Rock, Gibson website, YouTube

13 thoughts on “What I’ve Been Listening To: Santana/Abraxas”

  1. “Abraxas” aus dem Jahr 1970 war sein grösster Wurf. Aber zu den echten Rockern gehörte Santana nie, dazu war er zu sehr beschäftigt mit seiner Gitarre und zu wenig beschäftigt mit der Ablehnung der moralischen und ästhetischen Vorstellungen der amerikanischen Mittelklasse.

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    1. Wohingegen Santana ueber die Jahrzehnte immer mal wieder einzelne Stuecke herausgebracht hat, die mir zusagen, gefaellt mir die Musik der klassischen Santana-Band mit Abstand am besten. “Abraxas” ist in diesem Zusammenhang mein Lieblingsalbum.

      Zwar kenne ich den Mut Santanas an auf Alben wie “Caravanserai”, “Welcome” und “Borboletta” seinen kuenstlerischen Instinkten zu folgen anstelle der Erfolgsformel der ersten drei Alben; gleichwohl sind mir diese Platten zu wenig zugaenglich.

      Wohingegen ich generell Kuenstler schaetze, die ihre Bekanntheit und Arbeit fuer konstruktive Sozialkritik einsetzen, ist dies fuer mich kein Hauptkriterium eines “echten Rockers.” Ausserdem wuerde diese Definition viele Kuenstler ausschliessen.

      Bei Santana kommt hinzu, dass Negativitaet offenkundig schlicht nicht in seinem Naturell liegt. Im Rahmen meiner Recherchen fuer den Post habe ich mehrere Interviews mit ihm auf YouTube gesehen. Dabei ist mir aufgefallen, dass er ein sehr nachdenklicher und positiv denkender Mensch ist und diese Haltung in gewisser Weise sogar predigt. Er hat selbt dem Mann oeffentlich vergeben, der ihn als Kind missbraucht hat. Dazu gehoert schon einiges an innerer Kraft.

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      1. Ich kenne Santana nur als Pop-Star, d.h. die ersten Alben. „Abraxas“ mit den Hits „Samba Pa Ti“, „Black Magic Woman“ und „Oye Como Va“ war Anfang der Siebziger ein grosser Erfolg. Das hängt auch damit zusammen, dass der Gitarrist hier ökonomischer mit seinen Tönen arbeitet als auf der ersten LP. Er lässt seine Musik atmen und setzt raffinierte Pausen. Das alles ist leicht verdauliche Schönheit, hat aber einen vitalen Rhythmus und Leidenschaft. Als Santana mit dem Namen „Devadip“ in die spirituell radikale Phase startete, bin ich ausgestiegen. LP’s wie „Caravanserei“ und „Love Devotion“ zeigen ja auch schnell die Grenzen dieses Melodikers. Die weit schweifenden Exkursionen durch modale Klanglandschaften wirken oft ziellos.

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    1. I got a chance to catch Carlos and the classic Santana band in 2016 after they had released Santana IV. While it’s not as good as the first three records, I still think it’s fairly decent. And the show was definitely great. While playing Soul Sacrifice they had some video footage from Woodstock going on in the background, comparing some of the musicians from then with now. I thought it was pretty cool!

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  2. We saw some version of the band a year or so ago at an outdoor venue. While I enjoyed it, I thought the sound was off and Carlos’ guitar was somewhat buried in the mix. They did ‘Toussaint L’Ouverture’ which is one of my favorites but it just didn’t have the firepower of the recording due to the sound. And even though the audience wasn’t young, I wondered how many of them recognized the tune,

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    1. Wow, admittedly, while the title sounded familiar, I had to look up “Toussaint L’Ouverture” myself! 🙂

      I have to say I like vocals in songs. Therefore, I generally find tunes like “Evil Ways”, “Oye Como Va” or “Everybody’s Everything” more approachable than instrumentals or tracks that are largely instrumental, such as Toussaint.

      That being said, there are definitely exceptions. For Santanta, I suppose the biggest one is “Samba Pa Ti.” I just love the tone of Carlos’ guitar in that tune! It’s also immediately recognizable – really a signature sound, in my opinion!

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      1. Both great tunes in different ways, IMHO. ‘Samba’ is moody and mysterious; ‘Toussaint’ is, to me, visceral and exciting. I get a thrill when I hear it. The other guitarist, of course, is a 17-year old Neal Schon. Fun fact – L’Ouverture was a slave in Haiti who helped his country get independence from France.

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      2. While I completely suck at rock trivia, which is why I generally pretend not to see the quizzes from our friend Aphoristic Album Reviews, I’m happy to report did know about young Neil Schon. And that he and Gregg Rolie were among the founders of Journey, a band I know you’re less fond of – I won’t hold it against you! 🙂

        BTW, does your lack of love for Journey also include their early (pre-Steve Perry) progressive rock period?

        While I generally prefer the Perry phase (I know, how could I?:-) ), I think there is some intriguing music on these early records.

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      3. I think my Journey lack-of-love rose from great disappointment. Santana was such an awesome band that I had high hopes for Journey. And to me they just sounded way too “arena-rock.” (Open Arms is a pretty good song.) This is not to say they sucked but they just didn’t hit the sweet spot for me. If I compare Santana and Journey, for me they’re not even in the same league. As to the progressive stuff, maybe I don’t know it. Recommend something and I’ll give it a spin when I can.

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      4. There’s no question that Santana and Journey are two very different bands. Three songs I like from Journey’s early phase are “Of A Lifetime” (Journey, 1975), “Look Into The Future” (Look Into The Future, 1976) and “Spaceman” (Next 1977).

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