Santana Celebrates Africa On Seductive New Studio Album

Deep in the jungle, beyond the reach of greed/You hear the voices of spirits/With their frequency of light/Making sounds like the crackling of stars at night/Communicating with plants, animals and mankind/Affirming the universal truth…All and everything was conceived here in Africa/The cradle of civilization. These words, spoken by Carlos Santana, are the intro to his new album Africa Speaks that was released yesterday. After having listened to it for a couple of times, I’m pretty excited about the infectious grooves and Carlos’ guitar-playing, which continues to amaze me. This record is made for summer!

Appearing on Concord Records, Africa Speaks is Santana’s 25th studio album and his first with producer Rick Rubin. It was recorded together with Santana’s band at Rubin’s Shangri La Studios in Malibu. The record also features two female singers with African heritage: Spanish vocalist María Concepción Balboa Buika, who goes by Buika, and on one track British singer Laura Mvula. Santana’s website characterizes the music as inspired by the melodies, sounds and rhythms of Africa, but in many ways, this is a classic Santana album combining Latin Afro-Cuban rhythms with Carlos’ mighty signature guitar sound.

Carlos Santana

In January, Santana told this to Rolling Stone about the upcoming album, which then was supposed to be titled Global Revelation: “I went to Rick to see if he would, as Miles Davis would say, ‘Would you have eyes to do something with me? I know you’ve worked with everybody like Johnny Cash and the Chili Peppers and Metallica,’ And he goes, ‘Well, what are you interested in doing?’ I said, ‘Nothing but African music.’ So can you believe it? We record 49 songs in 10 days. He was very gracious, because it was like a hurricane to record six, seven songs in a day. Rick said, ‘With Clive Davis, you had a bunch of guest stars and singers. Who do you want in here?’ I said, ‘I only want two women: Laura Mvula and Buika.’ And he said, ‘OK.’ So we called them and they said yes.”

Let’s get to some music. Here’s the opener Africa Speaks. The tune has a bit of a mysterious vibe to it. I also like how it builds. And once Santana comes in with his great guitar sound, man, the track just takes off!

Oye Este Mi Canto starts with a smooth laid back Latin jazz feel to it, with Buika shining on vocals. Then check out what happens at around 2 minutes and 28 seconds: Things pick up, with Santana coming in playing a great wah-wah guitar solo. And all for a sudden, it feels like going back 50 years to Woodstock. Then at around 3 minutes and 50 seconds, the song resumes its initial groove – so cool!

Here’s Blue Skies, the track featuring Laura Mvula, who is sharing vocals with Buika. Not sure why Apple Music and YouTube don’t mention her – either an embarrassing oversight or outright disrespectful!

Paraísos Quemados is one of my favorite tunes on the album. I just dig the funky groove and the excellent bassline by Benny Rietveld. As a Hammond fan, I also like what David K. Mathews is doing on the keys. Oh, and did I mention Carlos on guitar?

The last track I’d like to highlight is Breaking Down The Door, which according to a Rolling Stone review is a cover of the Calypso Rose song Abatina, written by Manu Chao. Another nice tune that perhaps is a bit more conventional compared to most other tracks that have more of a fusion feel to it.

This review would be incomplete without acknowledging Santana’s excellent backing band. In addition to the above mentioned bassist and keyboarder Rietveld and Mathews, respectively, the line-up features Carlos’ wife Cindy Blackman Santana (drums),  Tommy Anthony (guitars and vocals), Andy Vargas and Ray Greene (both vocals), as well as percussionists Karl Perazzo and Paoli Mejías.

So what does Rick Rubin think about the album and its making? “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” he said during a filmed conversation. “Hearing it on record is one thing, but being in the room and watching it happen was another. I couldn’t imagine anyone who loves music sitting in the position I was in watching this not being blown away.”

“Carlos asked to meet and I had never met him before. He said he wanted to go into to the studio and start recording. And I said, ‘well, let’s talk about the songs and let’s listen to songs’ and he said, ‘well, I don’t really have any songs.’ And I said, ‘okay, interesting,’ and he said, ‘well, I have an idea.’ He played me some pieces of music and then he sent me an iPod filled with African music. And he said, ‘live with this for a little bit and then we’ll talk about it.’ I lived with it and it was fantastic!”

“And he said, ‘I think that’s the energy of what I wanna do, and I wanna start by jamming with the band, using these kinds of rhythms and see where it goes.’ Very unusual to work for me in that way. Usually, the song comes first, and the studio is more about documenting the thing we already know how it’s gonna go. In in this case, it was really, we went to the studio completely blank, jamming on these instrumental pieces, and it was really great – really, really great!” You can watch the full clip here.

I have to say this album has reignited my enthusiasm about Carlos Santana and makes me feel like seeing again.  There would definitely be opportunity this year. Later this month, Santana is embarking on a tour to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his 1999 Supernatural studio album. While it definitely resulted in a resurgence of his career, I’m not particularly fond of this record and much prefer his first three albums with the classic Santana band. Santana is also playing two Woodstock-related festivals in August, which I likely can’t afford. But he told People he is planning a series of dates next year to support his new album. Now, that may be something worthwhile looking into.

Sources: Wikipedia, Santana website, Rolling Stone, People, YouTube

18 thoughts on “Santana Celebrates Africa On Seductive New Studio Album”

  1. Great write-up that has me very eager to hear this album. I had been a Santana junkie for decades but he lost me with Supernatural…not because it was a pop success but because I didn’t connect with most of the material & guest musicians. Bought it the day of release and after numerous listens & returned it (or traded it in). It took the Santana IV album to get me back on board, and his collaboration with The Isley Brothers was wonderful as well, so I’m happy that Carlos & Co. are delivering the goods again. I played the EP that was released earlier this year and really enjoyed it so I’m primed for the full album.

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    1. I’m with you here. While I’m happy for Santana that Supernatural gave him a nice late career boost, it just doesn’t get close to his first three albums. That’s where the true magic happened, in my humble opinion.

      I also thought Santana IV was pretty good. In fact, I saw him on the supporting tour with members of the classic Santana band. While they were performing, they had Woodstock footage on a giant screen in the background, so you could see how the guys looked then and now – pretty cool!

      I haven’t heard the EP and only casually listened into the Isley Brothers album.

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      1. As much as I love the first three albums, my Top 5 Santana albums includes Caravanserai, Borboletta and Moonflower. In fact, they’re probably my Top 3. I don’t expect that level of genius from him/them anymore, but I’m eager to hear if some of that magic is captured on the new album.

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      2. While I acknowledge that musically speaking Borboletta and Caravanerai are top notch, Moonflower speaks more to me, since it’s more similar to the early Santana I dig. That fact that it includes various live veterans of tunes from the early era certainly doesn’t hurt!😀

        I’m curious what you think of “Africa Speaks.”

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      3. I’m glad you’re familiar with Caravanserai and Borboletta, and I understand why they may not have had the same kind of impact on you as those first three albums. Nice to know we agree about Moonflower. I love that record. Just finished my first listen of “Africa Speaks” on Spotify and I really enjoyed it. At times I forgot that I was listening to Santana and just enjoyed the African rhythms & vocals. After a few more listens I have a feeling I’ll love it.

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      4. I feel the album presents an interesting blend. Some of the tracks feel more improvisational while others are more structured. I also like Buika’s vocals. Apparently, this was the first time she worked with a rock-oriented artist like Santana.

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  2. Carlos – as you know from my guitarist list – ranks high with me. I’ll give this one a spin. And I’ll disagree with you guys on ‘Supernatural.’ I thought it was terrific and I find that a lot of the pushback seems to be less around the quality of it as an album and more about the fact that Carlos dared to reach for a more commercial audience. It’s not easy to stay in the pop/rock field for as many years as Carlos has done. And if you can get over yourselves, you’d realize that ‘Smooth’ is a great fucking song.

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  3. I think you’re going to dig the new album, Jim.

    Also, you’re right, Smooth is not a bad song. When referring to Supernatural, I was speaking in relative terms, comparing that album to Santana’s early music. Admittedly, you could argue that’s an unfair comparison. It‘s perhaps the equivalent to comparing McCartney solo albums to Beatles records.

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    1. I still don’t like Supernatural and it had nothing to do with Santana “going commercial.” They did plenty of radio-friendly pop music in the past (their version of Russ Ballard’s “I’m Winning” comes to mind, and I love it). Coming after personal favorites like Milagro and The Santana Brothers, and seeing Santana at least once a year throughout the ’90s, I found Supernatural to be mostly watered-down Santana. The pop collaborations didn’t bother me, nor did they entice me, but it was the other material on that record which I found limp & uninspired. It’s not terrible and I’m glad they expanded their audience exponentially but, for me, the thrill was gone. It wasn’t until the Guitar Heaven album that I started feeling the excitement again. I don’t expect classics anymore but I’m thrilled that he’s challenging his fans again with albums like Africa Speaks. Jim, I hope you like it.

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      1. Understood. But whether we like it or not, it was those collaborations that saved his ass, kept him in business so that he COULD go on and make albums like ‘Africa.’ That is just the nature of the beast if you want to stay in the popular eye I’m afraid. We’ll have to agree to disagree about ‘Supernatural’ because I think the real POS is the follow-up, ‘Shaman.’ That has some pop singer named Michelle Branch on it and it is god-awful.

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  4. You know how you want to love an album really badly but then listen to it and are disappointed? Alas, that’s how I felt about this one. I stand behind no one in my love for all things Santana (and as mentioned elsewhere, am actually taking an online recorded video guitar class from him.) Like Beck, I’m willing to listen to wherever he may choose to explore.

    Yet I came away somewhat liking, but not loving, this album. Why? Well, firstly the tracks are less songs than they are grooves. Nothing wrong that per se but I guess I’m just a song guy. And then there’s the matter of the vocals. I totally get that the singing is in all likelihood very true to African culture. But it is just NOT my bag. I find a little of it goes a very long way. “Luna Hechicera” is a case in point.

    That said, Carlos’ guitar is on point. I could definitely enjoy an album with one or two tracks like this, the rest, well, dunno. I’m no longer expecting ‘Abraxas’ or for that matter ‘Supernatural.’ But I’m not really connecting with Carlos’ latest stuff including Santana IV.

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    1. That’s okay, Jim. As I usually like to say in this type of situation, the world would be a boring place, if we all liked the same music.

      BTW, I’ve seen the ads for Carlos’ online class. How do you like it thus far?

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      1. At two sessions in, too early to call. I’m so used to just learning solos on my own I’m finding it super hard to have the patience to actually sit and study.

        But that said, it’s very cool to have a private (if pre-recorded) lesson from the Great One. I’ve gotten a few good ideas. But thus far, there’s no “lesson” to play from what he gives you. He plays some licks and they’re transcribed. But there’s nothing compelling to learn, not in the same way as if, say, he taught you how to play “Samba Pa Ti” or “Europa.”

        But thus far it’s mostly been him talking about playing with passion and commitment and then playing a few random licks which are transcribed. So, the jury is out on this one thus far. I’ll see how the remainder of the lessons go, keep you posted.

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  5. Christain I will be putting this on (perfect for summer listening) and giving it a good go. Listening to the first cut and yeah it feels like “back to the roots” already. Carlos lost me a while ago as far as direction but this sounds good . I think hooking up with Rubin might have something to do with it. Just spun ‘Paraisos Quemadas” . That’s more like it.

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