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