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

What I’ve Been Listening To: Lenny Kravitz/Raise Vibration

Eleventh studio album illustrates that after 30 years Kravitz maintains his gift to combine retro with modern sounds and write catchy tunes

Somehow I completely missed Lenny Kravitz’s new album Raise Vibration when it was released on September 7. I guess I should perhaps subscribe to a music publication to better stay on top of new music, except of course I’m not into most music that’s coming out these days. Anyway, I “discovered” Raise Vibration earlier today after I had seen a related clip on Facebook. Most of the reviews I read were quick to point out Kravitz’s 11th studio release doesn’t break any new ground. I mostly agree and that’s just fine with me.

I feel many critics have given Kravitz a hard time since he emerged in September 1989 with Let Love Rule. Some have said his music too much reflects his ’60s influences like Jimi Hendrix or early Led Zeppelin. Last time I checked both were among the most outstanding artists on the planet. Some folks have maintained Kravitz doesn’t sound black enough, while others have found he sounded too white. All of this is complete and utter nonsense, in my opinion!

Lenny Kravitz

When I look at Kravitz, I see an incredibly talented artist who writes, sings and produces his own music. Oh, and apart from being a capable guitarist, he also plays most of the other instruments on his records. Most importantly, Kravitz has the gift to mix retro elements with modern sounds and write catchy tunes. All of these qualities are present on Raise Vibration, his first new album in four years since Strut from September 2014.

But evidently, Kravitz found himself in a very different place three years ago after he had finished his last world tour, he told Rolling Stone in April this year. “I really wasn’t sure where I was going musically,” Kravitz explained. “After doing this for 30 years, I wasn’t feeling it. I’d never felt that confused about what to do. And it was kind of a scary place. You don’t know when it’s going to come.” While there are techniques that can stimulate creativity, ultimately, you can’t force it.

Lenny Kravitz In Concert

Kravitz bravely rejected the advice from others to collaborate with producers and songwriters who know how to score hits. “I’ve never really worked that way, following trends or doing what people think you should do,” he further noted to Rolling Stone. “I’ve always made music that came naturally out of me.” And fortunately that’s exactly what happened when one night Kravitz woke up at 4:00 am in his house in the Bahamas with a song in his head, which would become Low, one of the standouts on the album. It proofed to be the catalyst he needed to spur his artistic creativity. “I learned you have to trust yourself and the artist in yourself. Always trust what you have.” Yes! And with that let’s get to some music.

I’d like to kick things off with the above mentioned Low. Like all other tunes on Raise Vibration except for two, it was written by Kravitz. The song also became the second single released ahead of the album on May 29. If the “oohs” in the track sound like Michael Jackson, that’s because it features posthumous, presumably sampled “guest vocals” from the King of Pop. This is one great funky tune!

Next up: The album’s title track. I just love the guitar sound and the cool breaks on that track. The native American chants and drums toward the end ad an unusual element. So much for not breaking any new ground!

Johnny Cash, a moving tribute to the country legend, is based on an encounter Kravitz had with the Man in Black and his wife June Carter Cash in 1995, when they were all staying at producer Rick Rubin’s apartment in Los Angeles. At the time his mother was receiving treatment for breast cancer. After getting a call from the hospital that this mom had passed away, Johnny and June consoled Kravitz. “…they decided at that moment (to) treat me like they would treat someone in their family,” Kravitz said during a BBC interview, as reported by Music-News.com. “It was a beautiful moment of humanity and love.”

Another gem on the album is Here To Love, a nice piano-driven ballad.

The last tune I’d like to call out is It’s Enough, which also became the album’s lead single released on May 11. It’s got a cool Marvin Gaye vibe that lyrically is reminiscent of  What’s Going On with a bass line that sounds like it could have been inspired by Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler). Also check out the horns that start at around 6 minutes into the song: nice touch of ’70s Temptations – super cool!

Like he usually does, Kravitz produced the album and plays most of the instruments. Other than string and horn players, the only other musicians are longtime collaborator and guitarist Craig Ross, who also co-wrote two of the tracks with Kravitz, as well as keyboardist and orchestrator David Baron. Kravitz is supporting the album with a world tour. The 2018 section started in April ahead of the record’s release and mostly focused on Europe. It also included 10 dates in the U.S., which wrapped up in Las Vegas in late October. According to the schedule, the tour will resume in March 2019 with a series of gigs in South America before traveling back to Europe. Currently, the last date is June 11, 2019 in London, U.K.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, Music-News.com, Lenny Kravitz website, YouTube