Santana launched their career half a century ago with a cover of Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji’s “Jingo” and now, for their 25th album, they’ve created a love letter to Africa. Although Africa Speaks sounds undeniably like a Santana album, with Carlos’ fiery guitar bursts and reedy-voiced singer Buika’s Spanish-language exclamaciones, it explodes from the start with African rhythms and a unique freedom to the way the group plays the songs.
With the exceptions of “Breaking Down the Door,” a faithful cover of the Manu Chao–penned Calypso Rose song “Abatina,” the catchy “Batonga,” and the alt-rock–leaning “Yo Me Lo Meresco,” the tracks on Africa Speaks unfold more like jazz tunes, finding their way as they go. The title song, which starts with Carlos speaking with his voice instead of his guitar for once, saying, “all and everything was conceived here in Africa, the cradle of civilization,” and expands slowly, picking up the pace, adding some percussion, spotlighting Buika’s voice, like a musical birth.
And while Buika is at the forefront on each of the songs, Carlos Santana’s guitar is still the most important voice. On “Oya Este Mi Canto,” the percussion picks up the pace halfway through and Santana’s guitar erupts with wah-wah fury. “Paraísos Quemados” is a funky guitar showcase that allows Carlos to make his instrument stutter and cry before it even kicks into gear. And on “Luna Hechicera,” he slowly wraps his melodies around Buika’s until the instrumental break where he plays call-and-response phrases before making his guitar hum under Buika’s voice when she comes back. Fifty years after his “Soul Sacrifice” made hippies’ jaws drop all over Woodstock, Carlos Santana’s guitar playing remains a force of nature.
It’s that raw inspiration that makes Africa Speaks compelling. The group reportedly recorded some 49 songs over a 10-day session with producer Rick Rubin and picked 11 to finish off for Africa Speaks; the record is just the songs they that moved them right then and there. And for that reason, Africa Speaks is not the sort of record to listen to on headphones; you have to hear the way it springs forth from speakers, like a live performance, to fully appreciate it. There aren’t any Billboard-targeting hits here — there’s no “Smooth” or even an “Oye Como Va,” though “Breaking Down the Door” comes close — and that’s part of the appeal. Woodstock was 50 years ago; this is Santana now. The spirit is the same, yet somehow it’s even freer.