Santana goes back deep into the roots of today’s music, not only just to the time when the Family Dog was at the Avalon, but back further into the heavy dosages of Latin and African rhythms that have been part of American music for a long time.
For it’s surely true that for all their Fender basses and fuzz tones, Santana is more deeply committed to the music defined and still played by Tito Puente, Machito, Mongo Santamaria, and all the glorious combinations of brass and rhythm that made the old Sunday afternoon dances such a delight, than to the Rolling Stones. Santana’s music is contemporary, but it comes from a tradition and part of what has provoked a curious reluctance on the part of some hard rock fans to accept Santana is that tradition. This is music to dance to, but it is music that shrieks for more advanced, dexterous and imaginative dancing than some of the freeform body motion that rock dancing has accepted. It is also music that asks for a certain kind of emotional abandon for maximum enjoyment. You don’t just listen to Santana; you get inside the rhythm, play it in your head or your body and participate.
The first time I heard this band properly was at one of the Family Dog dances at the Avalon and they were tremendously exciting. That’s a hallmark of Santana, it’s continual high level of excitement. When the band drops down from that high tension wire for a number or for a movement, it usually enters into one of those romantic lyric passages that Anglos have come to associate with syrupy sentimentality. But one man’s sentimentality is another’s pure emotion and Santana really is an emotional band.
Basically, they demonstrate to what incredible transports of ecstasy one can be taken by complex, insinuating rhythms, especially when they are played against one another not only in their patterns but also in the timbres of the sounds and the ranges wherein they are played. A full Santana rhythmic onslaught, as in “Tous-saint L’Overture” (who, contrary to one DJ I heard is no relation to the singer/producer, but rather was a military genius who has remained a hero to blacks and to many others because of the Haitian independence struggle more than 100 years ago) is one of the most complex assemblies of rhythmic patterns you can hear. The delight of the tensions brought into play when one rhythm is set against another with all the artful shifts in the beat and utilization of alternate timbres of sound is amazing. Against these rhythmic turbulances, the singing, wailing guitar of Carlos Santana is usually set and it provides a contrast that can sweep you up in its momentum immediately and carry you along. And above all, the band swings.
Lyrics are almost secondary to instrumental virtuosity with Santana and so are vocals. Frequently the lyrics are utilized as single lines for a unison shout or chant that in itself evolves into a rhythmic pattern played against the sounds the band is producing. Thus the band actually becomes an extended essay in rhythm.
Their new album goes right along with their previous ones in its content except that, for me anyway, it is more consistent. Prior Santana albums have had amazing things for me but also some downers. This LP stays there all the way. The work of the Tower of Power horn section and of Luis Gasca (ex-Woody Herman trumpeter and leader of his own group on a fine LP last year) helps, of course, by giving that punching brass sound that fits so well with this kind of music, The songs are all by the group except for Gene Ammons’ now classic “Jungle Strut” and Tito Puente’s “Para Los Rumberos” (which has Carlos Santana’s name substituted in the last chorus of the vocal for a nice bit).
Sometime I would like to see an analysis of the rhythms and patterns used by Santana done by some ethno-musicologist who could relate them to traditional Cuban, African and Haitian music and styles. I suspect it would be quite revealing. I am convinced that this band, which is really a city band bringing us the hot pavement and the cool nights as well as the rumble and the roar of the city, is solidly linked back to the hill country, the savannahs and the inland plains music of Africa and Cuba and the other sources of that magic rhythmic power of which they are such compelling examples.