This is no time for Carlos Santana to have an identity crisis. Is he the leader of a global dance party or just another supplicant to the cruel demands of radio formats?
From his band’s beginnings in the late 1960s, Santana seemed to have a mission: to realize the one-world idealism of the Sixties by merging rock with the entire African diaspora (especially Afro-Cuban drumming). Santana and his band should have made Shaman with the confidence of a group that had survived for three decades and rebounded to multiplatinum; their 1999 album Supernatural sold more than 11 million copies in the United States.
Supernatural arrived when it seemed American pop was welcoming the Latin infusion that Santana had been bringing to rock since the band covered Fleetwood Mac’s “Black Magic Woman” in 1970. For Supernatural, Santana (advised by record-label mastermind Clive Davis) engaged a platoon of songwriters and producers to come up with his first Top Ten singles in nearly thirty years. This time, with Davis overseeing once again, perhaps Santana could have used his new popularity to unleash the Latin-rock-jazz-blues-soul-worldbeat hybrids that have always left his concert audiences ecstatic — or at least to prove that Latin pop can reach deeper than Ricky Martin or Enrique Iglesias. No such luck. Too often, Shaman silences the conga drums and goes on to slice up Santana’s old utopian community into tidy demographic niches. Through the years, Santana relied on other people’s tunes, from Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va” to the Zombies’ “She’s Not There,” as radio fare, but they were portals to the band’s universalist jams.
Supernatural was more fixated on pop potential, yet its guests also sounded like Santana fans, determined to share his Afro-Latin spirit. On Shaman, too many visitors sound as if they’re climbing on a gravy train, handing over standard-issue love songs for Santana overdubs. It makes you wonder whether Santana ever met some of his collaborators. The parade of guest musicians sets the priorities on Shaman: nineteen-year-old Michelle Branch singing the sunny neo-1960s pop of the leadoff single, “The Game of Love,” plus P.O.D. and Chad Kroeger for hard rock, Seal and Citizen Cope for lite rock, Musiq and Dido for ballads, Alejandro Lerner for Latin pop and Placido Domingo for, well, PBS? Santana, a more important musician than any of them will ever be, too often ends up sounding like a sideman.
He’s a hot sideman, of course. His instantly recognizable guitar — with its sustain and fringe of distortion, its bluesy sting or its impulsive flamencolike tremolos — is always a passionate, humanizing touch. P.O.D. gave Santana a stinker, “America” (a she-left-me song that cheesily substitutes “America” for her name), but his ever-climbing solo sears the edges like a flame under a cheap burger.
Santana dutifully places hooks alongside Dido in one of her trip-hop hymns, “Feels Like Fire,” and he squeezes out the blues for mopey Citizen Cope in “Sideways.” While he responds to Branch’s voice in “Game of Love” or Seal in “You Are My Kind” with sinuous empathy, he also sounds like someone trying to get a word in edgewise. Nothing can save “Since Supernatural,” a Wyclef Jean rap-R&B singsong that gropes embarrassingly for street credibility Santana doesn’t need.
Other guests, such as socially conscious Ozomatli and giddy Macy Gray, at least tried to adapt to Santana. And Shaman still offers glimpses of Santana’s globe-spanning euphoria. The band steams through versions of “Adouma,” by Angelique Kidjo, of Benin, and “Foo Foo,” by Haiti’s Tabou Combo, along with “Aye Aye Aye,” which reunites Santana with the band’s original drummer, Michael Shrieve. Meanwhile, “Victory Is Won” is the latest of Santana’s blissful, cascading guitar ballads. Those are the songs that leap out of the album, joyful and organic without calculation. The only consolation of Shaman is that Santana can’t bring all his guests on tour — which means that in concert, he will be left with the good stuff.