Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #134. Subscribe to our print edition here!
Carlos Santana has such a way with words that interviewing him left us stuttering in awe. But if there’s one thing he’s more adept at than speaking, it’s working the fretboard of his guitar. A certified maniac creating bright, colourful solos that cut through the mix like a hot knife through butter, when Matt Doria gets the Mexican mind-melter on the phone, he’s treated to the best of both worlds.
When you’re dealing with a global population close to eight billion, it’s inevitable that for every musician whose sound is supposedly distinctive, there’s another few who come at least somewhat close to matching it – even if that means being inspired by the OG. But in the case of one Mr. Carlos Santana, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Though often imitated, the Mexican virtuoso’s tantalising blend of searing blues rock, polychromatic psychedelica, spiralling jazz and effervescent Latin flavours is one wholly unto himself. Perhaps the only thing more profound is that, across 32 albums over half a century of pouring his heart out into song, Santana’s eccentricity has never waned – each new album unearths a new side of his wizardly mind that had been waiting to show itself off.
Such is doubly true for his latest passion project, Africa Speaks: a rip-roaring collision of the red-hot rock ’n’ roll that Santana fans know and love, and the bright, bewitching whimsicality of traditional African music. As Santana rhapsodises, the hypnotic rhythms, thumping beats and soul-warming grooves of African music are built into his DNA; the emotions they elicit are more powerful than those mere words ever could, to the point where Santana looks to them as an explanation for why African cultures united by music are often the least violent, and the most at peace with the world around them.
“They’re healing,” he proclaims. “They bring bring hope and courage, which means joy, and joy always heals. Joy is the best medicine. In fact, I call this music ‘mystical medicine music’, to heal a twisted, crooked world.”
No matter where you stand on the socio-political spectrum, it’s hard to deny that in the present day, we could all use a little more joy – preferably via something that’s easily accessible to virtually everybody on Earth, that can be appreciated irrespective of it’s consumer’s personality or background. That’s the great thing about music in general: it can be such a powerful and poignant celebration of life; a universal enzyme for unfeigned joy that transcends the barriers of language, class, and the need to know someone personally to understand their message or plight.
“Joy is the opposite of fear,” Santana continues. “Everywhere you look, people are promoting fear. The Pentagon, the CIA, the FBI, Hollywood – you name it, everybody is using fear as a marketing tactic. And fear is very expensive; I can’t even tell you how much it costs to invest in the Pentagon’s security for a day. But when you have what we did at Woodstock, for example... If there was a Woodstock every weekend, Friday and Saturday, in every city in the world, there wouldn’t be a need for security. There wouldn’t be any of these mass shootings. And so this music from Africa, because of the drums, it helps people not want to hurt anyone – it makes you want to dance instead.”
At its core, Santana’s music exists to peddle little more than positivity. From the day he dedicated himself to the art of music in 1965, to just yesterday, the Woodstock wunderkind has retained one imperishable goal: to endow his votaries the courage to exist without pressure to justify their existence – something which has been imposed, wrongly, on almost every society known to mankind.
“I think the most important thing is to invite the listener to claim back their light – claim back their divinity,” Santana says. “Listening to music like this, it reminds you on a molecular level that you’ve been bamboozled – you’ve been deceived with the concept that you’re a wretched sinner; that you’re not worthy of your own light, or God’s grace. And that’s the beginning of misery and failure. A lot of people are not in any place to claim that you’re not a beam of light or that you’re not divine. However, when you do claim that you’re divine, and you claim that the best part of you is the love inside your heart, then you can do miracles and blessings – you can do the impossible.”
At 65 minutes of pure, transcendental adrenaline, Africa Speaks certainly achieves its mission of making the listener feel powerful – hell, it’s hard not to feel like you can crumble an army tank with your thoughts after soaking in a 10-minute solo of fierce, funk-inflicted guitars duelling out over a spate of tribal beats. Part of it comes down to how hard the album wallops on the eardrum: the guitar tone Santana wields on Africa Speaks is one of his heaviest and most impassioned to date. It’s almost metallic in its grunt – something Santana was emphatically keen to rip out on in the studio.
“I wanted to scare fear away,” he declares. “I want it to sound like the guitars had really sharp claws and teeth, to scare the crookedness away.”
Early on in the recording process, however, Santana almost riffed himself too hard into the realm of spookiness – so much so that he came close to scrapping the entire concept, only convinced otherwise by the one voice he simply could not defy. “It was scaring me when I was driving it into the amp,” he chuckles. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, people are gonna run for the hills when they hear this guitar!’ It’s just so piercing and intense. But then my inner voice said, ‘Leave it alone, man. This is the best part – it goes perfectly with Buika’s vocals and the music from the rest of the band. Don’t touch it!’ And I was just like, ‘Okay!’ I gotta keep that guy happy, y’know?”
A cornerstone of Santana’s inimitable fretting flavour, Africa Speaks is laquered in tight and twisting effects work – the most notable of which, of course, is the autocratic avalanche of wah-wah that he tears through with his solos.
“It was Miles Davis who taught me about the wah- wah,” Santana notes. “He went, ‘You got a wah-way yet?’ And I said, ‘No,’ and he went, ‘Man, you gotta get a freakin’ wah-wah!’ Because he was listening to Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, and those guys were all using wah-wah in the beginning. And then the only guitar I used was a Frankenstein Stratocaster that I found in a Chicago music store a little while ago. I always play my PRS guitars live, but in the studio, for the last five years or so, I’ve been playing this yellow Stratocaster. It’s really funky and really heavy, and really, really gnarly.”
As a guitar player, Santana never really settled on any one set of techniques or routines to jam through a song. He’s remained adamant on exploring beyond the limitations of his fretboard, looking at the guitar less as an instrument, with a predetermined set of rules one must follow to accomplish a pattern, and more as a vehicle with which he can intone the passion and emotions that just can’t be transmitted through words.
“The important thing for me is that I don’t think about a technique or a method, or anything like that,” Santana says. “The things I concentrate on are passion, emotion, feelings, and just a whole lot of fire. When I’m able to tap into that passion and emotion on the guitar, it elevates me to a place where time and gravity disappear. That’s when you know you’ve played a good solo – when you don’t even remember what you did until you listen back on it.”
The ‘vehicle’ metaphor is one that Santana gravitates towards the most. His solos take the listener on a journey, after all, and that’s exactly the approach he takes to slashing one out. “If you give me your address and you give me five, six, seven different routes to your house,” he continues, “Once I remember the corners and this and that, I’m going to get to your house, y’know?
“I always say that I take my fingers for a walk. I don’t practise, I go for a walk with Jimi – or Sonny Sharrock or Marvin Gaye or Stevie Ray – and when I come back, I notice that a lot of the stuff that they do rubs off on me. Of course, I’m gonna sound like me anyway, no matter what I do – I tried to sound like Otis Rush and B.B. King when I was a teenager, but I gave up after a while because I couldn’t sound like them, I can only sound like me. And I just finally accepted that that was a gift, not a curse.”
To immortalise the enchanting slate of musical alchemy we hear on Africa Speaks, Santana – along with a team of 49 collaborators, including his wife Cindy Blackman on drums, legendary producer Rick Rubin, and scene-stealing Spanish vocalist Buika – holed up in Rubin’s gorgeous Shangri-La studio in Malibu for ten jam-packed days (pun intended) of inspired fraternisation.
The recording process was strikingly loose: the band would head in every morning largely blind to what they’d be performing that day, relying on the power of improvisation and collaboration to unlock their inner musical genius. They would record live to tape with no second takes and minimal overdubs, the end result a colossal 49 songs taking on lives of their own. When you consider that the shortest of 11 cuts that made it onto Africa Speaks runs a weighty four-and-a-half minutes, you have to imagine there’s a solid few hours of gold left over there.
“It was really fun,” Santana raves of the marathon recording session. “Sometimes we were doing, like, seven songs a day. The only thing I would do before we tracked each song was, like a chef, I would make sure that everything was the perfect temperature – the tempo, the feel and the groove – and then we would play through it as a band.
“We wouldn’t talk about the song before we played it; what we did is we had Tommy Anthony, the rhythm guitar brother – the night before we recorded, he would learn the songs and take on the role of the director. We’d start playing it and he would say, ‘Here comes a verse!’ And after the verse, ‘Here comes the chorus!’ He was our GPS. And he was guiding us all through a different microphone, so we could hear him, but it didn’t go into the music. And that’s how we were able to do 49 songs in ten days.”