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Genre: Latin Rock, Jazz Rock
Preceded by: Santana (1969)
Followed by: Santana III (1971)
Related to: not available yet
The border between Mexico and the USA is an interesting phenomenon. It’s the border with the most legal passages in the world. Besides, it’s probably also the border with the most illegal passages worldwide. Whatever the exact numbers are, Mexico as well as the US are both benefited somehow by this flow of immigrants. Cheap manpower is needed in the US, while the money transfers in the other direction are needed to support the Mexican economy. Carlos Santana was one of those numerous Mexicans crossing this border when moving from Tijuana to San Francisco and although I have no clue about his support of the Mexican economy, I do know he enriched the US and the rest of the world with Abraxas.
In this hippie capital of America, young Carlos was a live witness of the arising flower power culture. This led him to discovering different kind of musical genres, thereby slowly creating his own musical melting pot. In a time and at a place where a dozen bands a day were founded (with another dozen breaking up again), it was no surprise that Carlos himself was discovered one day. However, each of these discoveries in those days came with a legend, so here we go: Carlos was discovered while substituting the guitar player of an improvised band (composed by members of different bands like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead), that was replacing an intoxicated Paul Butterfield.
Carlos quickly formed his own first band shortly afterwards: the Santana Blues Band (1967). He recruited David Brown from California on bass and Gregg Rolie (the original singer of Journey later on) from Seattle on keyboards and lead vocals. Some replacements and additions on drums and percussion were passed through before the band was shaped that would shine on the legendary Woodstock stage. It really stood out on this line up filled with psychedelic and folk rock bands, thanks to the Latin percussion setup consisting of congas, timbales and bongos. The eccentric combination of the rhythms that these instruments were able to produce together with Carlos’ traditional blues rock riffs made their performance a huge success; the Mexican immigrant was conquering America.
The band’s first and self-eponymous album (1969) was released as a logical outcome of this break-through and became a great success in Carlos’ new homeland. Does that mean that it was all good news for the band at that point? Certainly not, as the tensions within the group were following the success. The percussionists were dealing with personal issues and on top of that Rolie and Santana were having different views on which direction to continue with the band. Rolie wanted to emphasize the hard (blues) rock roots of the band, while Santana wanted to widen the jazzy sound. However, before the original Woodstock line-up would fall apart, it released two more parts of a legendary trilogy: Abraxas and Santana III.
Abraxas kicks off with ‘Singing Winds, Crying Beasts’ (written by conga player Mike Carabello). This track is in the end nothing more than the intro of what’s about to come, but an intro can hardly sound more perfect. With the album sleeve in my hands I’m slowly leaving the world I’m laying in while I’m sinking in this Fata Morgana of mystical sounds. Calmed at first by the wind chimes, but being startled suddenly by the crying beasts that are rising from Santana’s guitar. Aware of the danger but still a little uncomfortable because of this strange world I’m entering, I’m starting to hear some identifiable sounds. This is one of Fleetwood Mac’s early hits I’m listening to: ‘Black Magic Woman’, written by Peter Green. However, this version (sung by Rolie) has transformed the original blues rock song in an esoteric epos, thanks to the adding of versatile percussion, the mix with ‘Gypsy Queen’ and of course the enchanting guitar licks of the master himself.
I’m completely under the spell of this album now and another familiar composition has reached me when I recognize ‘Oye Como Va’ from the legendary Tito Puente. But instead of the flute and a brass section I’m overwhelmed by a striking combo of Greg Rolie’s pumping organ and Santana’s dancing guitar riff, interchanged by the Latin vocals. By adding these rock and blues elements to this song, Santana was laying the groundworks for Latin rock. But how about Santana’s own writing skills? Just when I’m reaching for the album sleeve to find about this, ‘Incident at Neshabur’ starts to play. Carlos wrote this song together with Alberto Gianquinto, which turned out to be a gem. Starting with a strong portion of jazz fusion, the song immediately grips you at your throat, strengthening this grip with a sequence of rhythm changes. The song keeps growing and growing with one solo after another, before releasing you with a relaxing outro. Time to take a breath now, before turning the record over.
The first song of side 2, ‘Se A Cabo’, immediately kicks us back into the album. It’s another fast song, but a lot shorter this time. Written by conga and timbales player Chepito Areas, it may be no surprise that the percussion is taking control of this song. But let’s not stray off too much, as the best song of the album is waiting for us: ‘Mother’s Daughter’. Maybe not that well-known as some songs on Side 1, as it doesn’t have that typical latin rock sound many people associate with Santana. But the real hard rock roots of the band are to be heard right here (clearly a song written by Rolie), with the vocals, guitar, bass, organ and drums forming a great combo.
Variation is one of the secret powers of this album, tremendously illustrated by the way ‘Mother’s Daughter’ is followed by ‘Samba Pa Ti’, another song that was written by Santana and another latin rock classic. By far the slowest song of the album, completely instrumental and obviously dominated by the guitar playing of Sir Carlos. Over to another Rolie song then with ‘Hope You’re Feeling Better’, which was the third single of the album after ‘Black Magic Woman’ and ‘Oyo Como Va’. The song illustrates once more the great rock ‘n roll voice of Gregg Rolie, who opens the song himself with a great organ intro. The guitar playing is more raw than on the rest of the album, making this song a last highlight. Sure, there’s one more track left, ‘El Nicoya’, but this is in fact the most disappointing part of the album. After such a great intro, you might also expect some more inspiration in bringing it to a conclusion.
Abraxas knocked Cosmo’s Factory from #1 in the US, to be replaced at its turn (temporarily) by Led Zeppelin III. As pointed out already in this review, this success was mainly due to the fact that it contains so much variation without becoming an incoherent collection of musical genres. The smooth transitions between different genres give this album a very mature character, especially for a band that only just had its break-through and had to release its second album. Let’s finish with a quote from the album’s back cover, a line from Herman Hesse’s book Demian, that explains where the band got the name for the album from (the painting was used as album cover), and which is meanwhile also applicable to the album itself:
“We stood before it and began to freeze inside from the exertion. We questioned the painting, berated it, made love to it, prayed to it: We called it mother, called it whore and slut, called it our beloved, called it Abraxas….”