The Best Ballads
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"God's garden is vast; there's room for all kinds of flowers including cheap plastic ones. Some people even keep these flowers at home where they don't need looking after. Much of today's music sounds like that to me!"
- Carlos Santana
The vibrant rhythms of Latin America, spiritual jazz improvisations, urban blues roots and pure rock 'n' roll - this is the stuff of Carlos Santana, the poetic blending of which he has made his own. As a guitarist par excellence he has influenced generations of aspiring artistes and he is still counted amongst the elite of creative rock veterans, a phenomenon to which his latest release Santana Brothers bears testimony.
Santana stands out amongst the great guitarists of this world as a melodic stylist noted expecially for his soft, warm and catchy refrains. "I want my guitar to sound like a human voice," he says and, indeed, his guitar has been talking loud and clear to fans worldwide for almost thirty years/
Born on 20 July 1947, the son of a coffee-house violinist in Autlan de Jalisco, he was raised in a family of twelve in the Mexican border town of Tijuana. "I know what it is to be poor," he recalls. "No kidding, I could still bed down for the night in a park today." From the age of five he received violin tuition from his father; later he switched to the guitar, having been enthused by B.B. King, John Mayall and Ray Charles.
As a teenager in the early sixties he earned his first wages in the down-and-out bars of his home town. After his family moved to San Francisco he and his newly-formed SANTANA Blues BAND started hanging out at the legendary Fillmore West, a live-acts club managed by concert impresario Bill Graham.
After a lot of persuasion and successful sessions with Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield, Santana and his boys were given a support slot with Steve Miller and Howlin' Wolf. Their own concerts followed at Fillmore West which rapidly transformed them from secret tip to major box-office attraction. The year was 1968.
Graham began to play a decisive role in guiding the still insecure musician and, as manager, he encouraged Santana to attempt a harder mixture of latino, blues, jazz and rock 'n' roll. It was a brave and innovative venture which eventually paid off -along with Joe Cocker, Santana became the discovery at the legendary Woodstock Festival in Bethel, New York. "Before our performance no one knew who we were," says Santana. "After half an hour thousands of arms started reaching out to us and when we reached the number Soul Sacrifice everybody really started going wild."
If Woodstock saw the birth of the worldwide Woodstock Nat/on movement, for Santana it signalled the beginning of his international career. A record deal was signed with CBS and the first Santana album (which included Evil Ways and Jingo) sold over a million copies. The highly complex and tremendously infectious mixture of diverse musical styles was greeted with superlative enthusiasm by fans and critics alike.
Their following album Abraxas heralded Santana's international breakthrough. Songs such as Samba Pa Ti and Black Magic Woman notched up fantastic chart successes the world over.
It was almost too good. Just when it seemed that Carlos Santana had written the soundtrack for a new generation, the man within, winded by the sudden onrush of superstardom began to fall apart: "I went through hell at that time: I was being bombarded with so many things; I felt empty and pumped out; I had a panic fear of the future which is how I started with drugs.
"His failure to succumb unresistingly to despair is credited to the spiritual strength he found in music, especially that of his main influences John Coltrane and Miles Davies: "I lay at night in my hotel room and suddenly heart love Supreme on the radio. That gave me strength, at least for a while."
With the more jazz-oriented album Caravanserei Santana did not just tread new musical paths in 1973. There were fundamental changes in his personal life and his view of the world. Jolted by the drug-related deaths of Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, he followed an example set by John Mclaughlin and joined the sect of Indian guru Sri Chinmoy. From one extreme to another, the former junkie became a religious ascetic.
Sadly for rock 'n' roll fans the world over, the teachings of Chinmoy did not include a whole-some appreciation of their musical genre, which he simply dismissed as "earth music". Santana, faithfully adhering to this quaint stricture, rededicated his talent in observation of "universal music of godly inspiration and greatness" and other curiosities. "Unless you pursue the spiritual path you'll become a victim of this business," he claimed back then. "Bob Dylan became a Christian, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter followed Buddhism. Without Sri Chinmoy I would have been lost," says a more seasoned Santana today.
The period marked by Chinmoy's influence did see a number of esoteric album releases and the singles Festival, Moonflower, Marathon and the huge hit She's Not There registered well with the record-buying public. But, at the behest of CBS, Bill Graham and his mother, Santana finally returned to familiar territory with the production Amigos (1976) and within five years an intellectually stronger SANTANA emerged as his own guru - a man fully possessed of his own talents and destiny.
"I play latin music in the way I feel it," he maintains. "There are a lot of German acts on the international scene such as the Scorpions who don't play polka or traditional folk music - they play rock music influenced by icons such as Led Zeppelin. In the same way, I don't just play blues or latin all day because I'm interested in the whole range of music from A to Z. I'm open to many influences and simply interpret latin music as I understand it. I need the lot - blues, Brasilian music, jazz, even Russian folk music or a pretty waltz. One-sidedness is not my style."
Around the time the albums Havana Moon and Freedom were released, and in conjunction with his willingness to draw from a deeper well, SANTANA declared a new interest in music theory: "Harmony theory fascinates me a lot. Look at Miles Davies, Wayne Shorter and Igor Stravinsky. These men were and are real geniuses in this field. In the past I concentrated a lot on melodies with which I also had great success, but I still have a lot to learn about chord structure and sequence."
When the band celebrated its twentieth anniversary with the release of the triple album Viva Santana it was widely feared that Santana was about to tour for the last time a misconception neatly dispelled by Santana himself with the tantalising promise of new departures: "The performances represent the closing of a chapter, following which a new one will begin. Santana's music will continue to be performed live on stage in a different form. Don't worry, we'll still carry on playing hits such as Black Magic Woman but in future the sound will be different."
Following further studio albums, including Spirits Dancing In The flesh, the eagerly anticipated live album Sacred fire was released in 1993. The album was recorded during an acclaimed tour of South America which many today regard as having demonstrated Santana at his unsurpassable best, B.B. King facial expressions and all.
The last call came in the autumn of 1994 when Carlos, together with his brother Jorge and his nephew Carlos Hernandez, released the album Sontana Brothers under the same project name.
Carlos Santana is the pioneer of a very distinctive music style born deep within the artist and which refuses labels. "Everything else is Las Vegas or circus music," says Santana with an air of conviction.
And there's not a plastic flower in sight.
- Thomas Steinberg (April 1996)