When I saw Santana playing at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival earlier this year, I was impressed by a lot of things. I was impressed by the band’s dynamic musicianship. I was impressed with how what I thought of as pop tunes were turned inside out allowing the jazz spirit within to shine as bright as the Louisiana sun. The thing that really got to me though was how Carlos Santana related to his music as a spiritual quest. When he spoke between songs, it felt like a mixture of Tony Robbins motivational pep talk and testifying to the power of love and music. The huge crowd at the Acura Stage came to be entertained. Santana gave them a great show, and wanted them to take away something more, something that would enrich their souls.
My Jazz Fest experience colors my reaction to Santana’s latest release, Africa Speaks. The record opens with a brief spoken introduction by Santana laying out the record’s purpose, to celebrate the universal truth that all music and culture was conceived in Africa. That opening track, “Africa Speaks” then unfolds like a jazz-rock suite. Santana’s guitar engages in a dialog with Spanish singer, Buika that will be a thread running through the album. “Batonga” follows with an energetic Latin rock jam featuring David K Mathews riffing B3 organ and Buika’s lament, “It’s hard to sleep when you’re smart and hungry.” In the context of this song, her words, “please don’t go, don’t go away,” ring like a prayer begging the subject to stay alive, to make things better.
Africa Speaks does a couple of things very well. The album is about the spirit of Africa. Songs like “Parrisos Quemados” may evoke North African rhythms and vocal timbers, but it’s not pretending to be an African song. Carlos and Buika are taking us on their journey, their tribute to ideas of a continent. The album also captures the immediacy and fire of Santana’s live show. The sessions were recorded quickly, often using only one take, at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studio. Africa Speaks is free of the studio gloss that robs the life from many recordings. In fact, the music sounds feral, just barely contained and intent on pulling us along on a journey.