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Africa Speaks shows Santana still has some tricks up his sleeve

On Santana’s 25th album, Africa Speaks (2019), Santana builds on the momentum from 2016’s Santana IV that reunited the classic 1969 Woodstock lineup that recorded the band’s finest material. Like Santana IV, Carlos shows he still has some tricks up his sleeve, and can produce creative fresh music. The album is never able to match the raw energy and originality of Santana (1969), Abraxas (1970), Santana (III) (1971), and Caravanserai (1972), but the collection of songs produced by Rick Rubin distinctively sounds like a Santana album, and is much better than all of their output (with the umpteenth lineup changes) from 1973 up til 2016.

As suggested by the title, the album is inspired by Africa, and congas and other drums provide constant rhythm throughout, but characteristically the band, including Carlos’s wife Cindy Blackman Santana on drums, melds musical genres together into a latin jazz rock stew. One of the most remarkable aspects of “Africa Speaks”, is the vocal contributions from Buika, a soulful Spanish singer (who sounds even better live– check her Tiny Desk Concert here). Buika’s parents are from Equatorial Guinea and on tracks like “Los Invisibles” she sings in the Bube language, one of the languages spoken there.

Carlos Santana opens up the album on the titular track with a spiritual message, saying “Deep in the jungle/ Beyond the reach of greed / You hear the voices of spirits / With their frequency of light / Making sounds like the crackling of stars at night / Communicating with plants, animals, and mankind / Affirming the universal truth / All and everything was conceived here in Africa / The cradle of civilization”. On first listen I thought Santana’s guitar riffs were excessively flashy as they dominate the first track, but they grow on you with successive listens, and are certainly made to be played at high volumes.

“Oye este mi canto”, the third song is an absolute jam, replete with high paced percussion, slick guitar solos, and a steady groove throughout. Buika’s voice shakes with passion as she tells people in spanish to listen to her song, asking for “menos mentiras del mundo, mas compania (less lies in the world, more company)”. Santana’s decision to use a younger singer was wise, and the female voice gives a welcome new flavor to the band’s sound.

One of the best songs on the album, “Blue Skies” contains an intriguing piano and guitar intro that builds to a killer electric guitar solo halfway through. Buika sings “When light is raining over me/ And then I remember the smile of my mama/ When she thinks in the eyes of my grandma… When I feel that I’m lost/ Don’t know where I belong/ When a rose make my tears roll down/ Nothing better than blue skies.”

Santana and co. continue their momentum after “Blue Skies” with “Paraisos Quemados”, which starts with a funky bass hook and scattered drums backing up the guitar progressions. On the solid track Buika sings about how “hay mucho amor en mi canto (there is much love in my song)…. dolor en cada nota (pain in every note)”, as she paints a picture of dreams gone sour.

“Breaking down the Door” might be the closest thing the album has to a radio-ready single, as the jazz-infused songs meander to the beats and average nearly 6 minutes each. An addictively catchy hook played on bass launches the song and is spiced up with an arrangement of horns, voices, guitar and percussion. The song tells the tragic tale of a poor woman who marries a “rich rich man, handsome like Harry”, who abused her and eventually kills her, despite Deena’s calls for help from the town. The chorus repeated throughout “Abadeena, who do you have breaking down the door?” is sung in an upbeat tone, and there is lots of energy that contrast the tone of the message of the song as the townspeople beg forgiveness.

“Los Invisibles” is filled with arpeggios and a very danceable beat, as it describes in Bube, according to an English translation provided, that a couple is prevented from getting married by a mother who won’t let her daughter marry a poor man.

Jazz and rock elements combine nicely on “Luna Hechicera” or Moon Sorceress, before the album closes out with two dance tracks, “Bembele” and “Candomble Cumbele”, meant to be played at the wildest Bembes (parties). There is especially a lot of energy on the closing track, and they are both pretty hot.

Santana certainly proves that he still has exceptional guitar prowess and some creativity, even if he can never fully escape the pigeonhole he created in the late 60’s and early 70’s, or ever topple their genius. Africa Speaks will be a fun album for Santana fans, and there are plenty of impressive, if not exceptional moments, that will make the LP worth a listen to the average listener.

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