As demonstrated at the first Woodstock in ’69, the original Santana band was a killer live unit, fundamentally a soul band that played hardcore African and Latin/Caribbean polyrhythms (Mike Carrabello – conga and percussion, Jose Chepito Areas – timbales, conga, percussion, Mike Shrieve – drums, Coke Escovedo – percussion) for a rock audience. And Carlos Santana held it all together from the beginning with his straining, searching, perfectly-shaped (if occasionally pat) leads.
On Santana’s first three albums (Santana, Abraxas, Santana lll), the band created a seamless groove out of the rhythms, Santana’s rock guitar, and cool-zombie vocals, mostly from keyboardist Gregg Rolie (who later went on to wild commercial success with Journey). This combo of Afro/Latin jungle vibe and rock sensibility has not been equalled before or since.
“Evil Ways” and “Black Magic Woman,” from the first album and Abraxas, respectively, are companion pieces propelled by the voodoo rhythms of seduction and darkness. Singer Rolie’s vocals are perfect because he sounds like a man under a spell. On these songs Santana succeeds in having it both ways: the seduction and allure of “evil” rhythms within cautionary tales decrying the usage of those rhythms by evil women.
“Evil Ways” holds out the hope that the woman can change: “You’ve got to change your evil ways, baby,” but the singer’s tone holds no real hope that this admonition will have any effect. Even as Rolie sings, chantlike, he is under the woman’s rhythmic spell, an offcenter heartbeat. Notice the “baby” at the end of every line whether it fits lyrically or not. Rolie is already compelled to follow the woman’s seductive, black-hearted groove, even within his plea for her to cease and desist.
Sex, magic and rhythm are a potent combination. Just ask alarmist author David Tame:
“Were we to scour the globe in search of the most aggressively, malevolent and unmistakably evil music in existence … nothing would be found anywhere to surpass voodoo … Still practiced in Africa and the Caribbean specifically as the rhythmic accompaniment to satanic rituals and orgies, voodoo is the quintessence of tonal evil … Its multiple rhythms, rather than uniting into an integrated whole, are performed in a certain kind of conflict with one another.” (The Secret Power of Music)
Fleetwood Mac’s original “Black Magic Woman,” being a sinuous blues number, didn’t feature the dreaded polyrhythms of the occult, so its power was subdued, but when Santana’s voodoo drums got hold of it, Tame’s occult power was unleashed:
“Got a black magic woman,
She’s trying to make a devil out of me.”
It might be said that “Black Magic Woman” is a cautionary tale and that Santana is merely offering the voodoo polyrhythms as an inocculation against their powers of seduction. But we know better: the cautionary tale is an excuse to inflict the voodoo rhythms upon unsuspecting listeners.
“Got your spell on me baby,
Magic woman I just can’t leave you alone.”
No wonder early-Santana was held in such reverence on the dance floors of the late-’80s and early-’90s, where the voodoo beat and its occult powers were held in high esteem. This dance floor revival of early Santana laid the groundwork for the massive success of Santana’s contemporary comeback, Supernatural, in 1999.
The first three albums rock with Latin/Afro percussive intensity and should be owned by anyone interested in rhythm and rock guitar. Santana (1969, remastered in ’98) is the most tribal, and besides “Evil Ways,” features “Jingo” and “Soul Sacrifice.”
Abraxas (’70, ’98), with the astonishing psychedelic album cover, boasts one of the most consistent album sides in rock history: “Singing Winds, Crying Beasts,” “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen,” “Oye Como Va,” and “Incident at Neshabur” glide along with pull of the inevitable.
Santana 3 (’71, ’98) is also brilliant with the exuberant “Everybody’s Everything” and “Everything’s Coming Our Way,” the chant-like “No One to Depend On and “Guajira,” and blazing guitar interplay between Santana and a young Neal Schon (also later of Journey).
After a break for the experimental jazz grooves of Caravanserai (’72, 03), Welcome (’73, ’03), and the blazing fusion and spirituality of Love Devotion Surrender (with John McLaughlin, ’72, ’03), Santana returned to Latin-rock on the great Amigos (’76), with a new band and a brighter sound highlighted by Tom Coster’s keyboard work and Greg Walker’s vocals. Standouts include the magical synth and percussion groove of “Dance Sister Dance,” Carlos’ sensuously beautiful guitar work on “Europa,” and “Let It Shine.”
Moonflower (’77, ’03), a double-record live and studio set, features the same band and rousing renditions of “Carnival,” “Let the Children Play,” “She’s Not There,” “Flor D’Luna (Moonflower),” “Savor,” “Black Magic Woman,” “Dance Sister Dance,” “Europa,” and was an apt bookend to an amazing eight-year run where the Mexican-American guitar player and his bands could virtually do no wrong.