Nov 20, 2009
My Santana Problem
Fine. I’ll admit it. I like Carlos Santana.
Not the resurgent, iPod friendly, Michelle Branch cum Matchbox 20 Santana of several years back, but the Evil Ways-Black Magic Woman -Oye Como Va-Santana of the hippie era.
Heck, I even dig the jazz-rock-fusion Santana of Love, Devotion, and Surrender and Welcome. And while we’re at it, I’ll cop to having a big soft spot for Moonflower, or about half of it anyway. There, I said it.
Why do I feel like I am herewith confessing to a regrettable aesthetic peccadillo? Because Santana is a one (or two) trick pony who plays a handful of licks with an albeit distinctively fat, warm tone, but who, when required to branch out on extended jams, quickly repeats himself and even more quickly falls back on a weird, wah-wah-fueled, ascending chromatic accelerando which is cool when you hear it for the first time as a thirteen year old but makes you shake your head when heard ever after.
Nevertheless, periodically I find myself listening to Santana, especially the first two albums and any live stuff I can dig up from the early 1970s. The Tanglewood concert on Wolfgang’s Vault is a good example of what I find compelling from this period of Santana’s oeuvre, particularly things like his frenetic but concise phrasing on “Batuka/Se Cabo.”
I think I return to this music, ultimately, because I consistently appreciate Santana’s unabashed devotion to melody, his rhythmic fluidity, and the fact that his playing frequently exhibits enough psychedelic bite to excuse me while I kiss the sky. To get a sense of what I’m talking about, check the outro-solo on “Evil Ways” where the guitar line twists and whips around like a paisley rattlesnake. My mind just blows and blows.
Certainly there is something clichéd about Santana (something which Zappa lampooned with his “Variations on the Carlos Santana Secret Chord Progression”), but it’s important to remember that it’s a cliché Santana minted and coined himself on his journey from the strip clubs of Tijuana to the patchouli soaked stages of the Fillmores East and West. He’s an icon and a dinosaur who speaks in a hilarious hipster patois that I can never get enough of, but he is also the classic example of a musician whose art is inseparable, for good or ill, from the spiritual longing that burns at its core.
I don’t know how you feel about him, but if you like Santana, you’re going to love him live in Ghana. Enjoy:
Image Courtesy of dgans.
Repetition and cliche are part of what makes us like the popular culture that we like. I would argue that one of the things that makes us like popular culture (genre fiction, music, etc) is the interplay between repeated motifs and structures — that appeal to us on some kind of subconscious level — and unexpected artistic surprises where the artist is pushing the boundaries of the genre. Rock on, dude. 🙂
I think you are on to something, Renee. For me, Santana is a kind of aesthetic comfort food (which an appropriate dash of mysticism and lysergic wildness). Season to taste. (Thanks for the comment, too!)
Santana has always played a Latin-infused version of blues. I-IV-V blues is, by nature, repetitive. I mean, 4 bars on the I, 2 on the IV, etc. So, why shouldn’t the riffs repeat as well? I’ve listened to so much Clapton over the years that I can tell when he’s going to do what before he does. In my own playing, the audience loves it when I play only one note for 12-24 bars. At least that’s what I want to believe.
As the great punk rock band, Saccharine Trust, once put it, “Repetition prolongs the strength of delusion.” I believe that is operating principle behind Santana’s trance-inducing permutations on the minor blues.
As for the audience loving your in-depth exploration of a single note, I have no doubt whatsoever that this love is as real as that of mother for child.
My introduction to Santana was in high school, when this guy named Chipper Lew (at least that was our name for him – he made great margaritas and had a hot tub at his rich doctor dad’s house and foxy friends and a silkscreened wall of the ice cream boy art off the dead’s europe ’72 and some pretty killer bolivian marching powder laid out on the long mirror-become-table that served as our bar) – turned me on to Moonflower. So that album has a sweet spot in my memory, such as it is. Let the children play. Back home after i had gotten my grubby hands on the lp myself, i used to turn the Yamaha NS-5 speakers in on my two ears laying down on the floor to get the full effect, teenage omnivorous… Years later i was hanging out in berlin with an excellent guitarist, scholar and gentleman and we heard that paisley rattlesnake twist and had to play it over and over again until we walked out into the night, high on a minute musical moment of pleasure. The rest is history! On top of that, I think Santana blew away most of the other acts at Woodstock. On another day, late in the summer of ’87, i was at a dead show in frog-racing county of calaveras and santana was the opening act. He came onstage and i think it was all along the watchtower but i swear that’s the only time i saw jerry garcia bow to another player.