Album Review: Santana – Abraxas 50th Anniversary

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A Latin Fusion Masterpiece delivered by Santana 50 Years Ago

Abraxas, a fusion of rock, jazz, salsa, and blues, proved both musically innovative & commercially successful.

It eventually reached quadruple platinum in sales.

The band went on to win eight GRAMMY Awards.   In 1999, the album was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame.

Whether adding a driving rock edge to Tito Puente’s  ”Oye Como Va,” or delivering a fresh cover to Fleetwood Mac’s “Black Magic Woman,” which segued into  a cover of Gabor Szabo’s instrumental “Gypsy Queen”,  there was a whole new sound, a fusion, hitherto never heard before, disparate musical genres composited together into an immensely satisfying cultural event.

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Santana 1970 (Photo credit – Michael Ochs)

The Band

Based in San Francisco, the Santana Blues Band was formed in 1966 by guitarist Carlos Santana and keyboardist/vocalist Gregg Rolie.

Carlos Santana of Mexican descent brought a deft Latin / Blues musical influence which he infused into the band.  Greg Rolie served as the lead singer & organist on the major hits: “Black Magic Woman” & “Oye Como Va”… His Hammond B3 was the perfect foil to Carlos Santana’s Gibson SGs.

Bill Graham was sufficiently impressed with the group, that he signed on as their manager and secured a record deal with Columbia Records in early 1969. Their self-titled debut album was released in May 1969 and featured mainly instrumental tracks.  It was however, Santana’s scintillating set at Woodstock, and especially “Soul Sacrifice” that brought international attention to the group.

This remarkable Santana lineup continued through to Santana III but disintegrated after Greg Rollie departed Santana to form Journey due to musical differences on Santana’s future.

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Annunciation 1961, painting by German-French painter Mati Klarwein

The Cover

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Annunciation: detail showing Wodaabe Charm Dancers with Mati’s head (artist’s self portrait) in the foreground, in the yellow hat.

A detailed explanation of the Biblical meaning of Annunciation can be found from many sources included here at Wikipedia.  It is the revelation (announcement) by the angel Gabriel to Mary that she would conceive a child to be born the Son of God.

Here, in Mati’s provocative interpretation, a winged and tattooed Gabriel is depicted astride a conga drum, pointing heavenwards to a Hebrew Aleph symbol (signifying beginning), with a dark-skinned and naked Mary surrounded by images of fertility.

“Drums were always used to announce something,” Mati said. “They were a medium of communication in Africa.”

To the left are three Wodaabe Charm Dancers, perhaps representing the Three Kings, and an image of Mati himself.

At the end of the rainy season the Wodaabe people of Niger (shown in the detail) hold an annual seven day ritual celebration where the men participate in a series of charm and beauty dances judged solely by women.  During the week, women single out the most desirable men.

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The detail shows the ‘Cala’ cove in Deia, Mallorca, as seen from Mati’s home there.

As part of the ritual, Wodaabe men decorate their faces to appeal to the women spectators.  A man who can hold one eye still as he rolls the other is considered especially alluring to his female judges.

Although the title, combined with the depiction of the Virgin Mary as a voluptuously sensual black girl, is a clear challenge to our preconceptions.  This painting can also be seen as a visual celebration of life on earth in all its richness and diversity: Music, scent, sex and sensuality, colour, taste, texture, the eroticism of flowers, the sensuality of stone, the natural beauty of landscapes and of all the fruits of nature are all represented here.

Klarwein went on to design many other notable album covers, including Miles Davis, a Carlos Santana favorite.

While the painting was created independent of the music, it contains enough symbolism to intrigue any music lover as to what musical delights are contained within.

The Title

The Abraxas title was taken from the Herman Hesse novel Demian, “We stood before it and began to freeze inside from the exertion. We questioned the painting, berated it, made love to it, prayed to it: We called it mother, called it whore and slut, called it our beloved, called it Abraxas ….”

The album cover, meanwhile, according to Carlos, “signifies the annunciation of this angel Gabriel to Mary. Mary is the black lady at the center of the cover and Gabriel is the angel with the congas between his legs.”

The Recording of the Album

Santana first entered the Wally Heider Recording Studio, San Francisco to being working on their sophomore release on April 17, 1970 and had the whole thing finished roughly two weeks later on May 2. Except for “Incident At Neshabur” which was recorded at Pacific Recording, San Mateo, CA.  Recording Engineers were Dave Brown & John Fiore. The album was produced by Fred Catero & Santana. The original album was mastered by Rob LoVerde, Shawn Britton.

The Album

  • “Singing Winds, Crying Beasts” is a psychedelic, jazz / rock fusion instrumental that builds anticipation and introduces the listener to a whole new fusion in music. The song starts out with a piano’s strings slowly strummed before occasional piano notes give way to a wonderful percussive atmosphere. It creates an eerie atmosphere with haunting cymbals that evoke an austere setting with stark piano notes that paint a mysterious aura, setting the stage, a minute into the song, for Santana’s wailing plaintive guitar cries.. The listener is transfixed.
  • “Black Magic Woman” (Fleetwood Mac)  which in turn segues into  a cover of Gabor Szabo’s instrumental “Gypsy Queen”.  Fleetwood Mac’s – original version of  “Black Magic Woman” sounds rooted to 1968 and the blues / rock that British bands were performing in that era. While the Santana cover version is timeless and segues beautifully into a short version of Gypsy Queen- Gabor Szabo’s original is too long & overly self indulgent towards the end.  Making great use of all the different percussion on hand, Carlos Santana’s  razor sharp guitar is an amazing counterpoint to Gregg Rolie’s Hammond B3 organ.
  • “Oye Como Va” (Listen To How It Goes) originally written by Tito Puente, where the flute and latter brass melody on the original were replaced by Carlos Santana’s on-point guitar,  the organ melody adheres to the original. While the percussion & rhythm section in the Santana band have more drive, certainly add more of an edge to the music.
  • “Incident At Neshabur”  Picking up tempo, set against a wonderful percussive backdrop, the organ  & guitar trade melodies as the song unfolds. Midway through the song, the pace slows down completely and you can enjoy a beautiful show melody composed by Carlos Santana.
  • “Se A Cabo” (It’s Finished) Gregg Rolie’s organ is on fire before Carlos Santana trades notes with him. Another example of a stellar percussion & rhythm section. A few words are sung, but it’s really an instrumental.
  • “Mother’s Daughter”. Rollie & Santana battling to provide the musical accompaniment to one of the few original vocal songs on this album.
  • “Samba Pa Ti”  (Samba for you) composed by Carlos Santana is an achingly beautiful melody, with a soulful guitars singing over a delicate cloud of percussion and a solid foundation on the organ. Mid way through the song there is a wonderful burst of energy from the organ, the percussion & rhythm section increase the energy level and the listener is swept away by the lyrical guitar and the remarkably fresh accompanists.
  • “Hope You’re Feeling Better” another original vocal song, composed & sung by Rolie. While not one of the high points of the album, it’s still satisfying fifty years later. Bravo gentlemen.
  • “El Nicoya”.  A short percussive melody to close out the album.

The Recordings… Friday’s Reissue… My recommendation

Over the decades, I bought most CD, SACD, LP, even the ¼” 4 track tape reissue and by far & away the most sonically rewarding has to be the Mobile Fidelity 1 Step, 2 x 45RPM LP from 2016.  This set was limited to 2,500 copies worldwide and involved a process where several of the traditional steps in making a vinyl record were bypassed in order to get a more transparent & resolute sound. It was mastered from the original analog tape. This was a major sonic improvement over the previous 33 RPM Mobile Fidelity reissue from 2008 or the ARS reissue from 1997.

Columbia re-issued the 50’th Anniversary LP on Friday 18 December, just in time for a wonderful Christmas present for your music lover friend. what are you waiting for ?  Highly recommended.

Read More: 45 Years Ago: Santana Deliver a Latin Rock Masterpiece, ‘Abraxas’ |


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