The guitar that tasted of Tequila
by Vicente Mateu
I started enjoying Carlos Santana's solos long
before I discovered that music sounded so much better with a generous shot of
Tequila and that the two blended together could go straight to your head. My
Latin roots took care of the rest. My European ones, on the other hand, failed
to appreciate more than the delights of curry and cardamom when, accompanied by
his meditations and jam sessions partner John
McLaughlin, he put thousands of kilometres between 'us' to take a swim in
the Ganges. I apologise for the apparent name-dropping, but all that
'transcendence' drowned (in my more than debatable opinion) his talent and
along with it my desires to listen only to his guitar, that guitar so clean and
pure which still shines out to this day, a guitar that when it starts to work
its magic, you wish it would go on forever. Just like his legend does.
He left Michoacán with a violin tucked under his arm, as did his father, the member of a mariachi band, and landed in Tijuana with a guitar that he was determined to make sound like B.B. King, T-Bone Walker and John Lee Hooker. These were his apprentice years, although his role in the local bands in which he played was that of a bass player. These were invaluable lessons learned until, at the tender age of 15 (he was born in 1947 in Autlán de Navarro, Jalisco), Carlos Augusto Santana Barragán arrived in San Francisco Bay - at that time a hive of creative activity in which the Carlos Santana we know today was shaped.
This being the early '60s, he was in the right place at the right time. Such is the luck of the greats and that before this decade was out would take him onwards and upwards, all the way to Woodstock. It would be on that legendary stage that he hanged the famous red Gibson SG around his neck, today on display in a famous bar in Marbella. As his countless fans will tell you, he replaced it with a Yamaha SG 2000 up until he had his very 'own' guitar, or to be more precise, a whole series of them, under the name of Paul Reed Smith, with his Santana Se models, and so on. For more information, and for those who feel they need to pick up a heavy dose of GAS, check out The Gear at www.santana.com.
These were the years of great technical and creative development, while he made his spiritual transition, along with other rockers, under the tutelage of Sri Chinmoy. While Devadip (his new name) matured, Carlos started off recording a whole stream of songs that are quite simply impossible to repeat – endless collaborations, most of them with the same legends he admired, such as Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and even the great John Lee Hooker. A long list of albums, one every year, from 1969 through to 1982.
His first recording, according to biographers of the legendary guitarist, was in the revolutionary year of 1968, when he was invited to take part in The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper (the former being, according to his own confession in his autobiography, his greatest influence), which was an incredible concert that took place around the time Santana became the name of a band that was just starting out under the label of the recording giant Columbia. Apart from Carlos and Neal Schon on guitars, the band also boasted Gregg Rolie on keyboard and vocals, Michael Shrieve on drums, David Brown on bass together with José 'Chepito' Areas and Michael Carabello on percussion, who are in fact today back by his side.
This prodigious decade, with Carlos Santana already confirmed as a great instrumentalist, bore fruit that tastes just as sweet today, hits that are with him and will be with him to the end of his days – Black Magic Woman, Soul Sacrifice, Oye com ova, Samba pa ti… songs that form a part of the greats we all know and love. Nobody has managed to blend rock with such a special blend of salsa (his own secret recipe) and spread it around the entire planet, a journey in which his guitar has been the absolute and almost only star.
These thirteen years have also seen a slow and steady change by Santana away from his rock leanings towards jazz, free, fusion or whatever you care to call it, a journey along which he came across his great friend McLaughlin, but many others too, such as Jeff Beck and Steve Lukather of Toto, with whom in 1987 he recorded another memorable (bootleg) record full of collaborations with other artists, another delicatessen full of rare and wonderful delights for we apprentices of the six strings to learn from.
From that moment, Santana's career has been hit and miss, with masterful live recordings intertwined with mediocre studio efforts, except for, of course, the notable exception which is Supernatural, released in 1999 - at least from the point of view of his song writing, which had been in danger of being suffocated, the guitarist seeming to have locked himself away in some metaphorical box for far too long. This was a time in which cover versions were the order of the day, above all with the help of guest musicians, peaking in 2002 with Shaman, replete with such big names as Nickelback's Chad Kroeger, POD and Seal.
The strategy served to make his unmistakable guitar sound even more popular worldwide and his legend even greater, his guests never thinking even for a second to pass up on the opportunity to see their names next to this living legend. And if the 'maestro' was inspired and managed to pull together a really hot solo, then success was a foregone conclusion.
And so on it went. His 'friends' accompanied him on yet another blockbuster of an album, yet again showcasing his endless talent. In 2014, Corazón showed us the best Santana yet, rubbing shoulders with the king of the dancefloors, Pitbull, whom he invited into the studio together with Tito Puente to make a revamped version of Oye com ova. Juanes, Gloria Estefan, even Niña Pastori and Los Fabulosos Cadilacs. Top acts in their own worlds who assured that the Latin American market would be taken by storm, wiped out by this eclectic mix of Latin fruit. If you can't beat them, join them, as one of the basic laws on strategy assures.
Santana's 'revival' couldn't have come at a better time. In 2016, his legend is as alive and kicking as ever – so much so that he has come to need a 'double' to cover the demand for his concerts, a show entitled The Magic of Santana (in Spain in February) that has his been given his own personal seal of approval, much like Brian May with his Queen. The guitar-work has been left to Alex Ligertwood, singer and guitarist of his band between 1979 and 1994, meaning that authenticity is assured.
As we mentioned in passing earlier, Santana has also decided to get his first band back together, the one he recorded his masterpieces with in the early '70s. The only men missing are Chepito Áreas and the late bass player David Brown. But he has managed to get back together with Neal Schon (another master of the six strings who was with him at just 17 years old before heading out on his own to form Journey), Michael Shrieve, Gregg Rolie and Michael Carabello. The fruits of this musical venture have been promised this coming April.
This may be a band of pensioners with blood pressures as high as their hair lines, but they are still good to go, alive and kicking and to be enjoyed for as long as we have them with us. They have nothing to prove, just the pure pleasure of playing great music together like the good old days. And for us, the pleasure of being able to listen to them and learn. This is the magic of Carlos Santana.