Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The free and vibrant spirit of Santana's 'Abraxas'

For someone like me, who is used to listening to music written by composers who died hundreds of years ago, forty years is not a long time in music – and yet, even so, it seems an awfully long time ago for something as invigorating and fresh as Santana’s classic second album Abraxas to have been produced.

Santana’s performance at Woodstock, which I saw for the first time last year when the 40th Anniversary DVD was released, was for me perhaps the most amazing part of a festival that was literally glowing in a psychedelic blaze of amazing parts – that energy, that vibrancy, that bringing together of cultures and genres, that sheer and unbridled joy in making fantastic music; all of that that was so bouncing and bursting with life on the Woodstock stage is captured here, too, on Abraxas.

Abraxas is largely, but not totally, an instrumental album and, at least for me, it exudes a wonderful sense of spontaneity, music that seems to be exploding out of the land in which it has gestated, land that just can’t contain that much energy any longer.

That land is, of course, a vibrantly multicultural one. There are flavours of salsa, rock, blues and jazz – the wonderfully earthy rhythms of congas and timbales, effervescent with energy; the rock driven electric guitar and the square, solid pounding beats of a rock drum kit; the cool vocals of Carlos Santana, the keyboards, taking on whatever mood or tone they need to, right from their opening flourishes, like an opening of a nineteenth century Piano Concerto, at the beginning of ‘Singing Winds, Crying Beasts’.

There’s the sexy, seductive ‘Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen’; the jazz-infused ‘Incident at Neshabur’, with its eternally shifts and changes of beat; the fantastic fusion of North and South America in ‘Se A Cabo’.

Even in its slower moments, like it is in the smooth, serenading ‘Samba Pa Ti’, Abraxas has a kind of inner energy to it, that kind of joy and enthusiasm that you take with you into your dreams, long after you’ve gone to sleep.

Abraxas is understandably and justifiably recognised as one of the greatest albums of all time – arguably Santana’s finest moment, and certainly one of the most important contributions to what was then still an emerging new rock age. It allowed rock music to take risks and to embrace other worlds, to take its audiences to places they had probably never thought of visiting. Unfortunately, commercialism and big business stuck its nose in and, before long, this sort of free-spirited creativity, which let music breathe in new, different, open spaces, became more the exception than the rule.

If there’s a happy side to that tragedy, it is perhaps that it means that we have come to treasure Santana and Abraxas so much the more.

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