Santana – Batonga / Bembele (feat. Buika)

50 years ago (good lord), Carols Santana played Woodstock and launched himself and his band into the stratosphere. Now, at age 71 and with 24 previous albums under his belt, he’s released his latest record, Africa Speaks — and it is crazy good.

While I deeply respect Santana for his passion and his absolute commitment to a life consumed by music, art, and spiritualism, I am like many who have struggled to keep pace with his output and his explorations. Some hits; mostly misses for me over the years. I know that he pays no mind to critics (nor should he) or to popular appeal (financially and on account of on his “legend” status, he doesn’t have to). He’s operating at a different level and with a different calling. In a recent interview with NPR, he says:

Everything’s new to me, with purity and innocence. Every second. It’s all in how your heart perceives things, to create fresh, new. But you must have a consistent thirst to remain with innocence.

Thankfully, this time out, that thirst and unbounded creativity resulted in Africa Speaks–a dynamic, potent, sonically diverse, pulsating record. The tone of Santana’s guitar is as piercing and fiery as ever; his riffs, crisp and clean; his solos, as shredding. But, it all takes on new life and energy when set against the “sounds, rhythms, and melodies of Africa,” the self-described and apparently intentionally big tent theme of the record.

Santana’s guitar chops and compositions aside, my personal appreciation and love for this album rest largely in that African musical palette he is drawing from. And, more specifically, from African music delivered and given voice as it is on the record by singer Buika, especially on the standout tracks Batonga and Bembele featured here. Born and raised on the Spanish island of Mallorca, as the child of African immigrants, María Concepción Balboa Buika (known as Concha Buika or Buika) is a force of nature. A seasoned veteran singer with a dedicated following, Buika features on vocals for all 11 tracks–singing in Spanish, English, and Yoruba with an intensity, power, and authenticity without which Santana’s admittedly respectful and purposeful homage to the continent might resonate less.

The combination of these two artists and the production talents of Rick Rubin is pure magic. Africa Speaks has to stand as one of Carlos Santana’s best records in years and, to me, near the top of his ever-growing, diverse catalogue.

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Feature Photo: Maryanne Bilham

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