The same night Woodstock ‘99 went up in flames, an icon of the original 1969 event kept the fire of peace and love burning a continent away. As fans literally raped and pillaged in New York, guitarist Carlos Santana joined hip-hop diva Lauryn Hill in California to play "To Zion," Hill’s song celebrating the birth of her first child and the Creator’s gift of life.
Fifty-two-year-old Santana and 24-year-old Hill bridge a generation of musicians who perform music with the conscious aim of transforming their listeners and creating positive change in the world. Despite how corny this idealism may seem by the bonfires of late ‘90s cynicism, it hasn’t dissuaded artists like Santana and Hill from spreading the spirit that characterized the first Woodstock.
Supernatural, Santana’s latest release, captures the artist’s spiritual collaborations with some of the biggest names in today’s music industry. Dave Matthews, Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean, Everlast, and Matchbox 20 singer Rob Thomas all make appearances on this album, blending their own styles and genres with the distinctive sound of Santana’s guitar. Supernatural also features singer Eagle-Eye Cherry, Latin music producer K.C. Porter, Rock-en-Espa±ol superstars Mana, and a bluesy call-and-response duet with Eric Clapton—where at least Carlos picks with someone his own age!
The magic of Supernatural can’t be contained within the classic formula of Santana hits such as "Black Magic Woman," "Evil Ways," or "Oye Como Va." Rather it blends a diversity of musical genres, from Latin to hip hop, without losing its focus. Many of the songs make clear the deep synergy between Latin and African music. "(Da le) Yaleo" opens Supernatural with a powerful Afro-Latino groove and some seriously distorted guitar soloing that carries the tune higher and higher. "Africa Bamba," based on a song by Senegalese group TourT Kunda, starts as a sweet, rural-sounding melody and wraps up with a strong salsa-vamp from Santana’s timbales player, Karl Perazzo.
For Santana, these are organic growths springing from the same root. "This whole wave of Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, and Gloria Estefan is not Spanish or Latin," he told an interviewer. "It’s really African music, whether it’s a bolero, cha-cha, rhumba, or samba. Whatever you call it, it’s still African music. That’s what I play, and that’s what I’ve played from the beginning. I combined it with blues, but it’s always been African music."
WHILE THE FINANCIAL potential of this new release may have caused industry executives to drool with anticipation, Santana approached this album with different intentions. "This album is going to spread a spiritual virus," he told Latin Style magazine. "No matter who you are, all are going to be affected. You are going to remember you are a multidimensional spirit with enormous opportunities which are your choice and yours alone."
Working with so many popular artists gives Santana the opportunity to reach out to young people, but he’s not preaching about "living la vida loca." "It’s important to present them more principles, more menus, more opportunities, more dimensions, more possibilities," Santana said.
The recent death of Santana’s father—a musician who started Carlos out playing traditional Mexican songs—may have spurred his desire to share wisdom with a new generation. The instrumental "El Farol" (The Lighthouse), which Carlos played at his father’s funeral, is as soft, sensual, and oceanic as the purple-hued mermaid that artist Michael Rios painted for the album’s cover. The song is followed by a short offering of silence that then blooms into "Primavera" (Spring), an inspiring affirmation of new life filled with images of the resurrection found in scripture. But even if you can’t understand the Spanish lyrics, Santana’s passionate guitar solo on this song gets the message across.
Though there are guitarists with more technical flash than Santana, he is one of those rare artists able to convey spiritual experience through music. Even with the considerable talent and charisma of the album’s other stars, it is Santana’s spirituality that carries each song and distinguishes this music from most commercial recordings.
Like some of those at Woodstock ‘99, many fans and performers haven’t learned to respect the force music has to unleash either angels or demons. Supernatural shows that Santana is fully aware of this spiritual dynamic and has made a conscious decision to heal people through music. Yet perhaps the most beautiful thing is that he convinced a group of young superstars to make the same resolution. —Aaron McCarroll Gallegos
AARON McCARROLL GALLEGOS, a Sojourners contributing editor, is a writer living in Toronto.
Supernatural. Santana, Carlos. Arista Records, 1/1/99.