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Oye Como Va Carlos...


By Jose LUIS Contreras

Festival by Santana on Columbia Records

I REDISCOVERED SANTANA at Harvard. A rather unmemorable statement, were it not for my Chicano ethnicity and my general weakness for good sounds, be they rock, classical or any other type of music. Sure, I went out and bought Abraxas along with everybody else a few years ago, but Santana faded our of my record collection soon afterwards. Yet if this band's latest album, Festival, is any kind of indication, I see I have been missing something all these years.

Santana's recent guest appearance on America's favorite Saturday night black humor television show prompted me to give Festival a listen. Carlos Santana and his group have been hitting the boob tube circuit pretty regularly of late, presumably spurred by the well-founded belief that they've come out with their best effort in many months. They understandably want to capitalize on the opportunity of turning over a few bucks while the getting is good, so to speak. Anyway, the six gentlemen who play under the Santana name impressed me considerably. Carlos especially.

For unlike many of the lead guitar megastars who came out of the San Francisco rock scene in the late sixties, Carlos Santana has taken very good care of himself--both professionally and physically. His music has continued to provide surprises, innovatively synthesizing the many influences that have poured into his creative mind during the course of his years in the business. And Festival provides the most resounding affirmation of this steady metamorphosizing to date, demonstrating Santana's singular knack for not falling into a neat category.

FOR STARTERS, the band's personnel has gone through a substantial turnover since Santana's debut album. Aside from Carlos and, the unequalled master of the timbales, Chepito Areas, the current edition of Santana bears no resemblance to the original six-man ensemble that brought us early standards like "Evil Ways" and "Black Magic Woman." The changes have not made a big difference in the group's sound from a strictly technical standpoint, with one notable exception. Some of the keyboard and synthesizer work performed by Tom Coster on Festival completely eclipses any of the solos rapped out by his predecessor on the ivories, Gregg Rolie. The ornate pattern of notes that flow from Coster's moog on "Reach Up" enable him to separate his personal style from Carlos' domineering presence, a real rarity in this band's history. Until now, Santana has featured five accompanying musicians who have provided a virtually faceless backdrop to the lead guitarist.

Far and away the most vivid impression that emerges from Festival is the spectrum of genres and rhythms the band incorporates into its act. For instance, it's a big leap from the rhythm and blues beat of "Reach Up" to the heavily Latino-flavored tempo of "Maria Caracoles." The catchy rock rhythm of the second half of "The River" calls to mind some of Fleetwood Mac's most irresistible numbers, an impression that Leon Patillo's lead vocals do much to underscore.

Carlos weighs in with easily the most diverse collection of styles that a major rock guitarist has assembled in a while. The fuzzed-out vibrato of his riffs on "Let the Children Play" provides a sharp contrast with the intricate acoustic guitar performance that highlights "Verao Vermelho," a song that somehow seems incomplete without a castanet-clapping flamenco dancer and a few serenading gitanos strumming away in the background. "Revelations" unveils still another Carlos Santana, a Carlos who has lent an attentive ear to the mournful strains of the great blues guitarists like B.B. King and Muddy Waters. This eleven-song album thus delivers much more than just another helping of Chicano-Latin rock.

Leaving aside Coster's more brilliant moments on "Reach Up" and a couple of other songs, Festival is most assuredly a Carlos Santana record. Areas and congo drummer Raul Rekow supply some noteworthy percussion work on "Try a Little Harder," but otherwise maintain a very low profile. Bassist Pablo Tellez and drummer Gaylord Birch (the token non-Hispanic) fully realize their functions in the band to be confined to sustaining the basic rhythms of each song, and their self-effacing performances reflect that awareness.

I long ago recognized an irrational quirk in my point of view regarding Chicano rock groups that play what can be loosely labelled barrio or Chicano rock. My desire to see these bands make the big time overwhelms my attempts to remain objective and discriminating. I may not particularly enjoy the repertoire of groups such as Mal and El Chicano, yet I cannot deny a certain disappointment at watching them score one or two big hits and then promptly fade from the rock music limelight. But the ethnic background of Santana's members is only one of their selling points, and I recommend to all those suffering from work-weariness a half-hour dose of Festival

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