I had grandiose plans to run yesterday morning and mark the occasion (May 4th) by listening to, oh, I dunno, the Star Wars soundtrack maybe by John Williams (‘May the FOURTH Be With You‘, get it?) but ‘ol Thunder n’ Lightning were feeling a bit fatigued from a good week of bike riding (170km in total), so I postponed this 7k drill run until this morning instead. No biggie.
The thing is, it also just happens to be the ‘Cinco De Mayo‘ holiday today, so I can similarly get into the spirit of the moment as I might have yesterday. However, instead of listening to, say, the Mos Eisley Cantina Band on repeat, (click HERE) I’m listening to one of the most significant Latino-influenced albums – if not, one of the most influential rock albums – EVER…namely, Santana’s immortal ‘Abraxas‘.
“Abraxas” (Gk. ΑΒΡΑΞΑΣ, variant form Abrasax, ΑΒΡΑΣΑΞ) was a word of mystic meaning in the system of the Gnostic Basilides, being there applied to the “Great Archon” (Gk., megas archōn), the princeps of the 365 spheres (Gk., ouranoi). The seven letters spelling its name may represent each of the seven classic planets—Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The word is found in Gnostic texts such as the ‘Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit’, and also appears in the Greek Magical Papyri. It was engraved on certain antique gemstones, called on that account “Abraxas stones”, which were used as amulets or charms. As the initial spelling on stones was ‘Abrasax’ (Αβρασαξ), the spelling of ‘Abraxas‘ seen today probably originates in the confusion made between the Greek letters Sigma and Xi in the Latin transliteration. The word may be related to Abracadabra, although other explanations exist. How’s that for some totally neat-o, hocus-pocus shit, eh?
This naming convention was the premise then of Santana’s 2nd studio album released almost 45 years ago on CBS Records following their highly acclaimed live performance at the Woodstock Festival in August of 1969. The album’s mix of rock, blues, jazz, salsa and other influences was very well received, showing a musical maturation from their first album and refining the band’s early sound. In 2003 the album was ranked #207 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (click HERE). It’s also one of the only two Santana albums in my collection (I’ll review the other one shortly, I’m sure).
‘Abraxas’ features a mixture of Latin influences with familiar rock themes such as showcased electric guitar, organ, and heavy drums. The album from the trippy opening ‘Singing Winds, Crying Beasts‘ intro into the first few wavering chords of Fleetwood Mac‘s ‘Black Magic Woman‘ (Peter Green was actually one of Santana’s guitar heroes), demonstrates Santana’s stylistic versatility, including other great tracks like ‘Samba Pa Ti‘ (a classic slow-burning piece) and ‘Incident at Neshabur‘, both being instrumentals. The latter has several rhythm and time signature changes consistent with its jazz feel. Latin percussion — congas, bongos and timbales, as well as a conventional rock drum setup, expanded Santana’s foray into Latin rhythm. Then there’s the addition of psychedelic rock elements to salsa king Tito Puente’s ‘Oye Como Va‘.
But ‘Abraxas‘ is not just a solo show for Carlos Santana by any means. The album is also carried along by the shimmering Keyboards of Gregg Rollie and the thunderous Drumming of the amazing Michael Shrieve. In every way, this album is a total classic. Shit, even the funny theatrical Killdeer’s who were flip-flopping around and miming broken wings by the side of the road (trying to lure me away from their nests) this morning enjoyed it (click HERE).
Also notable about this album is that the album cover has been deemed among the best of the 70’s hey-day of album cover art. Featuring a scene from Mati Klarwein’s 1963 painting, ‘Annunciation’, there is a line from Hermann Hesse’s book, ‘Demian’, quoted on the album’s back cover:
“We stood before it and began to freeze inside from the exertion. We questioned the painting, berated it, made love to it, prayed to it: We called it mother, called it whore and slut, called it our beloved, called it Abraxas….”
Deriving it’s symbolism from the Biblical story in which the archangel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will be giving birth to Jesus. The nude black Virgin Mary was a girlfriend of Klarwein’s from Guadeloupe. Klarwein painted himself, wearing a straw hat, in the role of Joseph. A trio of Nigerian nomads are the Magi. Finally, a winged, crimson Gabriel is shown descending from heaven astride a conga drum. “Drums were always used to announce something”, says Klarwein. As Santana notes, “it fit like a hand and glove to the music.” Umm, okay, But, hey, if a trippy-ass naked black chick with a white dove in her crotch is what Santana feels best describes his music, who am I to judge?
And with that, I’m only my next ‘Cinco de Mayo‘ ritual, which involves eating an entire jar of Helman’s by the spoonful. What?