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'Santana' At 50


Woodstock celebrated its 50th anniversary earlier this month, and it's been an amazing excuse to think back to the bands that played there on that grassy field in rural New York state. Some of them were already big names - Jimi Hendrix, CCR, Jefferson Airplane; others were virtual unknowns.


SANTANA: (Playing music).

MARTIN: That is the sound of Santana, which is so legendary now. But believe it or not, back then, the band was virtually unknown. Their first album hadn't even come out. A couple weeks later, though, it would, and today happens to be the 50th anniversary of the release of that first Santana album. And who better to help us mark the occasion and what that music meant than NPR's Felix Contreras?

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Santana was able to impress the half-million people at Woodstock and pretty much everywhere else they played principally because they made music that had not been heard before. As the band coalesced in late-1960s San Francisco, they were six guys who each had their own musical passions - jazz, blues, Afro Caribbean and rock 'n' roll. What was new was how they melded all of those influences together into a musical alchemy, a seemingly magical process of transformation and creation.


CONTRERAS: For my money, nothing on the album drives that point home as well as the last song on Side 1, "Jingo." Over what sounds like an entire army of hand drummers, keyboardist Gregg Rolie rocks just two notes into a swirl of classic Hammond organ sound. And then...


CONTRERAS: ...Nothing was the same after those two guitar notes played by Carlos Santana.


CONTRERAS: There is an intensity of channeling jazz organist Jimmy Smith, blues guitarists B.B. and Albert King, Miles Davis and African drummer Olatunji all in one song. It was such a powerful statement of purpose that the song is still part of the Santana setlist 50 years later.


SANTANA: (Singing) You've got to change your evil ways, baby.

CONTRERAS: While it was a new sound, there were precedents. The second song on Side 1, "Evil Ways," had been a minor hit for percussionist Willie Bobo during the brief but influential reign of boogaloo on the East Coast in the mid-1960s. But in Santana's San Francisco, young hippies at places like the Fillmore discovered an almost primal instinct to move their hips in ways that suggested various forms of Afro Caribbean dance. And soon, that first album was being played on both underground FM stations and Top 40 radio.


SANTANA: (Singing) Yeah, yeah, yeah.

CONTRERAS: The band's prominent use of Afro Caribbean percussion was itself a game changer. Music historians will point out that after the album was released, Afro Cuban-based rhythms became a staple of popular music as bands from a variety of genres were soon adding congas to their music.


CONTRERAS: Keyboardist Gregg Rolie recently told me that the original Santana band that recorded that first album didn't set out to change the world as so many other young bands try to do. He said what they wanted to do was excite the world. And yet, in the process of doing that, they actually did change the world with that very first album.


CONTRERAS: Felix Contreras, NPR News.

MARTIN: Felix is the host of the NPR Music podcast Alt.Latino. You should check it out. They've got a special about Santana up right now. You can find it wherever you get your podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SANTANA SONG, "WAITING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.
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