In this 50th anniversary year of Carlos Santana’s star-making appearance at Woodstock, the Latin-rock maestro burns through his latest album. Featuring Spanish singer Concha Buika as the 71-year-old Santana’s co-pilot, Africa Speaks is both something new for Santana and an affirmation of the explosive Latin-rock-fusion he’s pursued since the 1960s.
Producer Rick Rubin (Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, Public Enemy, Mick Jagger) gives his super-expressive stars full abundant room. Neither Santana nor Buika are at a loss for material. Santana is credited with the album’s conception, arrangements and musical direction. Of course, he composed the music, too, primarily with lead vocalist Buika.
Santana, a career instrumentalist, opens Africa Speaks, setting the scene with a spoken-word intro in the rhapsodic title song. His guitar is his voice, the co-lead voice in Africa Speaks alongside Buika’s never-less-than-passionate, flamenco-esque vocals. Santana’s eight-piece, including his drummer wife, Cindy Blackman, and jam-ready organist David K. Mathews, share his and Buika’s seemingly endless fervor.
The raspy-voiced Buika sings in Spanish and English for “Batonga,” a composition and performance in the fiery vein of “Soul Sacrifice”-era Santana. “Oye Este Mi Canto,” like the latter classic Santana instrumental, opens softly before bursting with Buika’s vocals, Santana’s stinging guitar and the band’s intensely active rhythm section.
Sensuous Latin jazz and English lyrics meet in “Blue Skies,” a nearly 10-minute-long selection that’s showcases Buika. Santana holds his guitar fire, accompanying the singer until the song breaks into a ‘60s, psychedelic-rock jam. “Breaking Down the Door” and its call-and-response vocals take an Afro-Cuban direction.
As engaged as Santana is in Africa Speaks, Buika may be an even bigger presence. She’s earnest, passionate and almost never below maximum force. It sounds as if Rubin never restrained her or the likewise effusive Santana. They become too much of a good thing. Listeners get a break from the eventually exhausting expressivity, though, via some musical diversity. “Yo Me Lo Merezco,” unlike anything else on the album, takes a surprising classic-rock direction. “Paraisos Quemados” grooves forth on funky rhythm guitar straight out of a Prince record.
Africa Speaks goes overboard at times, but Santana and Buika, two musical forces of nature, ultimately prove they have nothing to prove.