Santana’s Latin Rock Inspired a New Music Scene in Africa

2 Min Read

If there was a right-band-arriving-at-the-right-time performance at the 1971 Soul to Soul concert in Ghana, it was by Carlos Santana and his namesake group.

The San Francisco-based multi-racial ensemble fused Latin percussion, rock guitar and explosive, winding arrangements into a Molotov cocktail of inspiration. After a career-making performance at Woodstock in 1969 and two groundbreaking albums in 1969-70, “Santana” and “Abraxas,” the band was in peak form when it arrived in Ghana. The band’s polyrhythmic attack — a fiery blend of drums and hand percussion — was abetted by Puerto Rican timbale master Willie Bobo.

Cover art for Santana’s Abraxas album.

Santana was already gaining a foothold in Africa among young musicians incorporating funk and psychedelic music into the decades-old tradition of highlife, a stew of jazz and ethnic music. His performance at the Soul to Soul festival mirrored the locals’ own genre mash-ups. Indeed, one of the hometown bands that performed ahead of Santana at the festival, the Psychedelic Aliens, could have been channeling the Afro-Cuban jams on “Abraxas.”

John Collins, a British émigré in Ghana, was among the local musicians who felt validated by Santana’s performance. Speaking to journalist Rob Bowman for the liner notes that accompanied the 2004 DVD release of the “Soul to Soul” movie, Collins asserted that of all the American bands that played at the festival, “Santana was the most African because they were playing polyrhythmically with lots of African percussion. They had a big impact on the guitarists of those days, probably more than anything else. The students were really fascinated by what Santana was doing with Latin music and rock. …The after-effect was the ushering in of the Santana period. The obvious equation was, if you can unite Latin music with rock, you can do the same with African music. That’s actually what happened.”

The Santana acolytes included Collins’ own Bokoor Band, who began covering Santana songs alongside Jimi Hendrix and James Brown. They later blended these influences into original songs and expanded into the politically propulsive Afrobeat being forged in neighboring Nigeria by Fela Kuti.

Collins went on to become a key producer in West African music, including a 2007 compilation, “Bokoor Beats,” that serves as an excellent introduction to the ‘70s African psych-rock scene that flourished in the wake of “Soul to Soul.” The era produced a bounty of bands and trippy, genre-leaping tracks that have resurfaced in subsequent decades on labels such as England’s Soundway Records.

Here’s a brief introduction to some of the era’s finest music:

“Gbomei Adesai” by The Psychedelic Aliens:

This quartet performed at the Soul to Soul festival. Its garage-rock organ, funky rhythms and acid-dipped guitar lines point toward Western music while retaining the band’s ethnic identity.

“Bukom Mashie” by Oscar Sulley & the Uhuru Dance Band:

Piping hot bass and a horn section that nods toward everything from reggae to “I Spy.” The track got new life when it appeared on the soundtrack for the 2006 movie “The Last King of Scotland.”

“Maya Gari” by Bokoor Band:

Bokoor — which means “coolness” — broke ground with its daring mix of styles in ‘70s Ghanaian guitar-based fusion, punctuated by leader John Collins’ harmonica.

“Simigwado” by Gyedu Blay Ambolley & The Steneboofs:

One strange vamp with oblique references to ‘60s soul workouts such as the Contours’ “Do You Love Me?” and Chris Kenner’s “Land of 1000 Dances.”

“Egbe Enyo” by Brekete and the Big Beats:

Strong jazz influence on this deep cut with some ethereal flute-like tones floating atop the guitar chatter.

“Come Along” by Ebo Taylor and the Pelikans:

Though associated with the development of highlife, Taylor is a versatile musician-producer-composer-arranger who collaborated with Fela Kuti, among others, and on this occasion sang vocals with the 12-piece Pelikans.

“Make It Fast, Make It Slow” by Rob:

The stuttering beats presage the loops that undergirded hip-hop decades later. Echoes of Santana’s interpretation of Peter Green’s “Black Magic Woman” waft through the spooky arrangement.

“I Walk Alone” by Marijata:

This yearning, introspective 10-minute track is the expansive centerpiece of the brilliant 1976 debut by this organ-guitar-drums trio.

“Din Ya Sugri” by Christy Azuma & Uppers International:

The schoolteacher-turned-singer Christy Azuma led this Afropop band based in northern Ghana before moving to Los Angeles.

“Africa Is Home” by Joe Mensah:

The Julliard-trained musician was a highlife legend but continued to evolve in the ‘70s with funk flavors informing his jazzy flow.

“Psychedelic Woman” by Honny & the Bees Band:

There’s no denying the influence of Western music on the Ghanaian grooves of the ‘70s, here more overt with nods to Brit rock bands of the ‘60s, but also spiced with Afrobeat attitude.

“Gbe Keke Wo Taoc” by The Psychedelic Aliens:

One more from the Aliens, a 1971 single culled from the quartet’s essential “Psycho African Beat” compilation.

Greg Kot is the editorial director of The Coda Collection. He is also the cohost of the nationally syndicated public-radio show and podcast “Sound Opinions” with Jim DeRogatis, and previously the music critic at the Chicago Tribune for 30 years. His books include acclaimed biographies of Mavis Staples (“I’ll Take You There”) and Wilco (“Learning How to Die”) and a history of the digital music revolution (“Ripped”). He also coauthored “The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones: Sound Opinions on the Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Rivalry” and has written extensively for Rolling Stone, BBC Culture and Encyclopedia Britannica. When he takes off the headphones, Kot coaches in his Chicago-based youth travel basketball program (OTEhoops.com). In addition, he has coauthored two best-selling editions of the book “Survival Guide to Coaching Youth Basketball.”

Greg Kot is the editorial director of The Coda Collection. He is also the cohost of the nationally syndicated public-radio show and podcast “Sound Opinions” with Jim DeRogatis, and previously the music critic at the Chicago Tribune for 30 years. His books include acclaimed biographies of Mavis Staples (“I’ll Take You There”) and Wilco (“Learning How to Die”) and a history of the digital music revolution (“Ripped”). He also coauthored “The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones: Sound Opinions on the Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Rivalry” and has written extensively for Rolling Stone, BBC Culture and Encyclopedia Britannica. When he takes off the headphones, Kot coaches in his Chicago-based youth travel basketball program (OTEhoops.com). In addition, he has coauthored two best-selling editions of the book “Survival Guide to Coaching Youth Basketball.”

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