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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Evil Ways": the birth of Latin cool

Okay, how has it taken me this long to talk about Santana on here? That's borderline criminal — and I'm remedying that ASAP.

As many people do, I tend to have a sentimental connection to the music from the area around which I've grown up. There's something about knowing you share a similar grounding location, even across different eras, that makes those local sounds mean more to you.

The Bay Area, of course, has no shortage of homegrown acts. From Sly and the Family Stone and the Doobie Brothers to the more contemporary sounds of Train and the East Bay rap scene, you could get a comprehensive look at much of the past 60 years of music without venturing outside the area.

As I think about the above artists and more, I see one glaring omission in my Senior Year Soundtrack up to this point: Santana. The San Francisco-based outfit have consistently combined active Latin rhythms with a jazz-like coolness that radiates from Carlos Santana himself onto the rest of the band and everyone who hears them. This stylistic fusion accompanies the bandleader's willingness and bravery to combine musicians and styles of varying cultural backgrounds in a time when few dared to do so. It's tough to pick just one of their songs to highlight, but with my father's help I decided on "Evil Ways."

...oh, shoot, I actually have to talk about this a little bit. I mean, it is a blog, after all. *steadies self* Here we go.

"Evil Ways" was originally recorded by jazz percussionist Willie Bobo in 1967, but two years later, Santana made it their own when they cut it in the sessions for their self-titled debut record in San Mateo. One of the tracks that catapulted them to stardom with their Woodstock performance, "Evil Ways" is a pure distillation of Santana's instrumental-first brand of Latin rock. Yes, there's the (future Journey founder) Greg Rollie-led vocals that talk of the song subject's need to reel themself in, and you may get those stuck in your head, but in the moment the track is playing, your focus is almost assuredly on the band's instrumental web. The mixing also highlights the instruments over the vocals, with Carlos Santana's guitar and Rollie's Hammond organ asserting themselves ahead of other melodic elements.

The album's seven-man ensemble (see the Discogs listing for full details) makes the most of every eighth note, with the trio of percussionists leaving no stone unturned. I love being able to hear how they combine to give their beat a clear structure through dynamics and drum selection while still playing all those subdivisions. Santana and Rollie's regular syncopations — not oxymoronic, just rhythmic — turn the beat into a 'cool' groove furthered by the stylings of both men's solos. The fact that Santana's own solo doesn't come until the final section is emblematic of how ensemble-driven the band remains, even with their namesake's show-stopping ability. When it does arrive, though, Carlos' increasingly fast rhythms ascend into a frenzy that fits the psychedelic late 60s, all while keeping his unmistakable character.

Could I say more? Totally. Would it be in the best interest of my and your listening experience to put a microscope to it? Probably not. As much as I enjoy figuring out the minutiae, sometimes a track is put together so well that the best thing to do is admire the big picture — that's certainly the case for "Evil Ways" and much of Santana's catalog.


Postscript — Woodstock: Santana's Woodstock performance seems to go underrated because of just how jam-packed the festival was, but it was this performance that galvanized the masses. Thanks to manager Bill Graham's role in organizing Woodstock, he put his new act on the bill for the second day, and they never looked back. Here's Santana performing "Evil Ways" as their second song on that fateful August day.


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