Sacred Fires

In 1969 my family and I moved to St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The island is about 28 miles long and 8 miles wide at the widest point, but the roads curve and double back upon themselves, so it seems much larger than it actually is. My high school sat on a beach overlooking the Caribbean; it was once a hotel that had been owned by Laurance Rockefeller.

There are only two towns on the island: Christiansted, the capital, on the northeast coast, and Fredericksted, on the western coast. Between them, the land is divided into Estates with fanciful names, like Whim Plantation, or Judith’s Fancy, or Hams Bluff, or Mount Welcome, or Rustoptwist (reflecting the island’s earlier Danish ownership).

Somewhere mid-island, off Centerline Road, there was for a brief time an enclosed mini-mall. Few shops ever opened up in it (it just wasn’t the island way), but a small café made a brave go of it for a year or so. My mother and I stopped in for lunch one afternoon in 1970, and the owners were playing the most amazing music over the loudspeakers: “Singing Winds, Crying Beasts,” from Santana’s second album, Abraxas. Then came the amazing second track:

My eyes grew wider and wider, and I couldn’t stop smiling in amazement. My mother wondered if I was having a seizure. When I could regain my composure, I still couldn’t tell her what had touched me so about the music. It had something to do with the intoxication of being a fourteen-year-old in this strange and wonderful place, and how this blend of salsa, psychedelic rock, blues, and jazz somehow encapsulated that period of my life so precisely.

Later that year I saw the documentary Woodstock, which received an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. And there they were again, dizzying in their intensity:

Jimi Hendrix. Janis Joplin. Country Joe and the Fish. John Sebastian. Arlo Guthrie. Joan Baez. The Who. Joe Cocker. CSNY, forever close to my heart. And so many more. But for me, it was Santana who captured the festival’s zeitgeist.

Abraxas. The title of the album comes from a line from Herman Hesse‘s book Demian:

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. . . .

The word Abraxas was engraved on stones and used as amulets or charms. The name is found in the Greek Magical Papyrii, and may be related to the word abracadabra; it is likely a Gnostic concept, representing God and Satan in one entity, or the duality of the divine essence.

But the music says it better than I do. Here’s “Incident at Neshabur” from that album:

A confession: While I am insanely in love with much of Santana’s music, there was a period from about 1973 through the early ’80s when I just didn’t care for anything they produced. It seemed as if they were trying too hard to be mystical, maybe. The music seemed soft and flabby. So I stick to the early stuff, and the latest stuff, which often consists of his old standards in new arrangements.

Consider, for example, this version of “Oye Como Va” (written by the great Tito Puente, by the way), recorded live in Tokyo in 1991:

Another song from Abraxas that I’ve loved was the classic slow-burning, seductive “Samba Pa Ti,” performed here in a 1998 concert in Zagreb, Croatia:

Two more, about which I really have nothing cogent to say. First, “Blues for Salvador” (from Carlos Santana’s 1987 solo album of same name):

And “Africa Bamba,” from his 1999 Supernatural album, which went fifteen times platinum in the U.S., and won nine Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year:

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~ by Craig R. Smith on 20 September 2007.

5 Responses to “Sacred Fires”

  1. Lovely to wake up with Carlos.

  2. What happened to Tim?

  3. On a more serious note, why did your family move down there sewa (or do you prefer “Craig”? I’m never sure what to call people in these blogs). I’m envious of anyone who got to spend part of their childhood in exotic locales. (And I was most upset when Canada passed up the chance to acquire the Turks and Caicos because they were distracted by free trade talks with the US; http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/turksandcaicos/.)

  4. Craig or Sewa, whichever you prefer.

    My father was a tax consultant, and started doing work for a corporation based in France that built really big projects like oil refineries all over the world. One such project was on St. Croix, and my father did their taxes. After a couple years of business trips down there, they told him he’d made himself indispensable and would he please move down and become their comptroller. So he took Mom and me down there to see if we liked it, and we fell in love with the place.

    It really was an exotic locale. Gorgeous, utterly unspoiled (at least back then), with enough creature comforts to keep us feeling relatively stable.

  5. Helen: Shhhhhhh!

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