#207: Santana, "Abraxas" (1970)

Listening to Santana in the UK is an odd experience. The clouds are overcast above me and a pigeon is getting dangerously close to my bag of chips, and I turn on Santana’s 1970 album Abraxas. I close my eyes, and I’m at a café overlooking water crashing against a shore. It’s eighty-five degrees fahrenheit with a slight breeze. There are seagulls instead of pigeons and they fly close enough to admire but far enough to stay away from me and my food. Abraxas is twirling around me, carried by the wind. Little kids are giggling in the waves and a dog is rolling around on the sand.

Wind chimes cling and clang as I walk through the town, any town, in the Caribbean. I imagine it to be small, with lights that twinkle above my head and plants that shine with dew by my feet. A man waves at me from a market stall and I buy a coconut to drink out of, and he smiles and says, “Have a nice day! Go to the forest today if you can; the birds are starting to hatch.” So I do.

There are ripe yellow bananas hanging from trees to my left and right, and a flock of birds of paradise are flying in front of me. Santana’s guitar solo in “Singing Winds, Crying Beasts” rises and in front of me are red flowers, yellow ones to my sides, purple ones sprouting around vines above. Behind me is the blue of a stream.

When I hear Santana, I see colors. Each note is a slightly different shade during the slower measures, and when you least expect it Santana’s guitar collides with the drums and discordant colors splash together and create a mural of the tropical and the jungle and colors, colors everywhere.

I open my eyes and the British sky is a light gray, and the wind brushes up against my arms already covered with goosebumps. Tourists are getting yelled at for taking selfies on the grass that’s illegal to walk on, and my bag of chips are on the opposite side of the garden, surrounded by pigeons like it’s their holy temple. Drizzle has formed a cold and wet blanket on me. I’m getting weird looks from the locals for wearing a sweatshirt outside of my house.

When I was in Puerto Rico and listened to Santana, I closed my eyes and saw myself making fajitas and dancing around the kitchen with a beautiful man in New England while it snowed outside. I opened my eyes and watched the waves rush toward me and push away, anxious to do everything the island had to offer, but wishing for snow and a New England man.

When I was back in my apartment and Santana came on while I was doing dishes one day, I closed my eyes to find myself on a boat in the middle of the Mediterranean. I was leaving Morocco, approaching Spain. I was eating paella on the boat deck, and I opened my eyes and was elbow-deep in soap and hours-old grease.

Santana makes me feel like I’m in a fantastic, perfect world. Like everything around me could just be painted over, and I’d never known how colorful it could be. Things move slower when I’m listening to 1970s Santana. I look at the birds and watch how they glide around the tops of trees. I notice a piece of hardened gum sitting next to me on the bench. There’s a pebble in front of me that’s bluer than the others. People are talking far enough away from me that it sounds just like leaves rustling against one another.

But the second I stop paying attention the songs speed up and then they’re over. I didn’t pay attention and I missed it. I missed the colors around me and the breeze that grazed against my cheeks. I missed feeling alive for those few minutes that I let my mind carry away onto my home life, my love life, my phone, my money.

I think you really know you’re happy when Santana comes on and you don’t wish to be somewhere else, and you’re actually able to listen to it without thinking about all that’s stressing you out. When you close your eyes and you’re in the same place, and open your eyes to see everything brighter—those are the best moments to listen to him. And it’s the best because it’s so rare. It is so rare to find that kind of happiness and focus—of perfection—in a single moment.

I have only stayed in place a couple of times when I’ve listened to Santana. Once when I listened to Abraxas with my best friend on our way to a donut shop by the Potomac River, complete with the promise of a donut at the end of the album; the other when my dad first played Santana around me, complete with an air guitar routine and some overdramatized head-banging.

But these moments are rare for a reason: They’re too perfect, and they can’t last. If the moment’s lasting for more than ten minutes, it’s not real. That’s a fantasy world that Santana’s guitar serenades you to. You open your eyes and you’re back in reality, with all its stress and pressures. But it’s real.

So for now I’m sitting next to a piece of old, discolored gum and pigeons are eating my chips, and it isn’t perfect, but it is real. It’s life, and Santana is reminding me of how bright it could be.

—Nicole Efford