It’s disconcerting to consider that the eponymous debut by San Franciscan band Malo hit #14 on the Billboard Top LPs chart, and now only a handful of heads even seem to know who the band is, because it seems to speak to the low cultural status of humility—at least in terms of creating a legacy. Unlike his older brother Carlos, guitar player Jorge Santana appeared to slot inconspicuously into his band line-up, stepping up for solos every bit as dexterous, thrilling and transportive as those performed by his showier sibling—but somehow less iconic for their relatively low appearance of egotism. As a result, you can now find him and his incredible band residing in the “where are they now?” section of your local used record store for under a tenner, most of the time.
What does stand out about Malo—at least at first glance to the trained eye in just such a record store—is the Jesús Helguera cover painting depicting an Aztec prince cradling a swooning lover. This quasi-mythological rendering in gouache provides an explosive visual insight into the musical delights contained within, and it’s a safe on-sight purchase if you don’t have time to wait while the store owner throws on a couple of tracks, or even read a review like this. I practically forced my ten English pounds down Les at Kingbee Records’ throat when I first laid eyes on the LP in Manchester, UK, in around 2007, virtually unable to criticize anything that might fall under the category of Latin Rock as I am.
I must confess that I’d actually heard the album’s opening track, “Pana”, previously on the fantastic 1998 Soul Jazz compilation, Chicano Power! (Latin Rock in The USA 1968-1976), which had kicked off my love affair with the whole genre, so I was well aware of the band’s existence. The point is, I was zoned-in enough by the cover to know that it was probably on my wants list. Sure enough, it was, and, when I got it home, it didn’t disappoint.
“Pana” is the quintessential Latin rock song, so it’s the perfect opener. Granted, lead singer, Arcelio García, Jr, may well be singing about touching himself while looking at a youthful brunette in the chorus, if my understanding of the colloquial translation of pana (to pal) to be referring to his member is accurate. But, uh… don’t let that put you off(?)—the music’s wonderful and I bet you don’t speak Spanish.
The train-like “one—and—two—and” samba rhythm of congas, maracas, cowbell, timbales, guiro and full drum kit drives “Pana” on a swinging funk, while pianist Richard Kermode (who defected to Carlos Santana’s band soon after Malo’s release) colors the rhythm with descending octave chords and celebrated trumpet player Luis Gasca (Janis Joplin’s Kozmic Blues Band, Woody Herman And His Orchestra, et al.) threads soaring melodic phrases, solos and rhythmic counterpoints throughout. Meanwhile, former Naked Lunch guitar player Abel Zarate chops away at a buzzing, almost garage-rock electric before Jorge Santana cuts in for some understated, but nevertheless sky-scraping lead action.
There’s a rhythm change halfway through the song that sets up a wild Luis Gasca solo, which gives way to a timbale solo, then Kermode—in that Godchaux-esque way best exemplified by Grateful Dead’s famed transition between “Scarlet Begonias” and “Fire on the Mountain” from 5/8/77)—pulls the whole band back toward a new (in this case, the original) rhythm concept. It’s everything that music should be—interconnected, social, joyful and an aural near-escape from earthly reality. What an opener.
Jorge Santana gets the chance to shine on the album’s second track, the Rodgers Grant/Luis Gasca-penned “Just Say Goodbye,” which ploughs along on a perfectly dumb funk with crashing cymbals and wordless aahs while Santana wails away, until receding into a beautiful, breathy ballad colored by brushed cymbal bells and reverb-laden lead guitar. The A-side’s closing track, “Café,” then drops us straight back into the familiar tropes established in “Pana”—yet, here, with the guiro really coming to the fore and driving the song on a locomotive powered by frogs—and Santana gets to rip a half-fuzz, half-fuzz-wah solo smack dab in the middle of the jam that, as we’ve already established, never seems to overpower the rest of the band, even while it lifts them to new levels of excited revelry. The song ends on a great dual-lead, harmonized guitar riff with Luis Gasca blasting a further harmony on top of it, powering the conclusion with a showy vibrato.
It must be intimidating for a band to put together such a strong A-side to an album. After a format-enforced intermission, reestablishing momentum on side B is hard for any band, but on Malo, the closing hype of “Café” leaves the listener feeling sated and almost worn out. How do you expect anyone to get back in the groove after that? Well, as it turns out, you just have to make that groove a massive, ear-worming bass lick that runs over two bars, repeated, with timbales accenting with ballistic fills, followed by the introduction an electric piano riff, then a series of one-chord funk guitar stabs, and then some lengthy horn counter accents, building toward an introductory crescendo that allows the song to begin in earnest from the highest possible point of excitement.
That’s how Malo side B opener (and the best song on the album), “Nena,” begins, and it’s as good a proof as you could ask for that a certain member of One Eleven Heavy’s argument (not mine) that some songs are “A-side songs” while other songs are “B-side songs” according to how hard they kick out the jams, is dubious at best. Sorry, Toth. Lyrically, it’s not plumbing any depths of the human psyche, other than the will to disconnect from drudgery—“Nena, yo quiero a bailar el bugaloo” (Baby, I want to dance the bugaloo,”) sings García—but isn’t that the point? And isn’t the meta-musical aspect of looking inward at the drive to create music, in itself, dripping in profundity? I think it is and I also think that “Nena” delivers bigtime in terms of giving García what he’s looking for.
Mutli-instrumentalist Roy Murray’s occasional toots of flute balance out the swamp of rhythmic interplay on “Nena” and there’s a real baton-passing approach to taking solos that runs throughout the song’s center. An organ solo will give way to a dual, harmonized guitar run that will then give way to a guitar solo and, finally, a horn solo, before returning back to the verse. The song ends with a scrappy coda that rounds off what could have, otherwise, gone on for another 20 minutes and not bothered me (and I’m sure they must have jammed it hard, live). That this wasn’t the album’s hit speaks volumes about the record buying public of 1972, as does the popularity of the B-side’s second track, “Suavecito,” which is often lovingly referred to as “The Chicano National Anthem.” What it says is that the world, back then, loved a ballad just as much as it does today.
I get it, though, “Suavecito” is everything a ballad should be—a gentle, summery exaltation to love with sweet, falsetto-laden vocals, in this case provided by co-writer Richard Bean—plus Latin rhythm. And, you know what, for a ballad, the fact that it clocks in at over six-and-a-half minutes is impressive—stretching out a sweet ditty for anything more than half that would usually be a challenge, but “Suavecito” was created by jammers for jammers, so they pull it off with ease.
When it was released as a single (with “Nena” on the flip—should have been the other way around), the “Suavecito” single reached #18 on the U.S. Top 20, so its steady descent into relative obscurity seems to suggest something about ethnic cultural ghettoization in rock music over time—namely, there isn’t much room for long-term, sub-genre representation in electric guitar music (I hesitate to say rock and roll). Sure, Jorge Santana may have been less showy than his big brother and that may well have contributed to Malo’s comparative insignificance at the wider cultural level, but you do get the sense that—just as the world put all its reggae eggs in the Bob Marley basket—that it was decided by unspoken committee that there’s quite enough Latino representation in the rock idiom with just one Santana brother, thank you very much. What a pity, as the final song on Malo, “Peace,” reasserts.
According to the liner notes, “Peace” was recorded in the same studio as the rest of the album—Pacific Recording Studios, San Mateo, California—but the live room sound of the track is what differentiates it from everything else on Malo. Santana’s guitar drips in reverb, making it feel like it’s drifting up into the stratosphere, while García’s vocal is delivered with all the power of an unknown rocker trying to win over a weary festival crowd. At the two-and-a-half-minute mark, the song breaks down into a trill of gentle rhythm guitar and some Miles Davis-esque Luis Gasca trumpet, before picking up pace into an unexpected waltz that transports the listener along for a further two minutes before fading away to almost nothing but Santana’s clean, reverb-y guitar and, then, near-silence, before a modal switch from Mixolydian to Dorian paves the way for re-entry into a final wah-heavy psychedelic rock assault.
Only Malo’s second album, Dos, released the same year, comes anywhere close to reaching the overwhelming crescendos of the band’s debut, but all their seventies output is worth your time. Better than running out of decent Santana LPs to buy and forcing yourself to try and get into Supernatural, any day.