Taj Mahal is a master of musical masks, equally at home in the midst of an acoustic blues session, a rock festival, a Hawaiian luau, a Caribbean Carnival, a punky reggae party or a West African spirit ceremony. Though his travels take him around the globe, he is particularly fond of and welcomed in New Orleans, where his enthusiastic contributions to the Jazz and Heritage Festival are legendary. Taj has always made his music according to his own interests, even at the expense of major record company support. Last year the music industry finally recognized his importance by presenting him with a Grammy award for the album Senor Blues.
Taj Mahal defines the condition of being a music lover, but of course he is so much more; he is a musical shaman, a spirit guide through the labyrinth of cultures that share the essential human element of transcendence through magic utterance that connects us all to each other and collectively to that higher state we aspire to. Born Henry Saint Claire Fredricks in the West Indies, raised in Springfield, Massachusetts, his thirst for the sweet springs of the African diaspora has led him through a unique musical journey, from the roots rock and electrified blues of the group he co-led in the mid-1960s with Ry Cooder; The Rising Sons, through a score of albums covering an awesome musicological breadth ranging from Delta blues though New Orleans brass band music, reggae, calypso, Hawaiian and African styles.
As good as his records are, Taj must be seen live to be fully appreciated. His live performance are as adventurous as his recordings, but are suffused with the warmth of his personality and the galvanic power of his pillying. The few guitarists who truly understand what Skip James and Robert Johnson accomplished are amaud by Taj Mahal’s technique and in awe of his ability to pilly the material from the inside out. Mahal’s set at the 1999 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was a jaw-dropper that showcased his versatility and climaxed with a tribute to New Orleans R&B highlighted by a monster version of Jesse Hills “Ooh Poo Pah Doo.” Taj has recently completed an extraordinary collaboration with the Malian kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate, Kulanjan, which explores’ the common ground between the blues and the music of West Africa. The group that made the record is currently touring the United States as part of Africa Fite ’99 and will appear this month at the House of Blues.
You know, it’s funny, you’ve been through this whole thing, back in the late 1960s when you were a major attraction at places like the Fillmore East and various music festivals. The whole popular music industry has changed around you, but here you are still doing it and it seems like you’ve come full circle. Do you ever stop to think about that from your own perspective?
Well. I think it’s not that much time when you really deal with the whole thing, you know? I mean it’s like we’re talking 40 years here in terms of music, I mean music’s been around a lot longer than a lot of us, it’s just that, you know, I don’t know what they’re putting in the water, but people have got a really short memory and they’ve certainly got no ‘vision for the future. They’ve got a dim one at best, you know? I was talking to somebody who mentioned the name of this band
Morphine, and I said ‘Boy I really like that group’ and they’re lookin’ at me like ‘You like Morphine?’ I had never heard ’em before, and I was over in France and they were on a show and I wasn’t going to listen to them, you know, just because I had ten thousand other
things to do, and then they started playing, and then they started singing, and then I looked up and said ‘Wait a minute, let me give these guys’ a hear.’ And I really enjoyed ’em, I really enjoyed them. Plus I got to talk to these guys and found that they’re from up in Boston. Their sound is a huge sound and the melody is, pretty ingenious, you know? I’m up with what’s goin’ on, I mean, this is good music. I’m into music. I had listened to all kinds of music, but had a pretty tight focus on the stuff that was coming into the African-American sector, and stuff that was influenced by it. So it’s a pretty broad-based thing, I listen to everything all the time. The fact that, you know, you’re in the music business, and so everybody counts whether they’re making big numbers or they’re playing once a day or a month or a week. Thirty years ago, I was working a lot with those kind of guys, and maintained long friendships with them. It’s very interesting how they hear it, because I was born on an island and the music comes on, and they take it as it comes to them, you know? They’re glad to have it.
You once worked with Bob Marley, he mixed some of your stuff on Mo Roots.
Yeah, yeah. We actually got to play together quite a bit in my house during that time, and he dedicated a song called, “Talkin’ Blues.” “Talkin’ Blues” is actually about me.
Oh yeah, “Walkin’ Blues” (laughs). He’s really funny, it was really interesting to host him and his gang. They were on a Sly Stone tour, and Sly just saw these guys and couldn’t understand putting on music that was uke powerful enough to reach the audience on its own. It wasn’t like they just put somebody up front to keep the audience salivating for what was coming next, these guys could play something, they could get across, you know? They were very powerful individuals, and they got bumped off the tour and kind of left out there, and we found out about it and I was like “Hey, my brother West Indians, you ain’t gonna be out there like that. You all ain’t going out like that. So we helped them out, you know got them some places to stay and hooked them up with some radio stations and all that kinda stuff, so, you know.
The turnaround was that we were in the midst of working on a record at the time, so Bob and Family Man (Aston Barrett, Wailers bassist) came over and kinda looked in on the sessions. We were really trying to get to play together and really do some collaborations, but that just never seemed to fall in place. But the idea that he listened to what we were doing, and put his approval on what was going on was fine with me, you know, and Family Man piped in on where to put the bass so it sounded right in the mix, and helped put some sounds out in the tapes, you know, so it was excellent.
Did you get a chance to talk much with Marley during that period?
Oh yeah, quite a bit.
What an amazing thinker he was.
Oh yeah. Well Jamaicans, the Caribbean people… you know it’s like, I think a lot of people in this country missed the opportunity to communicate to these folks. They’re very, very interesting, very independent, very well-read, highly educated people. And all over the world. And his vision was like, there’s pre-Marley, and then there’s what we have now.
Yeah, it’s interesting that the whole rap thing came from there.
Toasting. It’s all those Caribbean-American kids that everybody’s like – I had the chance to meet up again with Chuck D and we exchanged numbers because there’s things that he’s doing that I want to keep up with, and he had a tremendous amount of respect for me and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him.
The live show is absolutely killer. The balance between old and new is perfect, obviously you couldn’t play a full set at the festival, but you really jammed it in there, referencing all these great moments of music history, a terrific version of “Think.”
Oh yeah, I love that tune. I’ve loved that tune since the day it came out. You can play that tune in my hometown up there in Springfield, and everybody over forty years old is gonna be out there on the floor wearin’ it out, you know, because they haven’t heard that music uve. It’s like you gotta go back to that, you know? Bands should be playin’ that. It’s like, my idea is that you have artists like Chuck Berry, you take the Legendary Blues Band that played with Muddy Waters, those guys went in there and found out what the nuts and bolts are to that ’49 Chevrolet and put in on the road and got it runnin’. And it’s like, somebody like Chuck Berry, there oughta be bands around this country that have’ really locked in on that, so Chuck all he has to do is show up somewhere and not play with some half-assed band, there had better be some cats that can really get with it.
That’s a good point.
It’s right there on the record, there ain’t a note outta place. If you claim that you learned from it, how come you can’t play it? But Chuck’s stuff was always interesting to me and that’s what’s different about me, you know? As much as I listened to Smokey Robinson, I was off listening to Chuck Berry and Chuck Jackson and Billy Stewart and everybody …
Last year you won a Grammy for the album Senor Blues, which sort of sums up the breadth of your influences. The title track was a Horace Silver tune, right?
I didn’t know there were words to that.
I had always liked Horace and there was this place that I used to go in and eat and I’d walk in there and they always knew I was there by the fact that that was the first tune that I played, and it played two or three times while I was having my meal, along with some other stuff that was on there, that was real good on the jukebox that they had in this joint, in the Presidio in San Francisco. But I listened to Horace when I was coming up, he’s a few years ahead of me, and I just loved his music. I always liked that kind of bluesy, funky feel that he had in there, and that’s why I like Junior Mance and Bobby Timmons and Lee Morgan and all those guys. I came through all of that you know, that was like the music that to me is still the music, you know’ So it’s pretty interesting.
Where did you get the lyrics to that?
I don’t even know who recorded it that way, but Horace wrote the lyrics. I didn’t think the version with the lyrics was as good as the original. The tempo was really down a little bit, but the lyrics were real good, so we had the lyrics in and put it out there, you know? Horace is in great shape, he’s living out in Malibu. I met him at the Grammys. After the Grammys we had a show that was, I played 5 tunes with the Max Weinberg Seven and then a jam with Felix Cavaliere, got up and did stuff with him, and then we had a jam with Nils Lofgren, who I’ve known for a long time since he was a young kid coming up in California.
You probably were on the same gigs with him when he had Grin.
Oh yeah, back then. So after we played, then they had Arturo Sandoval, Pancho Sanchez, Oscar de Leon, Dave Valentin, you know, just an all-star Latin band. And then they brought James Moody out of the audience to play saxophone solos on a couple of different runes and I look up and there’s Horace and his son checking it out, so I went like “Hey man, I gotta tell you, I just recorded your tune” and blah blah blah, so we exchanged numbers, I got back to California, he got on the phone with me, and we talked a couple of hours and it was really great. I was really glad to communicate with him and ask him some questions ’cause we kinda grew up about 75 miles apart, he was down in Norwalk, Connecticut and I was up in Springfield, Massachusetts, and both of us had this same kind of thing, that the blues music wasn’t something because these guys didn’t write or read, that they would be left out of the mix. He got to see a lot of those great players. It’s great to talk to him, I’m just pleased to see him. You know, Horace looked out for himself.
Yeah, he put out his own records and everything.
Yeah, he’s a very intensely intelligent man. I really like to communicate with him. you know.
You had to, I guess, go through a kind of similar thing in terms of at one point, you were a hot commercial property and then the record industry wasn’t really interested in going in the direction that you were.
Yeah, well, one monkey don’t stop no show and the music is bigger, older, and humanity is a lot older than these guys are, no matter what they tryin’ to do—you know, take all the computers in the universe and try to plug ’em all together and run the universe through the computers, they’ll never, the universe will never end and the computers will never count. Just can’t do it, sorry. It doesn’t start out at a point zero, it’s like exponentially everywhere all the way, all the time, and that concept is a little bit hard for Western people to understand, you know, or people with science and religion to get a grip on. I read this book, it’s called “Sophie’s World” and it’s like the history of philosophy over the last 3000 years. It’s real interesting because, you know, I can’t figure out how these people think this way and why. I think that their thinking is that “Well, this is what I’m thinking now, if I hear some more information, I can move.” I mean they are stuck. They need some serious Chinese medicines. some acupuncture. It’s a very interesting thing as to what Spinozza had in mind, and to what Plato thought, and to what Aristotle said, what they were doing, what the Renaissance was about, stuff like that.
Among the many musical traditions you’ve explored, you seem to have an affinity for the music of New Orleans. You’ve recorded everything from Louis Armstrong’s “You Rascal You” to the New Orleans R&B you played at the festival. You put a really nice arrangement on that and you prove that this stuff still is contemporary.
It’s always contemporary. This is humanity and we’re singing songs about our trials in whatever direction. j don’t care if you speak Serbo-Croatian, you got some version of the blues in there. I mean everybody, whether it’s going to the minor to make that point, or the dirge to make that point, whatever, it’s there.
You’ve worked closely with another fan of New Orleans music in your band, John Cleary.
There’s a couple of just magnificent keyboard players that I’ve been able to work with over the years and John Cleary is just outstanding.
I really like that song you two wrote, “21st Century Gypsy.”
I came in and we, and basically we had that hook (mimics the song). And that was that, we had that groove, and set that up, and we’re playing that for a while and John says “Wow, I can’t believe this is such great groove” and he was just on it. He says ”I’ve got some ideas” and he just, on the way over to the session, wrote the lyrics on the airplane flying in, and we just got with it, you know.
It seems like, you know, your life story now (laughs). That’s great. You know, you’ve done so many different types of music. I saw you with the Hawaiian band on that. blues cruise. Oh man, that was killer.
Yeah, the Hula Blues Band.
The retrospective album was also a joy.
It was great to get our things like that live version of “Leavin Trunk” from the Rolling Stones’ Rock N Roll Circus. That one’ll scald you if you’re standing too close. That was incredible. Jesse Davis takes the most lethal solo that you’re gonna hear him take over the years on that, you know.
And, yeah, there’s a lot of stuff, you know, cause somehow everybody thinks I sort of dropped out somewhere in the 1970s after the music started scaring the government, like “What the hell is this’ Where is this information coming from?” you know? Well, uh, it ain’t from any source that you might be paying’ attention to. But, yeah, I was recording, doing’ a lot of stuff along there, so there it is. I got a website, so if you want to check in to keep up on it…
You know, those of us who have been fortunate enough to be able to catch what you’re about, we really appreciate it. I’m sure you hear that all the time.
Yeah, but you’ll know, you can’t say it enough. I mean, I haven’t been out there doin’, makin’ that kind of big splash in the business, although it’s with the people, so that’s where it is, you know’ To have things mavin’ along now, and to have people say what they have to say about it, it’s meaningful to em, that all goes toward a good cause, believe me.