A True Blues Innovator
Taj Mahal was blending genres before genre-blending was cool.
Thursday, September 2, 2004
Taj Mahal has a special voice that he uses to impersonate the critics of black artists who try to do something different within their musical genre, or folks who think there is nothing new happening in the blues. The voice sounds like the nasally, stuffy whine of an academic who is obsessed with stuffing everything into classifiable boxes.
Luckily, throughout his more than 30 years in the record business, the blues pioneer has chosen to ignore those sorts of voices.
Growing up in a musical family—his father was a jazz pianist and his mother sang gospel music—Taj Mahal started playing music at a young age. Though he took piano lessons during his early childhood, Taj was drawn to guitar music and started playing at 14. At the time, he was not impressed with the sort of guitar music being played on the radio.
“It always seemed like everybody was trying so hard to sophisticate the instrument that you never got to hear the original way they were played,” he says. “That was what was exciting to me.”
In the early ‘60s, while attending the University of Massachusetts and studying for an agriculture degree, Mahal started a band called Taj Mahal & the Elektras. At the time, he had no idea that it was the start of a fruitful career in music. When asked when he believes he discovered he would be able to play music as a career, Mahal says: “It might have been yesterday.”
After releasing three vintage blues albums in the late ‘60s, Mahal started to add Caribbean rhythms and New Orleans-style horns to his songs in the early ‘70s. He says that he was not going out of his way to explore new music, but he was just adding elements that he had heard growing up in a family with strong Afro-Caribbean roots.
“I was made aware as a person that I came from a large amount of different, wonderful cultures that would not be represented positively in the western world,” he says. “Furthermore, that led me to the interest of going further out.”
In addition to Caribbean and southern music elements, Mahal has delved into children’s music, classical Indian sounds and, most recently, Hawaiian music.
Despite the fact that most of these genres are considered wholly unique, Taj Mahal sees a common thread running through all his work.
“I would say without a doubt that every one of them is life-giving, life-sustaining and life-affirming,” he says. “I don’t drag people down in a hole.”
On his latest release, Hanapepe Dream, the blues legend gives blues classics like John Hurt’s “My Creole Belle” a distinct Hawaiian flavor due to the presence of ukuleles and a slack-key guitar. For Mahal, Hawaiian music, which he calls a “very deep, emotional music,” is just another version of the blues. “Everybody got some version of the blues, man,” he says.
Taj Mahal believes that a musician’s knowledge of theses different takes on the blues from different cultures around the world helps artists to create important music. “I am not telling nobody that they have to bow down to the past, but you have to acknowledge it if you expect to be able to go forward with some power and strength,” he says.
When asked where Taj Mahal’s interest in the music of the world will lead him next, the friendly, down-to-earth blues legend is deliberately vague. “We got a lot of projects out there that are finalizing themselves,” he says. “They are not ready to be talked about yet. Just know there’s more music coming.”
The Taj Mahal Trio will be performing at the Sunset cultural Center Thursday, Sept 2, at 8pm. $38. For tickets, call 620-2040.