Taj Mahal: A Maestros Tales
Originally, Taj Mahal brought a vintage Blues sound to audiences in the late ’60s who were accustomed to loud, Blues-based rock. As his ongoing thirst for knowledge uncovered layer after layer of musical associations, his material took on added depth and brought in elements from other parts of the world – Africa, Caribbean, and Hawaii – to go with a mix that incorporated rock, R&B and pop. On his website’s homepage, www.tajblues.com, the internet jukebox can make you a quick study of Mahal’s diverse and endearing catalogue.
The two-time Grammy winner grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. Surrounded by the sounds of music from his parents – a jazz pianist/composer/arranger and a teacher/gospel singer — an extensive record collection and short wave radio helped shape his creative vision. His neighborhood also reflected a global potpourri of influences from Africa, the Caribbean, the South plus Eastern and Western Europe. Although he worked on a farm while studying agriculture at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the young multi-instrumentalist decided to move to Los Angeles in 1964 and follow his dream of being a musician.
His first band, the Rising Sons, which included future guitar legend Ry Cooder, recorded an album for Columbia records. The label didn’t know what to do with the group’s mix of roots rock, and shelved the title. It was finally released in 1992.
Despite that experience, Mahal remained with Columbia as a solo artist and put out his self-titled debut in 1968. His stripped-down approach surprised people, but its distinctiveness also gained him an instant and loyal audience. Over the next four decades, he kept those fans guessing with his acoustic and electric explorations, soundtrack and Broadway scores, acting appearances and children’s albums.
Like the title of his newest album, Maestro, which celebrates his 40 years as a recording artist, the musician acts like a conductor who brings together a uniform sound through the use of numerous instruments and players.
In Mahal’s case, the 12 songs on the album reflect his past musical forays — gut bucket blues ("Scratch My Back," "Dust Me Down"), African and Caribbean influences ("Zanzibar," "Never Let You Go," "Black Man, Brown Man"), a touch of Country ("Further On Down The Road") and more – yet the shifts in direction do not jolt the listener by the sum of its parts. Instead, it makes for a satisfying whole. Despite a lengthy list of guests including Jack Johnson, Ben Harper, Los Lobos, Ziggy Marley and Angelique Kidjo, their contributions never outshine the songs.
JPG: The new album and current tour are billed as celebrating 40 years as a recording artist. How do you view that time?
Taj Mahal: I don’t. I’m in it. The fat lady ain’t sung yet. When I started doing this my interest was music, for me in the beginning my interest was not to play out, not to be popular but simply to learn the real music, and learn how it connected to country or culture — i.e. Afro-American Music, Afro-Caribbean music, Afro-Latin music, how does it add to popular music, jazz, etc. etc. how does it connect African to the western world?
Everything changed in terms of how all of us in the world interpret music except our specific indigenous musics. The music from the United States has a decided stamp of what happened in this place. Go everywhere else. It has its African stamp on it, but it does not have the same kinds of things that the blues, gospel, spirituals and jazz would.
It’s interesting for me. It was just interesting in my life to have that knowledge because everybody goes, (mimics voice) ‘Yeah, yeah, a bunch of black people were brought over here and they were in slavery and they came up with these songs and now we got it. Then, there’s Elvis Presley and now there’s the Rolling Stones.’ That’s not the history of it. That’s the money on it. Then let’s deal with the history of it.
As Americans, we’re a patchwork quilt. We are not a melting pot. A serious melting pot takes this from other places in the world, but America is a patchwork quilt. You have to acknowledge everybody’s contribution, and that’s where it gets a little dicey. My point was I’m old enough to have listened to all kinds of rhetoric of whether or not the music that we were playing was correct polyrhythms or whatever things they portended in the university to denigrate the music.
But I’m telling you, Christina Aguilera does not sing the way she sings if it hadn’t been for the fact that one: that the music that we know now in the United States has all the different lines in it and contributions from different people. By the time she came up that was singing. She could feel that. Listen back to Vic Damone or Sophie Tucker or Eddie Cantor or Rudy Vallee, they’re not singing like Michael Bolton. Something happened in the music that, or even Bobby Caldwell who I really like or Boz Scaggs, they’re not singing like those people. (Imitates the old ’30s era style) They’re singing in another kind of way that doesn’t have nothin’ to do with it at all. It’s singing, but it’s not influenced by what’s happened here, in this country. So, I was saying, ‘This stuff is great. I know it and I don’t care who else don’t know it. I’m going to spend my time learning how to play the best of it and maybe get good enough to be able to compose in some of these different styles. And that’s what I was interested in and that’s what I’ve been doing.
JPG: Now, if I want to pick up one of your albums, I’ll find them in the blues section. But, a look at your career shows that you’ve explored other musical areas, so are blues purists not happy with you or…?
TM: You know, I already know your question. What they don’t do, they don’t acknowledge that…blues purists (says with a degree of disdain). How are you going to go down South and have somebody that only plays slow songs and that’s the only kind of songs that they play. That is ludicrous. What they did, they went down and they got to these musicians and they put microphones in front of them and they said, ‘Play what you got.’ The Big Boss Man comes out and says, ‘This is the best singer we got down here in Lawrence County, Alabama and I’m gonna bring him up here to the general store and give him a Coca Cola and put a little ice up there in front of his head. Now son, go ahead and play. This man come down here to hear you play.’
Now, what’s going to happen under that circumstance? You can hear it already. So, he’s going to play everything that he knows how to play. Then, the guy who’s recording is going to say, ‘Now, do you have any songs that sound like this?’ ‘Oh yeah, you looking for some blues? Oh, we can play some blues.’ But they played all kinds of songs. You don’t think that folks in the South from Irish, Scottish, English and French backgrounds gonna stand around and just dance to all these slow songs. So when they finally started making albums and commercially making the music viable that’s when you got all the slow songs, all the blues songs, on one album from a particular artist or a compilation of various artists who played songs that were, if not similar, then similar tempos, similar subjects, etc. etc. So, the purists come along, thinking that this is how the music comes out and they like this one song by this one guy – and he may have 150,000 other songs but that’s the only one that they like. They don’t ever stop and think that.
Me, I grew up in the culture so I heard everything from funny stuff to hardcore stuff. So that’s what I’m doing. I don’t care what they think.
JPG: I’ve interviewed other artists who hate the idea of being pigeonholed in one genre, are you comfortable in that category?
TM: I’m that and more. That’s a part of it. Blues is not the only part of makes me who I am. George Washington isn’t the only thing that makes European-Americans what they are or should they be defined by the Ku Klux Klan? It’s just ridiculous, but this is not how people think because of how they’re oriented towards things. They tend to want to think, ‘They’re all alike. I know some of ‘em.’ That’s not the way it is. You’ve got to deal with people one at a time, man. You have to deal with politics and the social mind of the time that things are placed on paper.
JPG: Speaking of dealing with people one at a time, we can go back to the album in that there’s a nice group of musicians, but on Maestro it really works. You know how sometimes you have those special guest albums like Frank Sinatra’s Duets and Ray Charles Genius Loves Company...
TM: Basically I call it smarmy. ‘C’mon over here and sing a little song with me. We’ve known each other for…’ blah, blah, blah. I ain’t putting no album out like that, man. Everybody else is doing it. I never put out what everybody else is doing. How many times you ever heard me do an album that sounds like everybody else’s album? Never. Never yet.
JPG: With the guests on here, was it just coincidence or did someone bring up to you, ‘Hey Taj, it’s going to be the 40th anniversary, we can coordinate with this and that.’
TJ: Success is always preceded by preparation. You’re not dealing with a functional illiterate here. Yeah, we took some time. I would say that had a lot to do with the early stages of it was the conversation that I had with the woman that co-manages, Valerie Celene. She Co-Manages with Kevin Morris from Madison House and she runs all of my online business — the whole website, all of the marketing, merchandising — and is someone who has an interest in how things come together. It’s like I got somebody whose off to the side, not a musician and not up on the front end, that I can talk to, that I can depend upon them and their feedback. Good or bad.
When we found out in a conversation, ‘Hey, this is like 40 years into this thing.’ It was like, ‘Well, have you thought about doing a 40th anniversary album.’ I was like, ‘Ahh, no. I don’t want to, I really don’t want to.’ That’s for the same reason it started out this part of the conversation. It comes off a little smarmy. It’s going to get in there. All you’re doing is doing the same thing everybody else is doing. It sounds like. ‘Well, here’s a guy he’s been here a long time. Maybe we need to give him his props now while his career’s now getting up there, and he’s long in the tooth.’ Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. ‘Maybe if we have these young guys, bring in a new audience.’ All the things that they’re going to say that are going to go that way about it and with it and on it. I didn’t want that. We talked about it a long time. Then, you think about it. I really voiced myself then. I just didn’t want to make that other kind of album. And also too, I wanted to be totally in control of what went down, who played, what got played, what the song was. And so, we did the time, through trial and error, came up with the songs, list of people and there were those who we wanted and then there were those who were available. Most everybody who we wanted was on there. Some people were just not available this time around.
JPG: It’s a good group of people. The other thing about it, I don’t know if it was meant to correspond to the 40th anniversary, but Maestro is a nice encapsulation of your many musical directions.
TM: I think it did that. That was a conscious thought, to make sure that. We put out Essential for all and caught everybody up with all the stuff that went over and the Essential was like a really good, like pure guava, some of the great stuff that was there. But now it’s time to do something different and, basically, really try hard to go back over songs that have been done before. That’s why two did show up, ‘Black Man, Brown Man’ is from the 70’s when I was working with the International Rhythm Band, band that I had back then. And "Further On Down the Road" was cut. Let’s see. The band with Jesse Ed Davis and Gary Gilmore and Chuck Blackwell. And then we cut it again for a movie called Scrapple, a cult Hollywood movie about Telluride in the off-season. Then, Jack Johnson said this is one of his favorite tunes. So, we’ve been talking about doing something… Everybody on this album, with the exception I think of Angelique Kidjo, who is somebody new that I met but had known my late sister, Carol, for a long time in Europe. We met in Australia and it was a no-brainer. We sent the track over to her to listen to, ‘What do you think about it?’ What she sent back is what you hear. And we’re like, ‘Oh, really? We like this.’ It was just great. No changes in what she did. That’s the excitement about it.
Ben Harper, I’ve known Ben forever. But at the same time, here’s a young guy that developed himself real well, man. Excellent development. We’ve been talking about, dancing around doing something this time. We worked on projects before. I gave him his first professional gig. I said, ‘What I’m thinking of, taking some of my songs I got and we’re doing ‘em again. He said, ‘Well, my thought is why don’t we just go into the studio and come up with something?’ So, we went into the studio and I had never heard the song before and he ran it down, and then we ran it down, and then we actually made a recording of it. I got a chance to say what the shape of the song was. Shaped it right there in the studio. So we got that wild kind of tear across your brains, let you swallow the warthog, you know?
JPG: It’s a very hot track. It’s funny that you mention "Scrapple." I forgot about you having material in that. In your bio, it mentions other soundtrack contributions Zebrahead and Mulebone.
TM: Mulebone, Sounder, Brothers, over the years. Like I said, I’m a composer, man.
JPG: You mentioned something earlier when I talked about guests on Maestro and how you didn’t want it looking like you were bringing people on to appeal to a younger crowd. That reminded me of something. I saw you play at ROTHBURY. It seemed like you were taken aback a little bit. I don’t know if you didn’t expect as big a crowd when you performed or as young a crowd, but you seemed like you were real satisfied with the people there. And I really loved what you said onstage, "I used to wonder what was going to happen in the future. Now we know, and it’s in good hands."
TM: Yeah, of course you wonder, man. We’re talking about listening back to the late 40’s to the 50’s and rock and roll came and everybody got excited and it disappeared. And then all this soul music came and for a minute in the 60’s we had a whole bunch of other good music come. And then it got dumbed down again. And then it got weird. And then it got reacted to with the punks. And then it got reacted to with the hip hop and rap, well rap actually. Now 40 years into it I’m waiting to see who it is. I think what they’re doing is gearing up. Everything in this country starts up with indigenous or a particularly ethnic group and then it moves over to the mainstream. With rap it had it. It had a long run with African-Americans and now it’s gonna make some kind of attempt to have European-Americans involved in rap. Same thing with blues or rock and roll or r&b, whatever. The only thing that they really don’t go into is gospel.
JPG: At the time, I took it in two ways, that you were referring to thing musically as well as socially because of the environmental theme of the festival.
TJ: Right. I’ve always been connected with that. I mean if you read about me, it was either going to be music or agriculture, but I also spent years working in the industry. I was a farmer from about the time I was 14,15 up until I graduated from college. Yeah man, that’s how I made my living to be able to go to college was farming. Working on a dairy farm. I had 70 cows to milk sometimes. Plowing, hoeing, mending. I mean, that’s real. That’s the real deal. Probably a lot of times, that was difficult with me is this to really understand what’s going on, by the time I was getting interested in agriculture, a lot of people were pretty well done with it. You know what? You can’t climb up a light pole and need light bulbs. You can’t pick leaves up off of a tree and make food out of it. People have to really understand that the real deal is. That there’s no free lunch and you’ve got to grow your food if you don’t want to be poisoned by these big food corporations.
JPG: I know what you mean. When I’m done with this interview I can eat a fresh tomato and pepper salad from vegetables that were picked from the garden.
TM: What kind of seeds do you use?
JPG: To be honest, it’s not my garden. I was more involved in the past, but I’ve been too busy lately.
TM: What you really don’t understand, man, is there’s been an actual drive to get you away from being responsible for anything and everything. You need to write down www.seedsofchange.com. Seeds of Change has wholly organic seeds. Once you plant them, then you leave a couple of the rows and you can take the seeds from that and grow the next year and the next year and the next year. Not hybrid seeds. That’s the most important thing for to figure out right now. When you do your own growing is to have organically grown F1 seeds. F1 means that they’re first generation seeds. This is the stuff. There’s one other out here in California. Renee’s [Garden] Seeds. There’s also a great place in Pennsylvania, the J.I. Rodale Institute. Check those people out. Just Google them up. They’re just incredible. This is the same thing, man. Information, just pass it on. Get people excited, similar to the music.
JPG: With that idea of passing on information. Do you have advice for anyone who is just starting or even someone who’s been playing for 10 years or 20 years?
TM: Yeah, yeah. The point of it is and the problem that really happens is what are you playing for? If you’re playing for the lights…you see how far they crashed Michael Jackson down outta the top. And he was the music business for years. Anytime they need some cash money, all they gotta do is just start cranking his stuff up. So, you can imagine when you’re farther down the food chain you’re inconsequential as far as they’re concerned. So, the thing is what saves you is one, you take the time to find out what your ethnic background is and what your responsibility as a musician at the age that you are now or what would your responsibility be that you grow into. Pick the best out of that and then come over here to this cornucopia of styles and availability of music etc. etc. etc. and then you’re going to have a unique sound. You’re going to have a unique look. I mean, all these different things are going to come down like that. There’s no way around it.
You find out that your family’s French and for reason or other they spent time in Spain. Then, they moved to South America. All those things you pick up when you listen to the music, and you pick out what works for you, especially what you can feel. ‘Cause that’s what my stuff is about, feel. Can you feel this? Most of the time if people can’t feel it then you’re pretty much brain dead.