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Published: Wednesday, 7/30/2008

Taj Mahal harvests blues from around the world

BY SCOTT MERVIS
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

Back in the late '50s, when he was a teenager, Taj Mahal was torn between a career in music and a life on the farm.

With his passion and intelligence, he would have been successful at either one, but his fans can be thankful that he chose the guitar over the plow.

Throughout his career, the 65-year-old Mahal has gotten his share of tail feathers shaking with his effusive Afro-Caribbean approach to the blues. During those years, he worked with the likes of Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Hopkins, and the Rolling Stones, scored films, and won two Grammys.

On Sept. 30, Mahal (born Henry St. Claire Fredericks in Harlem) will celebrate the 40th anniversary of his debut album with "Maestro," a new CD studded with special guests, including Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, Angelique Kidjo, Los Lobos, and Ziggy Marley.

QSo, you have a number of guest stars on the new album. How did it turn out?

AI'm proud of everything. A lot of people will be pleasantly surprised. I don't want to let everything out of the bag. I worked with contemporary people and some of the more established groups. It covers a lot of ground, expanding some of the older blues styles, incorporating West African music and stuff from the Caribbean. It's fun and it moves. If you don't roll the rug back and move the furniture on this one, there's something wrong.

QYou've been credited as being one of the pioneers of world music. Do you think that label applies?

AYeah, I think so. The music existed out there. I'm not going to be credited with the whole scene. The thing is, my mother's side are African-Americans from the South, my father's side are Afro-Caribbean people, so I'm a blend of cultures. What I make out of all that energy and information is music - music that has a whole lot of diversity, which is normal in my life. The average American life is sometimes very dull and distracted - that's why you can sell tons of fast food, 'cause no one sat down and made a meal for them. We're dealing with music in the same way. You're told what to hear. It's corporatized. Here we are, the free-est country in the world, and we get to hear the least amount of music.

QHow did blues purists feel about your fusion of those kinds of rhythms? Were they accepting of it?

ANo. A lot of times, they absolutely got upset. So, I just totally ignored them. How the hell can you be a blues purist when you never dug a shovel in the ground or worked behind a mule on a farm? I was a farmer before I got into the music scene. That's how I got to go to college. Part of the reason I liked older music is that urban music didn't really work well when you worked on a farm. Sure, you can listen to it and you might go out to a club and dance to it, but when it came to working, you needed worker's music. These were guys with a third-grade education writing poetry that still stands today: "I'm gonna get up in the morning/and I believe I'll dust my broom."

QDo the blues need to move forward and experiment - or is it enough for the younger musicians to just preserve it?

AThis is a living music. To be talking about mules in the field, plowing and sharecropping, you're probably not going to find a lot of people doing that. But with the new green revolution happening here on Earth, there's going to have to be a new music for people who are picking those baskets of beans and having rooftop gardens and putting up those windmills and solar panels and recycling that gray water - there's always some room for songs to be written about those things, and that is the job we human beings have to do next, which is put this Earth back in order. OK. So, there's got to be some music for that.

For everyone saying, 'Well, that [old blues] era's gone ...' Yeah, probably is. But if that old music doesn't have any value, then all the sculpture, all the painting, all the things that were said, we just need to let it go. We're not letting go of that, so why should we be letting go of what value blues brought to us? Or ragtime, or jazz, or classical? Let's hear this stuff, let's play it.

QYou worked with Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, some other greats. Was there a musician you learned the most from?

ANo, that's hard to say. There's always something you can learn from people. Sometimes it depends who you're close to, who your parents are closest to. Your old cock-eyed Uncle Albert - haha - he always had some great ideas for fishin' or whatever. You know, I look at these people in a West African/Caribbean or older Southern sense in that they were ancestors and they were griots, praise singers who sang the songs of their time and brought it through. It's just they intersected with the popular ability to make records, so we were lucky enough to hear these artists in their prime. They took it out of the daily reality.

QI recently did an interview with Steve Miller ...

A Oh, Steve's a great guy.

QYeah, he was talking about how the Rolling Stones took a lot from Ry Cooder. You were hanging around with those guys. What are your thoughts on that?

AYeah, Ry went over [to England]. They worked with John Hammond, Jack Nietzsche, a lot of guys who gave them direction. Jagger's voice, he didn't have a deep enough voice to sing like Muddy. But he came to it like Don Covay or Chuck Berry and then he had phrasing like Muddy. They always knew who the real players were. They would have been happy spending their whole life trying to play like their idols, but some people in management said, 'Hey, you guys have to come up with your own stuff.' That's when they started writing their own tunes.

How I got to be involved with the Rolling Stones "Rock and Roll Circus" ... We were playing at the Whisky A Go-Go in Los Angeles. I was playing harmonica with my eyes closed and I looked down on the dance floor and I'll be doggone if there was Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones, and across from them was Eric Burdon and Hilton Valentine [from the Animals] and sitting at the back of the room was Eric Clapton. When the set was over, the guys waved me over. I said to Mick, "I love what you're doing. The fact that you can put blues on the radio first thing in the morning, I don't know what you have in the water over there." I said, "If there's any project we can do to help you out, man, don't hesitate to call." Three months later eight round-trip tickets from Los Angeles to London came in the mail, for four musicians [and managers]. I don't know anyone else in the music business, all the years I've been out here, who's ever been that generous. We got there, none of us put our hands in our pockets for anything other than personal stuff we wanted to buy. These guys treated us royally. With all the plaudits I've had, no one has treated me that well.

Q I understand you prefer playing outdoor shows like the one you're doing in Pittsburgh.

A I love the outdoor shows during the summer, people having a good time. Pittsburgh is several things to me: the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Satchel Paige and Gus Greenlee. And Dakota Staton, beautiful jazz singer who came out of that town. Pittsburgh is George Benson. Pittsburgh is the original bass player with Ray Charles, Edgar Willis -- I just loved the way he played upright bass. And there's lots of other people from there. We used to play the Syria Mosque back in the day -- I had a great show there with Little Richard. So I've had some really good friends from Pittsburgh.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Scott Mervis is a writer for the Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: smervis@post-gazette.com.



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