On the road and in conversation with a modern blues master
Taj Mahal (born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks) is equal parts musician, songwriter, folklorist and musicologist. But despite his impeccable credentials, the man has never taken an academic approach to music. With more than 30 albums to his name — solo records, collaborations, live sets — Taj Mahal has created a virtual audio travelogue, exploring the musics that inform his own unique sensibility.
Way back in 1964 he co-led one of the first multiracial bands to score a record deal. With fellow future legend Ry Cooder he led the Rising Sons, a group that anticipated the sorts of sounds later explored by Moby Grape and others. But that short-lived band’s album was shelved, not seeing release until 1992.
Always a critical favorite, by 1968 Taj Mahal experienced another commercial near-miss: he was one of the featured performer (along with John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Jethro Tull and the Who) in a film called The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. Like the Rising Sons album, that film wasn’t released, languishing in a vault until 1996.
Meanwhile, Taj continued with an illustrious career of his own. The latest project for the multiple Grammy-winning artist is TajMo, a collaborative album (and supporting tour) with guitarist, songwriter and producer Keb’Mo. I spoke with Taj as he prepared to head back on the road for the second (and likely final) leg of that tour.
I’ve always thought of you more as a roots or even a world music artist than a blues one because calling somebody a blues artist can be a little bit limiting.
Well, yeah. Because [the people who label me as a blues artist] are not seeing blues as a world music and having world values. My background is southern and Caribbean, and in both cases, Africa is the background to all of that. S thank you for being that perceptive, because this is what I was trying to tell those people a long time ago. It was like, “Hey. There’s more to it than just the blues, and the blues is connected to a lot of other things.” What has happened, ultimately, is that contemporary blues players have basically picked the low-hanging fruit of the blues, and they pick those trees clean, and then they created a batch of music that everybody’s familiar with: the easier things to play.
All of the roots musics are connected in some way…
I appreciate that you recognize that and acknowledge it because it’s connected, whether they like it or not. That’s the point that I know. One DNA chart puts me at 93% African, and the other one puts me at 97%. So, what am I supposed to be hearing? Music is the language of this galaxy, of this solar system.
I had a cab ride the other day, and I checked the driver out and realized he was a Middle Eastern man. I asked him if he had some music by a very famous woman singer from the Middle East — and of course I knew he would, but I just wanted to see what his reaction was gonna be — and of course we had a great ride. We conversed about this woman, Umm Kulthum, and it was just amazing. I’m not understanding the language [of her music]. I’m understanding the music.
You’ve done many, many albums and tours on your own, but you’ve also been a frequent collaborator with many artists. Now, obviously, when somebody works solo, it’s in one sense, it’s more straightforward to maintain your vision for a project. When you collaborate, there’s push and pull, give and take. Have you found that to be the case?
Back in the ’50s when I was thinking about it, I always said that if I ever got the opportunity to put bands together that I would want to have a band with musicians from Africa, and the Caribbean, and Latin America, and the South. I would want to see what the sound would be like with all those different people from those different influences. There would be some kind of interesting nuances.
And then, I made that music. I went out and did it. That was what my interest was.
Some people really think, “Oh, yeah. Well, you’re just sampling a little bit of this and that.” But I’m visiting my relatives: that’s what I’m doing. And we’re making music with them. That’s what I’m doing. And I’m showing that music to the world to anybody who’s interested, who’s open.
Sometimes, through the active collaborating, artists discover something new. Did anything like that happen with you working with Keb’ Mo and making the TajMo album?
I learned more things about Keb’ Mo’ that I didn’t know. I mean, I had some ideas about him, but he’s an incredible producer and he’s just meticulous with his production and his production skills. That was something that I really appreciated, because I’ve carried the weight of that kind of thing always by myself. This was different. I was able to step back and be a part of the music and enjoy what I was doing, and he fully enjoyed doing this in reference to this project that we had in front of us, and that was what was really exciting.
And then, we staged it and took it out. It was successful. There wasn’t a bad night on the tour; it was incredible night after night after night. We just really loved it; it was great. It was a great show, and we did it all on our own. That collaboration of the two spirits creating one entity — even though the voices are individual — was really fantastic.
Do you think your career might have followed a different path if the Rising Sons had gotten an album released and had a measure of commercial success?
Maybe so. I mean, that’s a possibility, but it sure ain’t one I think about. Like, “What if The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus had been released?” I mean, there’s a whole bunch of stuff like that, but it’s all woulda, coulda, shoulda, man. I don’t waste my time on that.