Taj Mahal is a slippery definition of a bluesman. With a warm, wandering spirit and an organic guitar style he has an easy way of slipping between genres -- now leaning towards country blues, now in a Caribbean groove, now wandering towards alternative global folk traditions.
Biographical details shed some light on his distinctive style. He was born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks, May 17, 1942 in New York City, to a gospel-singing mother and a West Indian father, a jazz musician and arranger. Music entered his life during his formative years in Springfield, MA, but his commitment to the musical life came about only after he had graduated from the University of Massachusetts, in Agriculture. Forays into the Boston folk club circuit presaged a fateful move to Los Angeles, where he was part of a folk-blues boom centered at the fabled Ash Grove club.
Mahal's impressive legacy was re-affirmed in the early 90s when Columbia/Legacy finally saw fit to issue the legendary 1964 recording by Rising Sons, a mid-60s group featuring Mahal and a young Ry Cooder. This year the label will reissue his late 60s and early 70s albums, including The Real Thing, and the Natch'l Blues. These albums capture the work of a musician who has truly found his voice. The Mahal sound varies from song to song, but it usually involves infectiously soulful vocals and an unpretentious guitar approach, with occasional excursions on blues harp and banjo, among other instruments.
Mahal's following, though fickle in the States, reaches around the world. Guitar.com caught up with him recently after a show for 2,000 people in Friedrichshafen, Germany.
Guitar.com: Your recent live album, Shoutin' in Key is a strong statement. Was there a central motivation behind it?
Taj Mahal: One of the things I've been trying to do over the years is to make people aware of how vital and vibrant the music is. It's not about "Oh, it was Bo Diddley. Oh, it was Muddy Waters." It is Muddy Waters and it is Bo Diddley. It is everything else. It is American music. Why is everybody always trying to sweep it under the rug and say, "Oh yeah, that's where it started?" dismissing it quickly in two sentences, and now we have Fred Durst. Not that there's anything wrong with that. [But] if I'm running for the Olympics, and I win the medal for the United States, [why is it] when I come home, everybody's treating me like I'm some marginalized character? I find that quite difficult to deal with. So I ignore it and go on and play the music.
Guitar.com: What were you aiming for specifically?
Mahal: We had done three studio albums, which culminated in the Grammy-winning Senor Blues. What are you gonna do after that? Well, our live show has always been great. This is not something people really know. I remember the same thing going to see Bill Doggett or James Brown or Chuck Berry -- the show being absolutely powerful, because it was live. Live music was always where music came from when I was growing up. Records were where you heard something and wanted to go see them live. That's what spread the word. So here's an opportunity, at a time when everybody is saying everything is mechanical and nothing is real, here's a live band, playing live as you can possibly get it. Now you compare this to all the live albums you've ever heard. Everybody is saying, "Damn, that's real good for a live album." This is real music, and it's how we play. If you come to hear us, you would feel comfortable and close to that band.
Guitar.com: It seems like you have followed your instincts which led you to, among many other things, country blues.
Mahal: This would never have happened if I hadn't grown up in a household which championed my own ancient African culture, the positives in present Caribbean, Latin American, and North American Afro-culture, as well as teach me respect for other people's culture. This is what Americans tend not to have, and what I do have. My people grew up in jazz. My father was a Caribbean man. My grandparents on his side were immigrants to this country. So I had that strength, that conviction of having a nationalism outside the United States? as opposed to what everybody was about in the '60s. If you could ever get away from picking this cotton, you might be able to have this house that you dream of. I noticed right away that some of the people coming up in the South were leaving this great culture behind them --music, art, the art of the story, and various different things. I felt that was important for me, who inherited a guitar from my step-father, who was from Jamaica. Not long after that, I bumped into this kid who was just about my age, from North Carolina, who was playing close to Robert Johnson as anybody possibly could. He was 15 years old. He came from North Carolina and was synthesizing the whole scene of Piedmont, Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lightning Hopkins, Muddy Waters, and so forth and so on.
Guitar.com: Were they major influences?
Mahal: These were my first guitar teachers. You hear this music. You hear people sing this music and you hear it on records. You go somebody's house, or a barbecue place, and you hear Lightning Hopkins. This wasn't the story of, "All of a sudden, I went to college and I took an ethnomusicology course and was hit by the magic wand of Skip James." No. This is a living, breathing music that moved around my town. In the ?40s, I can remember going to Harlem with my father, and I can remember holding on to his pant legs as we walked through the city because it was so intense. At almost every corner, there were blind singers or singers playing guitars, playing the living crap out of the blues. Everybody tries to say it was only Memphis. I came through the ?60s and was able to study the Eastern and Western philosophy. That's what made the '60s very healthy for me, being able to grow. Some of the things I personally felt out, I was able to see. But the bottom line was the question of how do you get this back to the masses? And it's through the music. Music is our common language.
Guitar.com: Your guitar style is pretty unique. It's basically a fingerpicking style, but it takes some detours. How did that develop?
Mahal: Everybody else I heard was playing real tight chords when I started hearing guitar in the ?40s. The first person I really loved was Irving Ashby, who played with Nat King Cole. That guy was incredible. He had a certain sound. I lived in the world of instruments. I heard the way the bassist played and the way the saxophone played, or if the piano would do certain things. That's the way I lived. My father was a wonderful composer and musician who gave up his whole musical career to raise his family. But one of the things he allowed himself was really nice sound equipment and a nice record collection. So I got to hear all this great swing and bebop and classical stuff. They came out of that whole ?20s and ?30s Afro-American renaissance. I heard everything from Paul Robeson to Leadbelly. I lived in vibrant thought about my culture. I saw people clearly dropping the culture for something that I felt was of a lot less value. But then people were trying to develop. You can't come down too hard. They're trying to do their best.
Guitar.com: The Rising Sons album, recorded in 1965, was finally released in 1992. Did that trigger pangs of nostalgia?
Mahal: Actually, it cracked me up. It was one of those things where you say, "Maybe one day it will come out." Once it didn't, I thought , "Okay, that's the end of that, but maybe one day they'll catch up to it." If you think of it in terms of the time, it fell right in. It was a democratic system where we all added our points of view to what was going on at the time. That was the music. We were not trying to harm anybody. We were all excited about the music. We were all young. Most of us were in our early to mid 20s. Ry was the youngest one -- he was a kid playing with us. Hey, we took a shot at it. It didn't make it back then. Now, it's a historical document, along with the Rolling Stones' "Rock and Roll Circus".
Guitar.com: You've long been collaborating with musicians from other cultures, including recent projects with V.M. Bhatt and Toumane Diabate. What prompted you to reach beyond American culture?
Mahal: The earliest stuff started in the late 60s. I started recording with Africans. By '73 and '74, I was recording with Africans, Trinidadians, Jamaicans, Panamanians and people from other cultures as well. I thought, I gave a shot to what was happening here in the States. They weren't picking up on it, for whatever reason, or they were and didn't want it. Whatever. I'm not even going there. The fact of the matter was, I was hearing this music and I realized that there are certain kinds of musicians who would be able to handle it. Had the majority of American musicians been able to play the stuff, I'd have been glad to play with them. It was never an issue of that. It was just an issue of what it sounded like. Now, you go back and listen to those records and they have a magical, timeless quality to them.
Guitar.com: Is that something that enriches your own musical identity?
Mahal: My musical identity is a worldview. I'm aware. I travel to far reaches to hear people tell me what music they like. That comes from the culture that I spring from, both the nationalistic culture and my individual culture. My personal ethnicity in the world has created a tremendous amount of joy and music, and Africans in general have given rhythm to the whole world. So here it is. Let's get with it.