Thursday, June 26, 2008
Taj Mahal got valuable musical advice from blues elders, including Lightnin’ Hopkins, when he first embarked on his unconventional path as a musician.
“They all said don’t get stuck playing one type of music, because music comes and goes,” he says in a froggy voice from a tour stop in Phoenix.
Taj Mahal definitely has taken that bit of wisdom to heart in his impressive 40-year career. He has tackled warm country blues with “Fishin’ Blues” and blistering blues rock with “Chevrolet.” Though labeled a blues artist by many, Taj Mahal’s music has never recognized musical and cultural borders in his work from his 1974 reggae album Mo’ Roots to his collaboration with east Indian musicians on 1995’s Mumtaz Mahal to his forays into Hawaiian music with 1998’s Hula Blues and 2003’s Hanapepe Dream. He has even transformed a children’s folk song, “Little Brown Dog,” into a haunting number in a live setting.
Taj Mahal says he always felt that labeling a specific style of music “the blues” was just a marketing strategy by record executives, anyway.
“The market decided that it was blues, and that’s a separate category,” he says. “But to the people that was just the music from further down South. Or it was the flavor in New Orleans music. Or it was a framework that jazz was put on. Or it was the framework that rock and roll was built on.”
The musician also believes that blues music is more than just records; live performances are integral to understanding the genre. In college, he recalls hearing about how great blues legend Robert Johnson was. There, the future musician finally listened to a Johnson album. “I put this record on, and I’m like, ‘What the hell are they talking about?’ ” he says. “It wasn’t bad blues. It just sounded like some old scratchy sounds from 30 years ago, which it was.”
Taj Mahal feels some people look in the wrong place for the spirit of the blues.
“It seemed that a tremendous amount of people got their passion from records and didn’t actually hear that music live,” he says of some blues enthusiasts.
His approach to the blues has been an influence on a handful of new players, including country blues revivalist Keb’ Mo’, and Corey Harris, who has used the blues as a jumping-off point to explore other world music. Taj Mahal says he has done little more than encourage the new players when meeting them on tour. Yet, he says he makes his music with the hope that it inspires others. “I’m trying to get people excited about their own individualities to do things in their lives,” he says.
While Taj Mahal has built up some anger toward the music business over the years– he calls it “essentially a modern-day plantation system”– the eclectic musician is content with a career that finds him doing 150 live shows a year.
“I love playing the music,” he says. “This is a job that I built for myself.”
Most of all, Taj Mahal is thankful he hasn’t made choices that have compromised his integrity or forced him to act like someone he isn’t.
“I took my own road,” he says, “and I ended up with myself.”