Taj Mahal meets Central Park

In the Kulanjan project, the American blues singer Taj Mahal explores the West African roots of his music. Here he talks to Jane Cornwell
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The Independent Culture

A sweltering late-summer day in Central Park, New York. The crowd here for Africa Fête are being doused with fire-hoses in an attempt to ward off mass sunstroke; bottled-water stalls are doing a roaring trade.

A sweltering late-summer day in Central Park, New York. The crowd here for Africa Fête are being doused with fire-hoses in an attempt to ward off mass sunstroke; bottled-water stalls are doing a roaring trade.

Backstage, temperatures are rising. Though they are due on stage within minutes, there's no sign of the six-piece Malian ensemble led by Toumani Diabate, master player of the kora - a 21-string harp-lute; it looks as if their collaborator, the American blues legend Taj Mahal, will have to appear on his own. Organisers run around making frantic calls on their cell phones. Mahal, a big, bearded man in a vivid Hawaiian shirt and a Panama hat, strums his National Steel acoustic.

With a 30-year career spanning 40 albums, six Grammy nominations and a myriad styles including bluegrass, soul, r'n'b, reggae, calypso, zydeco and finger-picking country blues, the 59-year-old multi-instrumentalist - who was born Henry St Claire Fredericks, and raised by Caribbean parents in Brooklyn and western Massachusetts - is no stranger to solo performing.

But Mahal is to appear today as part of the Kulanjan project, a cross-cultural effort linking his American blues sound to traditional West African rhythms and tracing the former's origins as a result. "There's not a stringed instrument in America that hasn't benefited from the string culture of West Africa," he says, his gravelly voice booming through the muggy evening air.

Indeed, though not billed as such, Mahal is here in his capacity as Dadi Kouyate, the ancestral name of the Mande griot (musician) clan that, he is convinced, were his ancestors. Their physical similarities struck him on his first visit to Mali in 1979. "The Kouyates looked like my father, my grandfather, my uncles." He runs a huge palm over his face. "Same, same kind of hands, same fingers, nails, ears, noses, cheekbones, eye colour. They looked at me with their jaws open, just like I looked at them."

Inspired by the parallels between the storytelling nature of both the blues and the griot traditions, Mahal investigated further. A singer, songwriter and composer with an ethnomusicologist's aesthetic, he'd first heard the song "Kulanjan" on a 1970 album of kora music called Ancient Strings. It is ostensibly about the long-crested hawk eagle that is the spirit of the hunters' tribe, but Kulanjan has since become the metaphor for Mahal's search for his past. Hearing the flurry of the kora notes, he says, "was like an elixir from somewhere deep in my psyche".

Prompted by the producer Joe Boyd, Mahal tracked down 33-year-old Toumani Diabete, the 71st generation in his family to play the kora; his father, Sidiki Diabete, was responsible for Ancient Strings. Earlier this year Toumani Diabete chose six virtuoso Malian musicians and brought them over to record an album with Mahal in REM's hometown of Athens, Georgia. What transpired was an exploration of a common musical heritage, all the more remarkable for bringing together two lineages that rarely, if ever, come into contact: the regal, praise-singing griots of Diabete's family and the jittery, funky music of the Wassoulou hunters' clan.

The hypnotic result matches Diabete's mellifluous playing with Mahal's rhythmic guitar and grainy singing. Folk blues favourites such as "Queen Bee" and "Ol' Georgie Buck" become celebrations of their African roots; fresh interpretations of traditional songs include Malian rapping over balafon (a precursor to the xylophone) and barrelhouse piano; vocal duets see Mahal improvising French lyrics beside the ululating Wassoulou chanteuse Ramatou Diakate. It is, perhaps, how the blues sounded back before the days of field recordings.

"To complete a cycle," Mahal has said, "to return to the original intact, to have been visited by powerful visions of ancestors and their music, to realise the dream my mother and father had along with many other generations of Africans who now live outside the continent of Africa, is a cause for great celebration. In the years I've been gathering the songs and musical styles, all threads have led to this project."

Mahal, a multilingual fishing and philosophy fan, with homes in Los Angeles and Hawaii, has always explored the social significance of the musical genres he's worked in. But the influence of his father, a follower of Marcus Garvey's Back to Africa movement, meant the continent always loomed large in his imagination. "My feeling was that the general recording industry is only interested in you if you're selling hits for them," he shrugs. "They're not interested in you culturally. So since they're not interested and I am, I'll just go ahead and do it." Hits are all well and good, he adds. "But this [Kulanjan] is a total spiritual connection that is priceless."

Mahal dismisses the inevitable comparisons between Kulanjan and Talking Timbuktu, Ry Cooder's 1994 album with the Malian guitarist Ali Farke Toure - both of whom he has worked with. "First of all," he states firmly, "I think Ry is an excellent musician and his connection has certainly helped broaden the interest. But there's a tremendous amount of personal exchange here between the Malians and myself and Africans in general. It's like unravelling a huge ball of twine. Or meeting your great-great-grandmother on your father's side and having her open their arms to you."

With the absence of a kit drum and bass, and the kora - the most important instrument in Mande culture - to the fore, Mahal feels the Kulanjan project will help dispel what he calls the "body rock syndrome" of black music. "It's like, everybody says, 'Ooh, it's black! Let's get down and groovy with it!' But here there's all these melodies and time-changes... When we play today Western people will go, 'My God! I heard this beautiful music and saw this instrument which I think was African, though it sounds Asian or Islamic. But rather than some ethnomusicologist talking about it in a sterile way, this is the real music. Both sides knew this would happen if we got together."

Mahal's "soon come" attitude pays off. As if on cue, the minibus dispatched to JFK airport to meet the flight from Bamako screeches to a halt outside the performers' entrance, disgorging a bunch of Malian musicians in colourful robes, with instruments clutched tightly to their chests. Only Toumani Diabete is mysteriously absent, "visa problems" being the stock explanation. All are assured he'll be joining the next leg of the 17-date tour. Ballake Sissoko, Diabete's cousin and next-door neighbour, and a kora master in his own right, proves an able stand-in.

There's no time for rehearsals and sound-checks, but as Mahal earlier observed, "I think there's something in the DNA that means we know how to respect one another's spaces and where it fully connects." Live, despite the heat, the Kulanjan project gets Central Park moving with a spirited, adventurous mix of styles that points up differences as well as similarities. Seated centre-stage, a grinning Taj Mahal shares the thunderous applause with his collaborators, looking like a man who is pleased to be home.

Taj Mahal, Toumani Diabete and the Kulanjan ensemble play the Fruitmarket in Glasgow on Sunday and London's Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday as part of the London Jazz Festival. 'Kulanjan' is released on Rykodisc