Taj Mahal: Voyage of discovery

In America, they say blues is dead. Taj Mahal is about to show Glastonbury that they're wrong. He talks to Pierre Perrone
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The Independent Culture


"Blues with a jazzman's concept," says Taj Mahal, when asked to define what he does. Forty years into a career that has taken in collaborations with The Rolling Stones, Ry Cooder and Ali Farka Touré, he rejects the ethno-musicologist tag but can't help making the connections between the different strands that fed into the blues.

"I see myself as a modern extension, as a representative descended from an incredible musical culture," he says. "I never had no concept to go back to the roots... The music exists right now. What we did last night was not going back, it was right there!"

The previous evening, at the Warwick Arts Centre in Coventry, the Taj Mahal Trio played a blistering set, spanning material like "Checkin' Up On My Baby" from the guitarist's 1968 debut on Columbia, all the way to "Zanzibar" from Mkutano, the album Taj recorded with the Culture Musical Club of Zanzibar at the end of 2003.

Today, Taj is keen to make a point - he will not be pigeonholed as the keeper of the American flame of the blues. "I could never have that kind of objectivity about myself. That's something that somebody looks at me and talks about. No, no, no, no!"

I venture that he's not only going back to the roots but also exploring new offshoots when he plays with the likes of Ali Farka Touré or Ziggy Marley, but he's not having it. "I'm not really developing anything, man, all I'm doing is claiming the relatives of the music. I mean, for me it might be a discovery, but it's something that already exists. People were amazed that I was playing Hawaiian music, but they forgot that Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton were already talking about the Hula Blues in the 1920s and 1930s."

Born Henry St Claire Fredericks in Harlem, New York in 1942, he was exposed to every type of music while growing up in Springfield, Massachussets. "At that time, black culture and American culture were extremely rich. I had no awareness that there was something different in my household, other than the fact that only one of my parents, my mother, was from the South, while my father was from the Caribbean. This was not uncommon in the community I lived in."

Less common was the youngster's ability to play any instrument from the piano to the harmonica via the trombone and clarinet. When his father, a jazz arranger, was crushed to death by a tractor in 1953, the teenage Henry sought solace in music. His gospel-singing mother married a Jamaican man, "the cat with the guitar. That was the magic box. The guitar led me back and pushed me forward. It changed everything."

Lynnwood Perry, a guitarist from North Carolina, moved in next door, and showed Taj how to play Delta blues like Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed. "When you deal with the blues, you have to really humble yourself. You have to open up, you go all the way to the inside," says Taj.

In the early Sixties, Taj majored in animal husbandry, studying veterinary science and agronomy at university. While there, he began gigging and took up the name Taj Mahal after a series of dreams. "I realise now they were out-of-body experiences," he says. "Nobody ever shoots for the moon or the stars, but I'd been fascinated with India and I wanted my name to reflect something inspiring, poetic and grand."

Moving to Los Angeles in 1964 with his folkie friend Jesse Lee Kincaid, Taj hooked up with bassist Gary Marker, drummer Ed Cassidy and a young slide guitar prodigy named Ryland Cooder to form The Rising Sons. "We were four white guys with a black lead singer trying to play country blues songs by Sleepy John Estes, Muddy Waters or Lightnin' Hopkins with electric instruments. Blues, gospel and jazz always had something together," he says.

"But there were other kinds of music, like Appalachian ballads, that we liked. We were listening to music that was a lot more mature than the pop the music business was selling to 14-year-olds. With urbanisation and people moving from Mississippi to Chicago or Detroit, blues had become electric."

For a while, The Rising Sons were hot, opening for The Temptations and Otis Redding and signing to Columbia Records. But the Byrds producer Terry Melcher tried to mould them into a poppier outfit and the group split in 1966. Taj carried on as a solo artist and released his eponymous debut, recorded with the help of Ry Cooder and Jessie Edwin Davis, two years later. By then, his take on electric blues was more in touch with the times - and he'd found kindred spirits in The Rolling Stones.

"I remember talking to Mick Jagger. I thought what was going in England was really exciting. It was difficult to get that kind of co-operation out of the American music scene," Taj says. "The Yardbirds had been working with Sonny Boy Williamson, the Stones had been working with Howlin' Wolf. And Mick said, 'Look here, if there's anything we can ever help you out with, please get in touch.' Three months later, they asked us over for the Rock and Roll Circus, they just sent the plane tickets. It was our first time in Europe, and very exciting."

Also featuring Marianne Faithfull, Jethro Tull, Eric Clapton and John Lennon, the TV show was shelved because The Who's dynamic set overshadowed what Jagger felt was a below-par performance from the Stones. Still, the show acquired cult status and was released on video in 1996. The recently issued DVD adds three extra songs by Taj.

That first European trip 37 years ago, "laid the groundwork. We played Sweden and Germany. I've been coming back ever since. I go to Europe, I go to Australia, South America, Japan and people are really excited. And then I go home and everyone is saying, 'Blues is dead, blues is old, blues makes you feel bad...'"

He's recorded more than 40 solo albums and he is enjoying playing in a trio format again with longstanding bassist Bill Rich and drummer Kester Smith. "It's different in the sense that you get to hear more of the guitar and I wanted to play more guitar. I've always been changing, I want to continue to grow. You certainly don't grow if you stay in the same spot even if the music industry is designed for that. Me, I don't care about that, I just play the music.

"The bottom line is the music. It's the universal language of our planet. It's one of the joys that people in the world have and corporations can't shut down where it comes from. I get to do what I want to do. No one can take this job away from me."

More collaborations are on the cards for Taj, who won Grammys for the Senor Blues (1997) and Shoutin' In Key (2000) albums. "I'll work with anyone I really admire. There's no secret to a successful collaboration. You love the music, you've got some ideas and you go do it. Done!"

The Taj Mahal Trio play Leicester De Montfort Hall tonight and Glastonbury Festival tomorrow, then Wolverhampton, Southampton, and the Jazz Café in London; details at www.taj-mo-roots.com