Taj Mahal

Full text of Issue 39's interview

The Grammy Award winning Taj Mahal has, for almost five decades, stood as the curator of America’s musical heritage, exploring the roots of the blues and every sound that has shaped the country. His endless quest continues…

You grew up in Harlem?

I was born in Harlem. I grew up in New England. My mother was American and my father was from the Caribbean, and there was a big open door into the world of humanity and music. I think because my dad and my mother were both very positive about us culturally as young people growing up, we didn’t grow up with the same kind of pressure on top of us to not represent culturally and were culturally diverse. The music came from everywhere, but there was some really deep, resounding styles and types that seemed to be traditional as well as connected from our recent past into our ancient past. So that was always my interest once I got started; ‘Well, how did it get to be sounding like this and come from there? What were the elements that shaped it in the present time?’ That’s pretty much what my search has really been about. Not to go somewhere and bring something back as much as show how this particular music is connected to that, which is connected to this, which is connected to that. And also to give the blues a world view from its own perspective, not from interested parties saying ‘This music is connected to that’; it’s just mostly from inside the culture. It says these are all the relatives that are connected. It connects all the way to Mother Africa, it’s got Celtic roots because of that group of people being in the west and in particular the United States with the blues, and having some influence on the very powerful African statement. So now, the present day music that we listen to has the stamp of this amalgamation that’s boiled itself down to this deep feeling that people communicate between one another.

Was jazz the first music that you investigated?

No, there was no investigation, it was just the music. But I understand what you were saying. It was just there. You see, everybody now is post the music business – the record business is crashing like this – we were before the record business. People played music, and records were just to get you to listen to the band when they came to play live. Nobody was trying to sell records. I mean, there was probably people who thought about trying to do it that way, but the idea of records was to make you want to come and listen to the live band, not sell millions of records then the band’s like, ‘Now we have to go out and play?’

That’s where the money was.

In playing live? Yeah, it still is. It’s just that the record companies are able to manipulate the business a little bit different. They want to manipulate it for their pocket and then put out the least amount. But there was just tremendous amounts of music coming through the culture, coming through my folks, other people – people played lots of music together; folks went over to each other’s houses, they brought their records… The older people went out to hear the live bands; we were too young to go out and be a part of that. It was very interesting.

Do you think that through your folks you were predestined to follow music?

Maybe bigger than that. I think most of the young musicians that came along played whatever was contemporary to their style at that time, and then that was controlled by the music industry who said, ‘Here come these new young guys. They don’t know anything about it. They’re gonna be focused on getting their music together, and we’re gonna connect the business around them and make piles of money because they won’t know any better’. And I became aware of those kind of things. It seemed as though if you played music and you were about the music and the culture and tradition, you seemed to not be in too much favour with the record companies. They wanted somebody that was so excited by the crowd being excited that they never paid attention to the fine print in the contracts, but I did.

Is it true that as a teenager you were tempted to take up farming instead of music?

No. Probably by the time I was ten or twelve years old it became pretty obvious to me that there was like a couple of things that people couldn’t do without. If you looked at jobs in the world, it was very easy for you to have a job and lose a job based upon someone else’s desire for you to be there or not to be there. If you were interested in music or agriculture, that was up to you. You could have it for as long as you wanted to, but it was an important thing. There were two things that people were not gonna get along without, and that was food and music. I wasn’t very interested in actually studying about agriculture, except later on, the thought that there was science and technology being applied to it and how was that going to affect the future? And once I got involved with it, I realised I wasn’t interested in it from that point of view – maybe my own personal interest in the land and gardening and farming and all that kind of stuff, and eventually the appropriate technology – solar energy and alternative energy sources – those things came along with it too. But no, I mean, I got an opportunity to see the corporate lobbying and the politics of business had got really strong – agri-business had got huge and it was just impossible for you as a farmer to try to make a living within a framework of all of these other people. Yeah, it was difficult with the music, but somehow or another people caught on to the music that I was playing pretty early.

Has that love of agriculture stayed with you?

Oh yeah. I’m always wondering what’s going on there, or involved with organic initiatives down in the Caribbean or Africa.

Apparently the name Taj Mahal came to you in a dream?

Yeah. I mean dreams over a period of time. That’s the most asked question. What really blows my mind is that there’s a band called The Case Of An Elephant [sic – perhaps he meant Cage The Elephant?]. Okay. I never hear anybody else asking about that. I think what it is is that it’s unique. It just seemed so far ahead of what everybody was doing. All these things are in the world, all you have to do is be a little inquisitive and there they go – they’re in your life before you know it. This was on the way into college; I was nineteen or something like that. But I was affected at least ten or fifteen years earlier by Gandhi in the late Forties. Gandhi was very important. It was very interesting how he stood out in terms of the world as an individual who seriously held back an empire, questioning what they were doing… But that led onto other things about the culture, and as a kid coming through I’m looking… ‘Oh, there’s the great pyramids, the great wall of China, the seven wonders of the world…’ Who knows. All of that came around in an interesting mix and there we are. I said, ‘That will be an interesting name.’ But it’s so funny, because in my mind it was something that was obvious that people would know about – so many people are really – particularly American – are like… [pulls a confused face]. It’s only recently they started really opening up and being able to see what’s going on.

It’s rare that someone so young could be aware of the big world around him and not just his neighbourhood.

Yeah, I guess so. I was really interested in what else was out there – you couldn’t tell me that this was all there was.

What did you study at college?

I studied Animal Science and I minored in Veterinary Science. Okay, so…technology, you know, science; what’s this all about, and what are the new things that are happening? And the new things that were happening were corporate farms, and I did not like the idea that the individual was taken out of the equation. This is 2009 – a hundred years ago, ninety percent of the American population was in the agrarian sector and working with agriculture, and in a hundred years, that’s passed all the way through to where we have three times as much population and only one percent of that population is raising the food for all these people. That’s a recipe, in my estimation, for a disaster.

“I’m just investigating the lines of the music, culture and traditions that came in to me”

The music you were playing had broad horizons, reaching out into Caribbean music…

Well, it was already there. My grandparents were from the Caribbean. My father was a classically trained pianist in the Caribbean style. The tradition of the Caribbean is to learn the classical style, because people in the world are gonna look at you and see that you are black and think that you have all this rhythm and that it’s easy for you to be able to play music, so how you dispel that is to show them that, yes, you want Rachmaninov? You want Beethoven? You want Bach, Chopin, Liszt? And then you play whatever kind of music you want. So at that point people give you a thumbs up because you can play legitimate music. So now this is what you go off and do. I was used to hearing lots of different kinds of music. I mean, my grandparents didn’t speak with an American accent; my mother spoke with a Southern accent – albeit a cultured Southern accent – and my father’s people spoke with a Caribbean accent – although my father had a little bit more of an American accent put into it. Nonetheless, once they started talking together, everybody started more like they were West Indians, and when I went to my other grandfather’s house, it was all deep Southerners! So, to me, all of it was a great tradition in front of me. I’m just investigating the lines of the music, culture and traditions that came in to me. For people who think it’s only within the framework of popular music, no; it’s a bigger thing and it’s communicating with one another from culture to culture. My parents were a successful connection of two cultures. It didn’t seem odd to me, I just began to realise it was odd to a lot of other people. It was impossible for people to even think of things outside of the box. It was normal for me.

Were you aware that you were almost teaching people about their own heritage?

Perhaps not in the most traditional way of a professor or teacher, but I was so surprised that particularly Americans didn’t have any idea of their own history – African Americans or European Americans had no idea of the diversity of music that existed in the culture. I mean, really, it was a shock for most Americans, a big wake-up call, when the so-called British Invasion happened when the Stones and The Yardbirds and John Mayall and Van Morrison and The Beatles and the like came over to the United States and said, ‘Hey, you guys have got this great music over here. Why aren’t you listening to it? We are!’ (Laughs) And then they went and did it. So it was very interesting.

African culture was suppressed in slave times. Do you think that’s what tainted it for subsequent generations, that it wasn’t really to be accepted?

Oh yeah. America is a Christian country, and back in those days, a large majority of the Africans that were brought into the United States had been Islamic converts, and so they broke them out of that and introduced them to Christianity they way that they wanted them to. It was like, ‘Hey, here’s what you do, and you don’t do anything else.’ So, finally people made the best that they could out of what they were given, which now is gospel and spirituals and all these incredible musics that resulted from it.

Did The Rising Sons face any trouble from being an interracial group?

Not directly to us, but I think the overview of us was pretty difficult. But see, by the time I formed that band, there had been other bands that had been mixed like that, all around. I knew lots of guys that played in bands like that, but most of them didn’t really try to be a popular band or anything like that, yet there were certainly people that were out there.

Is it a regret that The Rising Sons didn’t do an album at the time and capitalise on your popularity?

No, we did an album, they just didn’t know how to… I mean, the channels for marketing things were so narrow. We created something that they didn’t know what to do [with]. ‘Well, just find the most popular thing that sounds like something near what everybody is playing, and if we get a hit with this, can you guys come up with stuff that’s consistent with this sound?’ And it would have been no problem. But, you know.

Would things have been different if you had?

Oh, who knows. Maybe so, I don’t know. It’s like forty years later. Maybe it would have been another kettle of fish.

You got to work with some of the great blues masters: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins…

Oh yeah, a lot of them. They were all around then, and they were available.

What did they make of you?

They were interested, because there wasn’t a lot of young African Americans that were interested in music, so that was kind of a plus.

Because it was mostly English white boys?

No, no, they came later. I started long before that scene started. I started back in the Fifties. By the time the Sixties came along, by ’68 there was a different scene going on, but for quite a number of years there was nobody. There was hardly any competition, certainly not international competition, you know?

What were they like to work with?

Great! The truth stopped at these guys’ doorstep. They were people like anything else; some were more friendly than others were. It was really great to know their music and work and be accepted by them. That was always a good thing.

What was the extent of your working with The Rolling Stones? Did you record with them?

No. I was in the Rock And Roll Circus, which we shot here [in London] in 1968, which was a nice cross section of great groups at that time. I worked live with them on one of their tours that they were out on – I was out with them – but that was it.

How did you get the job on the Circus?

We were playing in Los Angeles at this club called the Whiskey A Go Go and we were making a modest sum for the night. I looked down on the floor and here’s [Mick] Jagger and Keith Richards and Brian Jones and some guys from The Animals, and [Eric] Clapton and his crowd were in there that night, which was like big for us, you know? Imagine these guys coming in to see us play! And at that particular point in time I think some of the guys in Canned Heat were talking about coming over here [to London] and playing and working with them [the Stones] and that they were really nice guys and open. The same with John Hammond and Ry Cooder. And so, because it sounds like these guys are really generous, I said, ‘Well, the least I can do is put my pitch in’. I went in and said, “Hey, if there’s any projects you’re ever involved in, we’d love to come over and work with you, but we understand you’re working with a lot of our countrymen that we really appreciate their music and you do too.” Three months later, Mick and his company sent us eight round trip tickets back and forth between Los Angeles and London and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a project. We’d love to have you on it.’ And the rest is history.

Do you have any memories from that trip, or is it all a bit of a blur?

We were here for a while, about ten days, and it was great. The thing I can say is that hands down, with all the things that people have done over the years – being nice, being a host – those guys hosted us the best of probably anybody ever. They really were top shelf all the way.

The music you made in the Seventies was bringing world music to a more commercial market – you were weaving reggae and jazz into your music. Do you think it was becoming more widely accepted?

No. I still was considered as this kinda oddball guy. The set up is that if you make a hit, it doesn’t really make a difference. If you tell the people, ‘Here’s the artist that you the love the sound of, but he’s not making a dime’, it doesn’t matter. You’re famous because of the hit. ‘Here’s an artist who doesn’t play the game with the record companies’, and they’re not interested. They’re just driven like that. Now it’s a lot different. Now, the artist has a better ability to figure out what needs to be done. You adapt. You put your project out in an MP3, you do the mixtape, you have a CD, download, vinyl, on and on and on…however it takes to get people there. The object is to really have a great live show, and then they’ll come out [to see you], you know?

Talking of modern music, do you think that hip-hop and rap is the natural evolution of the music that you grew up with, or is it betraying its heritage?

I haven’t heard anything as of late – well, a couple of bands that look like they may have some potential to really be playing something – but I think it’s really difficult. I mean, it’s a generation of musicians that have too much access to largesse.

It seems to be more about money.

It was always that. There was always someone willing to go for that. But where we’re at right now is just, you know, really difficult. Without going back to the deeper music, I don’t know how they’re going to survive. You have to really have some stories and have an understanding of where music comes from. I hear what they’re doing and I’m sure it works for them, but it’s not working for me.

You won Grammys in 1997 and 2000 for Best Contemporary Blues Album, which would suggest that the blues is still a valid genre…

It’s got nothing to do with all that stuff. The blues is always valid under itself. It’s its own entity. Blues is like something that’s dormant in the ground – not even dormant in the ground – but lives in the ground. Because you’re not paying attention to it, doesn’t mean it’s gone away. That tends to be the way people take it in: ‘If we don’t hear it on the radio then it’s disappeared’, and that’s not true.

“The Blues is a natural fact”

Has the blues evolved? Should twenty-first century blues sound modern, or should it sound authentic and eighty-years-old?

Well, no. To me, as people say, the blues is a natural fact. Whether it’s a hundred years behind or a hundred years in the future, it really ultimately is this feeling that people have deep within themselves that they can feel, move, their thoughts, their life; it’s all being told within that framework.

You’re touring this year with Bonnie Raitt. Your website says that proceeds from tickets will be going to the BonTaj Action Fund. What’s that charity?

We take a dollar from every paid person, then there are various sponsors who will match that dollar, then we have a website where the fans can come to and vote on where they think that money should go. It will be appropriate technology, alternative energy, free political prisoners… Whoever has got the highest number, that’s where the money will go.

Are you planning on recording with Bonnie?

No. Right now it’s just these two months and almost forty dates we have to play together.

Will you be coming here together?

No. It’s just this first time in the US, so we’ll see how that goes.

You’re being inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis. That’s quite an honour?

Yeah, it’s a big one. I’ll know how I feel when I get there. It’s very exciting.

You’ve written an autobiography. Would you ever consider turning it into a movie if you had the opportunity?

Not at the moment. It’s not a thought in my mind.

Your life would make a good story!

Maybe it would be, but what’s much more important is what the music was like through my eyes at that time. Fifties, Sixties…

You’re playing Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday party. Are you and Pete old friends?

Anybody that played music in coffee houses back in those days really knew this man.

You feel like you owe him the honour?

Not so much that, it’s just I really admire the man and what he’s done. If there’s a Saint Peter, he’s the Saint Peter.

So, is there any music you’ve still to discover?


Are you still looking?

I’m not looking – it comes and visits. It wasn’t an odyssey. I didn’t have to discover anything. It’s just like tuning into the programme, and here’s the music and here’s where it’s connected here and here’s where it’s connected there. If you’re listening to it and you’re interested, here’s some more. I think more people are listening openly to music now than ever before, and that’s a fantastic thing.

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