By Jason Sendaula
You know the saying, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it,” right? Well, you gotta assume those who know their history are destined to go out on their own, create something original. That’s the best way we could describe writer Jason Sendaula’s conversation with the legendary blues and soul artist Taj Mahal. Understanding where music is today, explains Taj, means understanding American music’s African roots and Irish poetic influences. And in Taj’s case, this level of know-all has allowed him to create history of his own.
Born Henry St. Claire Fredericks in New York’s Harlem, blues great Taj Mahal’s musical career has spanned more than four decades during which he has produced over 20 albums, received multiple awards and nominations, and earned the title of “The Official Blues Musician” of the Commonwealth of Springfield, MA. Although he is known primarily for his folk and blues work, Taj has also worked in multiple genres ranging from rock and jazz to children’s music.
This restless musical explorer’s latest album, Maestro, was released in 2008 and is a collection of 12 new tracks performed with artists that he has befriended over the decades, including Los Lobos, Ben Harper, Ziggy Marley, and Jack Johnson, and Angélique Kidjo, just to name a few. Listeners curious about Taj Mahal’s work can sample a large variety of music on his website, http://www.tajblues.com/, or check him out live the Philadelphia Folk Festival, where he is a featured performer, Saturday August 21, 2010.
Whereas many artists have difficulties trying to blend different styles of music, Taj excels. He credits this to growing up in a musical household with an international air to it. As he describes it, “My household was fueled by people who were really positive toward their African heritage, as well as their Native American Heritage and any European heritages that they had, so I never was at a loss for what was out there.”
The amiable bluesman claims that, at first, he did not realize some people are raised without music at home. “It’s just really interesting how you are not aware that most people don’t have music in their household,” he says. “I just was not aware. Culturally there is lots of music, and it wasn’t only me that heard music, it was people around me. We communicated through music about music. And we heard fabulous music, and it’s only now, as a veteran musician, one thing that I can look back and realize, and through conversations with people, that I realize that I was so fortunate from every possible cultural way that it’s possible to even think about.”
Being exposed to a wide range of music early on had a beneficial effect on the veteran performer, both in terms of repertoire and his productivity. “So in terms of how do I handle that experience,” he muses, “for a long time I was just putting things out there I wanted to make sure that people didn’t miss because of the connection to its African root. Nothing more than that, to say ‘Hey, this is connected here, these are relatives you know,’ and that’s all I’ve ever been really doing.”
Through the course of his career, Taj’s blend of blues with styles of music from around the globe has often been misunderstood. He admits with mild exasperation, “Every now and then I read what people have to say and their thought processes trying to get their minds around who they think that I am and how I’m thinking, and they’ve never been on the mark.”
“They just don’t understand,” Taj continues. “It cannot just connect with Iceland or Tierra del Fuego: it has to connect with what goes on here. I just took a different approach toward playing music. I play music for the love it, man. Nobody pays me to play music, they pay me to ride the bus or to fly in the plane or to get on the train and be there. The music is just something that I do for the pure unfettered love of it.”
Taj’s knowledge of the music’s history and the connections between different types of modern music is something that the troubadour takes particular pride in showing through his music. “It’s really hard for Americans, who enter their music through a machine that tries to make everything sound like it’s the same release and looks like it comes from the same space or shows some similarity,” he says. This isn’t to say that there are not similarities between different styles of music, but, from Taj’s point of view, too much of it sounds alike.
Taj doesn’t distinguish between the styles of music that he plays, choosing to view it all as his music. “It’s like the continent of Africa, it’s not the country of Africa,” he suggests. “It’s got borders and within the borders you’ve got different shades of person; it’s totally different. Here in the United States, because of our American racism-and it is not gone, it is institutionalized-it’s ground so deeply into the touch of everything that if you have black skin everybody is going to be negative about you. In Africa, you are black amongst black and being black amongst black you are from another tribe, you are not this guy’s tribe.”
This world music scholar credits his parents, who were deeply impressed by the Harlem Renaissance, with opening his ears to many kinds of music. He was exposed early on to artists like Charles Mingus and Thelonius Monk. His mother, who sang in a gospel choir, and his father, an arranger and piano player from the West Indies, encouraged the boy to study several different instruments, a practice he continued even as an agricultural student at the University of Massachusetts, but it wasn’t until the end of college that he decided to turn his focus to music.
In a sense, Taj is trying to pass along the fruits of his lifelong musical studies to his audiences and hopes that, through his own work, they will gain an understanding of the ties between the different styles of modern music. In his opinion, understanding those ties requires to know the histories of the people who created it, and, perhaps more importantly, the way that they interacted below the surface.
“Bringing Africans into the West, bringing indentured servants, bringing European slaves as well as African slaves and their musics and allowing them to, not even necessarily allowing them to but not even observing the fact that these musics, these people were connected with one another along with the indigenous information, is the thing for people to realize is happening,” Taj says.
“The English owned the plantations; the Irish and the Scotch ran them,” he continues. “Therefore the framework for poetry, which is not the same syntax as African poetry in what you can hear and understand, it was taught to early Africans in this country.” Consequently, within the sounds of the Caribbean you can hear hints of not just Africa but also County Cork, Ireland and other parts of Western Europe.
Taj feels that the relationships between different peoples and the music that they create too often get lost. As he puts it, we are all from the same place so music has the same origins, and that is something that gets lost. “Everybody keeps searching for a rigid line through music,” Taj explains. “What I’ve realized is what lead me to any kind of music, long before I ever was involved with playing music, was that there were certain kinds of rhythmic things that were in the music and, upon closer inspection, you would find that it was spliced into some sort of black music. American music in general is a combination of African rhythms, banjo and actually just western hemispherical music, and would not exist if it hadn’t been for the movement of colonial powers into the West.”
From the 1980s on, all of Taj’s albums have been independently produced including his two Grammy winners for Best Contemporary Blues Album, Señor Blues (1997) and Shoutin’ in Key (2000). Overall, he’s pleased with this phase of his career: “They were willing to work with me. I had to cut my own deals-could have done better-but I was happy with what I was able to do. I was able to officially take $30,000 to $60,000 budget and make a really good record and make some money on it.”
In addition to the recognition Taj has received for his more traditional work, he has also won several awards for his children’s music. His friend, Rose Calderon, had brought the idea of making a children’s album to him in the 1970s, but he wasn’t able to explore it until after he wrapped up his commitments to Columbia, whom he worked with for 11 years, and Warner Brothers records, for which he produced three additional albums. By then, he says, “I thought it was a good time for me. I didn’t know whether I would get another big record contract again or be able to attract that sort of situation so that felt like a good time to work on the kids’ music. I realized that a lot of kids don’t get a chance to hear really good music.”
Although Taj is legendary for his ability to play many different styles of music, it can be said that his blues albums are his most well-known records. “The music business does this thing where all of these blues songs are on one album, but that’s not how people live their lives,” he says. “You talk of Muddy Waters. He played all kinds of songs, but most of the interest was only in this particular kind of music so labels put just that music on an album and that’s all you got to hear.”
When times are bad, for example, during a recession, people will gravitate toward what they know will make them happy, and that’s not necessarily an entire album of blues music. Although he was sometimes concerned about the longevity of the genre in the modern era, the quality of the music has proved stronger than the whims of the music industry. “Some of those songs took years, half a lifetime of experiences to even put it into a song. That’s kind of like the way it is in that this stuff has survived in all kinds of voices. At different times I thought that was going to go away, but it didn’t go away. It may fall out of favor in so far as the flavor of the day, but great music that can be performed [will be].”
After over 40 years in the music industry Taj has seen several styles of popular music come and go. Through it all, he believes, the music industry itself has essentially gone unchanged until recently, and he credits one particular group of musicians for making that happen: “I have a lot of respect for today’s modern musicians, and I am talking about rap musicians, hip-hoppers and all of that kind of stuff, because they got paid. They are not standing around waiting for somebody’s generosity to deal with them. If anybody who is working in the music business really speaks, I would say that 99% of everybody that was involved in the business ripped the musicians off from the beginning. The rappers where the first ones to stand up and say, ‘We’ve got to pull out of this.’ I’m sorry but if I’m standing up for everybody I’m standing with them too.”
As a genre of music, however, Taj feels that early hip hop was lacking in something by being in a purely digital space. This is something that he has seen slowly start to change has rap as matured. “I actually saw Snoop Dog the other day,” he recounts. “He had two or three horn players, a guitar player, bass player, some background singers, a drummer, two keyboard players and a DJ also. He’s worked with [lead singer of the Gap Band and legend in his own right] Charlie Wilson and a couple of other guys, and that’s what these groups are doing. For a long time they just lived in a digital world, but that’s where they heard the music. They didn’t hear live music; they heard music that was recorded.”
He has toured the world over multiple times and finds that grassroots support of music still drives music forward, more so than record companies. “There is a whole incredible culture across this country that supports the music,” Taj says. “I remember the early years of going to the Philadelphia Folk Festival, piling into a car at the University of Massachusetts and driving down to that festival, and there were like 800 or 900 people the first year, and 1500 the next year, and then 3000 the year after that and the rest is history, you know.”
“I know a lot of people in Philly,” he continues, “and there are quite a few people that I come down and play with. It’s a good area, there is some good singing down there, and I am just glad that it is still rolling and that it’s doing really good, and that the kids are still playing, and there are still places to find out how to set the neck on your banjo. And now it’s extended itself to the house concerts and that’s a good thing. I am always for that.”
Taj readily admits that is not always the case. Sometimes popular music is just what record companies can cash in on, and that is why certain styles are pushed out until they burn out. “Everybody is in Lady Gaga land at the moment,” he begins. “And, as much as I’m not crazy about her music, I think she just really knows how to package it. She knows how neurotic these people are and sets herself up for what these people want to see and you can’t blame her for that. That’s what the system is all about in this country, but you can only do that for so long.”
For Taj, the problem that arises is an over-saturation of a certain type of sound which can end its popularity altogether (think boy bands). This is why, he explains, so many young artists are out there over-selling their talent as opposed to honing their talent. “They don’t have any, so they need to cash in while they can,” he says, adding that he hopes artists caught up in the business are at least able to save some of the money that they make during their supernovas of popularity and are not just making money for their agents and labels.
Through it all Taj has always loved what he is doing and wouldn’t have it otherwise. “I’ve only played the stuff that I love,” he says. “You’ve never heard any heavy metal out of me. That’s the only kind of thing you’ll never hear from me. Heavy metal and death metal? Those guys aren’t playing loud Bach; they’re playing badly played blues cords very loud without the subtleties. They think it’s something different, it isn’t.”
“When I am performing it’s the music I love, every night that I get to play. If there is any complaint that I have, it’s that I wish there was more room for people to dance. That’s the thing that’s most important,” Taj says wisely.