An Interview With Taj Mahal

FEATURE BY Willard Manus

Taj Mahal, one of the best-known and most-gifted bluesmen working today, recently released a major retrospective of his work, THE COLUMBIA ALBUMS COLLECTION (Columbia Records). The following interview with Taj was originally published in WHAT'S UP MAGAZINE.

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Q. You've worked everywhere in the world, met people from all walks of life, been a thoughtful observer of life. If you could speak to mankind today, what would your message be?

A. It's important for all of us to connect. That goes for everyone, whether black or white, male or female. We are here. We are on this planet together. We must create a fairer system, find new ways to live, in order to circumvent the tragi-comic situation that we have today, where people are locked in their own particular niche and won't look at any other part of society but their own. We have to start walking in someone else's shoes, not just our own.

Q. Does this apply especially to the younger generation?

A. It applies to everybody. This is a time when we can all say to ourselves, OK, maybe I didn't cause all the problems we have today, but what can I do to help in some small way. That will at least help to get rid of all the zeroes and focus on the he-roes and she-roes. Hah, hah, that's nice.

Q. You are obviously concerned with social and political problems. Did these things concern you when you were young or did they take hold later?

A. I certainly got a big boost out of the sixties. Also, my parents were very political. My mother was a schoolteacher. My father was a day laboror, musician, and philosopher. We were taught from our Caribbean and Southern backgrounds to be candid people and that we should contribute to the positive progression of the world we live in. In other words, create something so that you leave it in better shape than you found it in.

Q. Was there music in your childhood?

A. It was everywhere, not only in the air but in the language, even in the way the way my Mother cooked, it was just there.

Q. What kinds of music did you listen to as a kid?

A. All kinds, I heard everything. My father was a classically trained pianist who came to New York from the West Indies about the time when swing and bebop were popular. My mother came north about the same time, so she developed with the music that was happening then--Duke Ellington, Jimmy Lunceford, Count Basie, you name it. I could fill a tape with names.

My father wanted to be a professional musician but when I came along it was pretty clear that he had to find a 9 to 5 job. He began working in various factories with the idea of eventually being able to set up some kind of business of his own and become independent. He was a piano player and had a fine collection of music. My mother was a natural contralto. Her voice was on a par with Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson. Big powerful sound. But my grandfather absolutely forbade her to get involved in the entertainment business because he felt it wasn't respectable.

Q, So it was a rich musical environment in which to grow up.

A. Indeed. I heard everything: jazz, blues, folk, plus classical, singers like Robeson, Caruso, Pinza, Mario Lanzo. It wasn't uncommon to hear opera coming from the apartment next door, that sort of thing. My Brooklyn neighborhood was a special place at that time; you heard various languages, interfaced with lots of people from different cultures.

Before long I found myself falling in love with the blues as sung by the likes of Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Howlin' Wolf and Johnny Guitar Watson.

Q. That's what made you decide to become a blues singer?

A. Exactly. And then of course the whole rock and roll thing started coming on. It was kind of strange to me that the mood of the country swung so completely behind rock and roll; it was almost like a disease with people. They'd go any lengths to hear the music. That used to confuse me and then I thought I'm not fighting this, I'll just have to work it out by myself.

I've stuck with the blues, but I never wanted to be at anyone's mercy in the business. So I kept other options open, like becoming a farmer as well.

Q. A farmer?

A. That's right. I've always been interested in agriculture.

Q. How did that happen?

A, We moved from Brooklyn to Springfield, MA. eventually and got into farming. I have a degree in animal husbandry from the University of Massachusetts.

Q. You have a farm today?

A. Not any longer, but I do grow things in my backyard. I love the outdoors.

Q. Will there be a tour in connection with this new release?

A. I've always toured, sometimes twelve months in the year. But lately I've learned to change my "fishing" habits. The big boys, you see, come out between May and September. I discovered that when I went out on a Tom Petty tour in the middle of May and looked up from the stage and said, WOW, who are all these people out there?

There must've been five thousand people in the auditorium, a lot more than you ever get in winter. After that, it was a no-brainer decision to cut back on touring to five months a year.

Q. Do you still plan to continue to make CDs aimed at children?

A. Absolutely. I've already had twelve years of doing music for young kids. Not only do they like it, but their parents like it-- it's something they can all enjoy together. That's probably been the best part of it, that parents are able to introduce the blues to their kids without having to force them to listen. The music makes even 18-month-olds move around and want to hear it before going to sleep.

To me that's important, not only because a lot of those kids will grow up and keep listening to me, but because of the connection it makes between parent and child. All too often music thrives on the animosity, real or imagined, between one generation and the next. You know how it works, kids wanting to listen to something only out of rebellion against their elders. My CDs are meant to keep the peace between them.

Q. You now live in Los Angeles and have done some composing for films. What has that experience been like?

A. A good one. The first major soundtrack I did was for "Sounders," starring Cecily Tyson, Paul Winfield and Kevin Hooks. Martin Ritt was the director. I watched it the other night and it brought back a lot of good memories. That stuff still stands. It won an NAACP prize, among others. I'd like to do more film work, but haven't had the magic wand from the industry waved over me in a while.

Q. Does that worry you?

A. You can't worry about it. There's no guarantee in this business. That's why I call it fishing. You never know what you'll catch.

Q. You work a lot overseas. Is a European or Asian audience different from an American one?

A. Well, a good song is always a good song When an audience in, say, Belgium comes to hear the blues that's what they are there for. They've done what it takes to jump the language barrier . There is one difference between Europe and in America, though. Here it takes a tremendous amount of hype for an audience to remain interested in you. In Europe, if they like you they remain loyal and solid, and it's not because they've been sold or hyped.

I must say it's very interesting to perform in Europe. People don't always understand all the lyrics so they go by how it feels. If it feels good, you're in. So I try extra hard to give them something good for the money they plunk down.

Q. How do you feel about rap music?

A. Rapping is an evolutionary form of the blues, it is blues way speeded up. It's shameful the way a lot of people immediately put rap down, call it terrible and all that.

Blues fans especially should pay attention to it and take into account what the blues has contributed to these kids enabling them to play the way they do.