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Taj Mahal: The Explorer, Innovator and Introspective Soul of the Blues

Frankly speaking, I have no idea how to introduce you to Taj Mahal. On one hand, he’s underground, with none of my friends and family recognizing the name, but on the other hand, he’s one of the most revered figures in Blues music, with figures like the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton bowing to his name. Music nerds might pipe up with comparisons, something along the lines of ‘oh, he’s like a John Cale then,’ but I don’t think there’s any relative measure for Taj’s clandestine fame. He never had any massive hits, but he’s got 3 Grammys and 14 nominations; you could talk to someone about him and they’d probably believe you’re talking about the monument, but he’s quite literally the official Blues artist of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Alas, so it goes; but hey, that’s why I’m here.

For brief context: Taj Mahal was born Henry St. Claire Fredericks Jr. in May of 1942, and though he was born in Harlem he spent most of his early life in Springfield, Massachusetts. His mother was a gospel singer and his father was a renowned Afro-Caribbean jazz arranger, with his family exposing him to world music at an early age, instilling a love for both music and his own heritage in the young Taj. Following a stint at the University of Massachusetts and a failed band in California, Taj released his self-titled debut in 1968, establishing himself as a fresh young voice in the world of Blues music. Consisting of electrified and foot-stomping renditions of Blues classics, the album was buoyed by Taj’s version of ‘Statesboro Blues’ being included on This Rock Machine Turns You On, a Columbia focused compilation album which had a successful worldwide release. Taj found similar critical success later in 1968 with the release of his following album, The Natch’l Blues, which found him employing a more measured and classic Blues sound. Also, in December of 1968 Taj was featured in The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, a concert event that, in theory sounds great, but in reality was a near disaster for the Stones. Eventually released on video in 1996, the Stones felt that their own performance was lacking, due partially to the massive delays which occurred during the event. But, as Pete Townshend recalls, it was also due to the fact that “they weren't just usurped by The Who, they were also usurped by Taj Mahal – who was just, as always, extraordinary.” The video above is a snippet of that performance, so you can see for yourself just how much of a firecracker Taj was during the event. Though he had just measured up to one of the greatest acts in rock history, Taj’s next album, the double LP Giant Step/De Old Folks at Home, saw him splitting the line between electric Blues and more personal, acoustic renditions. While these first three albums are considered classics in Taj’s discography, it would be a shame for anyone to stop listening at this point in his career. As signaled by the air, space and deliberation on Giant Step, Taj was just getting started on exploring his musical capabilities.

Though signs of musical evolution are present on many of his early albums, it’s not until around 1972 that we receive the first concrete signals that Taj has made massive changes in his overall sound. The half-live half-recorded Recycling the Blues & Other Related Stuff features songs which showcase traditional African instrumentation, but it’s later in 1974, with his release of the album Mo’ Roots, that Taj truly breaks free and adds every ingredient he can into his melting pot. Within this album, Taj takes the blues and morphs it through a multicultural lens, employing Caribbean music, Reggae and even Cajun music to create a beautiful reflection of the Blues’ cultural and historical roots. He would continue to utilize these influences throughout the rest of his career, but if you want a small sampler of this sound I highly recommend his compilation World Music, which utilizes select songs recorded during this initial era. After a decade-long break between 1977 and 1987, Taj releases a few more albums within these cultures, eventually striking gold again with 1996’s Phantom Blues and 1997’s Grammy award winning Senor Blues. While these albums return to a more traditional Blues sound, the influences presented on Taj’s earlier material are still preset here, with Taj bringing a new element of freedom and exploration to both his song structure and overall instrumentation. Despite this, Taj’s next project, Sacred Island, would find him almost completely forgoing the blues instead. After being a resident of Hawaii since 1981, Taj found himself in love with the island’s culture, forming the Hula Blues Band and employing a vast array of Hawaiian and Calypso influence for the songs on Sacred Island. But just when you think he’s settled into another cultural sound, Taj throws you for a loop: in 1999, Taj teamed up with Malain kora player Toumani Diabete, resulting in the West African inspired Kulanjan. This album in particular garnered both critical acclaim and shined a new spotlight on the duo, especially when future president Barack Obama recommended the album through a Borders book chain survey. Now, I realize that this rapid-fire display of albums might seem daunting for those who wish to dive in, but generally you can go with your own flow when exploring Taj’s work. It ain’t like a TV show, so I recommend starting with what interests you first and jumping around to his other albums later down the line. With this being said though, it’s probably a bad time to mention that Taj didn’t stop at the turn of the century.

Don’t worry, there’s only a few more albums we have to mention: Firstly, we have his 2008 project Maestro, marking the 40th anniversary of Taj’s recording career. While also presented in a more traditional Blues style, this album feels like a celebration of sorts, with multiple guest artists coming together to assist and pay tribute to Taj’s storied legacy. It snagged Taj yet another Grammy nomination, but he would secure another win later down the line, with 2017’s collaborative effort TajMo. The album sees Taj team up Delta Blues expert Keb’ Mo’, and it’s a delight to hear the both of them sound invigorated playing off one another, utilizing their vast skills that they’ve both learned throughout the course of their careers. It doesn’t seem like Taj will be stopping his musical output anytime soon, having put out yet another collaborative album this year, but luckily for y’all I can’t really talk about albums that haven’t been made yet. Before we start wrapping up though, there’s one last note I want to add about Taj’s music: on all of the albums mentioned here, the material is primarily covers, with only a few Taj originals being thrown in the mix too. While most artists tend to shy away from covers, due to partial fear that they won’t live up to the original, Taj seems to embrace them, eager to try and bring them into a new light and way of being. His studies of Ethnomusicology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst signal this too, and as his personal website puts it, “to Taj, convention means nothing, but traditions are holy. He has pushed music and culture forward, all while looking lovingly back.”

For Taj, exploring cultures within his music is not just a new fashion of wearing another coat, but rather an exercise in both examining the culture itself and its connection to Blues historically. It should go without saying that this work is incredibly important, especially these days, and there’s a hope that Taj’s work reaches a wider audience at some point within our near future. Well, wider than it already has of course, but you know what I mean. He’s still touring to this day, currently on a run of shows in California, so if you ever find him close to your town I couldn’t recommend going to see him enough. He does frequently ask that you get up and dance at his shows though, so don’t be so uptight and wear something loose and fun to the occasion. Though even if you don't, I imagine he won’t mind too much; like Taj says, “I just play to the goddess of music-and I know she’s dancing.”

Written by Nick Snow


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