Blues Legend Taj Mahal Talks on His First 40 Years in the Business

November 1, 2008

“I WAS ONLY INTERESTED IN LEARNING HOW to play authentic music,” says Taj Mahal. “I wasn’t interested in a career.” Ironically, Mahal’s devotion to artistic purity predicated an impressive 40 years in the business of making music—so far. The powerful singer—who is at home on acoustic, hollowbody electric, resonator, and banjo—has a long history of associating with such aces as Ry Cooder and the late Jesse Ed Harris. Despite the fact that his wouldbe 1966 debut album with the Rising Sons (featuring Cooder) was shelved until 1992, and that, at times, he couldn’t afford to field a touring band, the Grammy-winner endured to become a certified national treasure and an international blues icon.

Mahal has taken great pains to incorporate the transcontinental origins of American roots music into modern blues. From Africa to the Caribbean and Hawaiian Islands, Mahal has followed his muse using the blues as a foundation for communication. Mahal’s fertile mind is stockpiled with the wealth of his singular experience, and he’s celebrating four decades as a solo artist by sharing the booty via an awesome interactive Web site, extensive touring, and a new CD. Maestro [Heads Up] is packed with classics, covers, and new tunes. Los Lobos, Ben Harper, Leo Nocentelli, and many more appear in tribute to Citizen Taj’s extensive influence.

What originally drew you to the guitar?
The guitar came to me. I discovered my Jamaican stepfather’s acoustic in the closet, and I was messing around with it when Lynnwood Perry from North Carolina moved in next door. We were about 13 years old, and Lynnwood played the hell out of the Piedmont blues style. Also, a family of players up the block came from the Mississippi Delta. So, I picked up on the Piedmont and Delta styles, and the modern blues stuff connected to it through Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed. No matter what I heard later, I knew what was the real deal, and I stuck with that.

How do the mechanics of the Piedmont style work?
You play the rhythm with your thumb while plucking the melody with your fingers—which is clearly a West African style. Etta Baker, Blind Boy Fuller, Brownie McGhee, and Pink Anderson were Piedmont players. That stumbling picking style—with that rumbling, tumbling sound—was one of the first things that really got me. I’ve only recently started playing with a flatpick at times in order to get certain types of articulation.

You hooked up with Ry Cooder in the Rising Sons. What did you learn from him?
Ry’s attention to detail is phenomenal. He inspired me to dig deeper into the music I was listening to. He had an incredible ear, and could tell me exactly what was happening. I pretty much sang and played harmonica on my first album. I attempted to play electric guitar on “The Celebrated Walkin’ Blues,” but I wasn’t happy with it. Ry Cooder and Bill Boatman covered all the rhythm guitar parts, and Jesse Ed Davis played all the leads.

Davis’ slide work on “Statesboro Blues” was influential, and he was a huge part of your band on those first three records. Can you describe his approach, and how you worked together?
Jesse was the first guy aside from Muddy that I saw play slide in standard tuning. He put the slide on his pinky. He played a Telecaster, and only when I asked would he play a Stratocaster to get that thick blues sound I love. “Bacon Fat” is a good example. He always used a Fender Bassman 4x10, and he experimented with a Fender Leslie. Jesse was another player who paid great attention to detail. I’d show him the framework of the song, and then he’d communicate the idea to the band.

Can you explain how your vision expanded as you went along?
The first album was basically a blues band jamming. We started to shape the sound on Natch’l Blues, and by Giant Step we had really honed in on it. I included De Ole Folks at Home with that as a double-album package because some stuff didn’t translate to the electric band. I wanted to show the raw acoustic material we worked from—not realizing that it would become a template for playing American music in that style.

What instruments were you playing at that time?
I was playing a National Duolian, and I played banjo on “Farther on Down the Road.” When I was in college, a guy showed me around on the instrument. Eventually, I borrowed a banjo, locked myself in my house trailer for a weekend with a bottle of Jack Daniels, and went at it [laughs]. When I opened the door and came up for air, I could play!

What have you found to be universal in music?
The Mixolydian mode. There’s something universally appealing about music in that mode set to a good rhythm—like Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say”—that gets butts moving and heads bobbing. I’ve gone places where they have no idea what the mode is— they just know those notes work.

Which is the most interesting guitar culture?
Early American blues. Recordings by Lightnin’ Hopkins, Skip James, and John Lee Hooker are amazing because two-thirds of what they’re playing is in the African mold, and one-third articulates the American experience. The density of African music without blues notes is incredible, because it wasn’t disconnected by slavery. The blues scale isn’t missing, but the notes haven’t been crunched down to express the sharp pain of being treated like animals for generations. Africans are always transfixed when they hear what Africans in America have done with the music. The blues is something special that happened here in this country.

Has the weakening connection to slavery over time led to watered-down blues?
Yes. That’s why a lot of young players today have got all the notes, but they can’t do anything with them. I’m not moved to dance. They do an amazing job of remembering sequences, but the experience coming through culturally is different. They have to acknowledge the source to get there. Jesse Davis was a Native American who acknowledged that very deeply, and brought his own talent to it.

How do you approach playing lead guitar when you tackle it yourself?
I mix it up. I love the sound of Albert King’s sustain, and I relate to his economical approach. Sometimes I’ll work off of that and add a touch of T-Bone Walker. Or I might play an entire guitar solo thumbing downstrokes. If I’m feeling it, I’ll scat along right into the microphone. I picked that up from Slam Stewart, who used to sing along with his bass back in the ’40s.

You revisit a few career phases on Maestro, and you play old and new songs with a variety of guests. How much guitar did you play?
I played guitar on “I Can Make You Happy,” “Zanzibar,” “Hello Josephine,” “Dust Me Down,” and “Strong Man Holler.”

Can you describe how your “Zanzibar” rhythm part works?
I wanted the sound of a West African kora and n’goni line. The n’goni is the banjo’s ancestor—the template on which it was built. I played an Epiphone Emperor hollowbody in the Piedmont picking style to emulate the vibe, and the watery sound comes from a Boss Stereo Chorus through a Fender Bassman. The kora is a 21-string harp-lute. Toumani Diabaté played it along with me on the recording.

“I Can Make You Happy” is a gritty groove. How did you put that one together?
I used a Subway Maestro tuned to open-G, and capoed up on the second fret. I played a Robert Johnson “Stones in My Passway” kind of thing right before the harp solo to build it up. That deep hurt from the Delta cuts right into you. It makes you want to dance and let go. Leo Nocentelli and the whole New Orleans Social Club played great rhythm grooves on that song and “Hello Josephine.”

How did you come up with “Strong Man Holler?”
Big Bill Morganfield is Muddy Waters’ son. I was working on that song when he called me to help out on his CD, Ramblin’ Mind. It was so creepy and cool that I decided to cut it, as well. I tuned the Emperor to open-D, and capoed up on the third fret. It’s unique, because I’m playing in a country blues way, but the recording’s modern sound gives you a really forward blues feeling.

How do you feel about your career right now?
My career hasn’t even begun to peak— considering what it could be. I’ve always played what I’ve heard without trying to convince anybody. I’m just saying that if you feel this, come on aboard, and if not, go buy Eric Clapton’s record. I’m not mad. That will help lead you back to some good people too, but hey, I’ve been here a long while. I was a part of the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus in 1968.

All of a sudden you’re an elder statesman.
Oh yeah, I’m an elder statesman. I’m an ethnomusicologist. Everybody’s trying to say, “We missed you, and so we’ll give you these titles.” None of that means anything. What matters is that I can pick up my instrument and use it to go wherever I want with the music. There was a time when some nights the music would play me, and I couldn’t do anything wrong. There were other nights when I couldn’t buy a vibe. Now it’s consistent. The instrument sings every time I pick it up because I stopped wrestling over who’s in charge. It’s the music. She is in charge.

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