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Taj Mahal: 40 Years of the Rainbow Blues
Written by Terry Roland
"The blues is a tone that puts me in contact with a lot of things, culturally, spiritually, cosmically. I really enjoy it, and I'm not going to let it go, because it's that good."
What do you do when you're a kid born into a musical family and you grow up with styles as diverse as gospel music Caribbean jazz, and the rainbow of styles on the radio during the 1950s? If you're Taj Mahal, you soak it in and create never-heard-before music.
Arriving on the scene in the mid-'60s when envious British youngsters were trying to learn from the legendary elders of American blues, Taj was the effortless heir apparent who seemed to be able to emulate the founding fathers (and mothers) of blues without needing to imitate anyone. It was already a part of his being. Still, he had the edge of an original, personalized guitar style that added an ethnically pure dimension to the trendy blues movement of the day. While he made his mark during this period, the then burgeoning rock scene didn't know quite what to do with Taj. Being an important figure in the blues movement of the day, he was kept busy. However, during the '70s, as American rock music scene lost its identity, Taj Mahal defined himself through the exploration of international music.
A true innovator and musical wanderer, Taj Mahal didn't sit still after the short-lived blues revival faded. He always stayed true to his country-blues roots. Indeed, his view of blues was not static but as a progressive musical experience that absorbed his entire being.
Taj drew his roots from the gospel music of his mother and the Caribbean jazz influence of his father. Notably, when he moved to L.A., he formed the Rising Sons with Ry Cooder in what must have been a musical collaboration made in heaven, or at least on some blues-soaked Caribbean island. In 1965, he helped to fire up the blues revival of the late '60s, but it was Clapton, Mayall, Canned Heat, and other white acts who reaped the commercial rewards. Still Taj kept traveling and he was soon experimenting with various forms of world music, bringing it together with some of the best of American rock, blues, and soul styles. He didn't just create the roots of this movement; he became the roots. Today, no world musician can approach the fusion of styles without drawing on Taj Mahal's influence, even if they don't know it. It is a collective musical movement and the tide was formed by Taj and few others.
It seems wherever he has traveled, he has absorbed the musical styles of the culture. Beginning in his youth in North Carolina where, in his teens, he mastered Piedmont blues, he then moved on to the diverse styles of Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, and Lightnin' Hopkins. In later years, as he traveled, he explored the music beneath the African-American blues, including the earliest forms of the music of the African slaves. Over the next four decades, he studied music from Africa, Caribbean, India, Hawaii, and Jamaica. He recorded several children's albums and spoken word projects
The reward for these innovations, like so many ground breakers, is limited commercial success or fame. However, through the years he has created what can easily be regarded as some of the best of American music. He won Grammy awards for his albums Señor Blues and Shoutin' in Key. He has also witnessed new generations rise up directly from his influence.
Today, Taj lives in Hawaii. From this, he has brought Hawaiian music and blues together. He also gained a reputation as an excellent fisherman. At times, he can be coaxed off the islands to tour. Check his website for his tour schedule. Also, available on his website, is his new album,Maestro Baby. www.tajblues.com. It appears this will be another fine album of new originals and influential songs of the past. And, all of those international styles are there, which he has explored for the past 40 years. The new album will also include special guests Los Lobos, Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, and Ziggy Marley.
As Taj Mahal continues to explore the music of the world, if we are willing to follow and listen, we will discover, not only the soul of American roots music, but the pot of gold in the myriad of music formed in a rainbow of styles.