Taj Mahal and the Secret of the Blues

Speaking with blues veteran Taj Mahal is like encountering a whole roomful of talking heads that've collectively ingested way too much coffee. Opinions and theories are thrust before you like spermatozoa on an egg (you are the egg), with such energy and conviction you can feel the ideas, it seems, on your face. Mahal's passion for music—not just blues, but also folk and ethnic music of any bent—is pervasive, consuming. He's less interested in talking about himself and his own influential career than discussing the blues as a value, as a way of life. Don't count him among the proselytizers who want to see the blues accepted by and assimilated into the mainstream; that, he says, would be like making hot dogs from filet mignon.

"That's like saying integration is the best thing that can happen for people—well, it can be, provided everybody stays responsible to their culture," he says. "That's how you end up with Kenny Wayne Shepherd being the only thing that people talk about. Okay, there's room for everybody. But what I get upset about is when all the others get surgically removed from the picture."

While many scribes seem loath to acknowledge the obvious, blues is an African-American cultural phenomenon to its heart. Yet young white artists such as Shepherd, Jonny Lang and others garner the vast share of media attention and sales at the expense of black artists of breathtaking substance—phenoms such as Corey Harris, Alvin "Youngblood" Hart, Joe Louis Walker and Shemekia Copeland, who, relative to their cracker counterparts, labor in obscurity.

For his part, singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Mahal, 61, has dabbled over the years in almost any form of black and ethnic music you can name, from reggae, jazz, gospel and zydeco to Hawaiian and African folk music. Still, old-timey blues remains his greatest love. Interestingly, for all his purist resolve, the man is hardly a traditionalist. Mahal chuckles as he reminisces on the late-'60s—his early years in the music business—when rock & roll first started to seep into the blues.

"There were albums like [Muddy Waters'] Electric Mud and Fathers & Sons and The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions," he recalls, releases in which cheesy rock recording sessions were imposed upon the classic blues masters. "For those of us who were already a part of the music, we were saying, 'What is this bullshit?' The music didn't live up to the quality we were used to, but I thought at the time, 'Maybe there's something here I don't see,' and sure enough, there was. Chuck D of Public Enemy said Electric Mud was his first window into the blues. Here's a rap icon, and that was his introduction to it. See, that's important!"

The blues community remains divided when it comes to rap and hip-hop. On the one hand, you have the notion that rap is a modern extension of the blues as cultural folklore, while others view the music as vulgar and even socially irresponsible. Mahal speaks of rap with the ardor that accompanies his talk of the blues, but he believes its heyday has already come and gone, another victim of corporate consumption.

"I liked it when it was nasty and wild," he says. "I liked it when it scared people, okay? I liked it when a chopped car came around the corner on two wheels booming and banging and people would go, 'Oh, my god, are they really saying that in the middle of the street?' That stuff represented in the same way the old blues did. But then they trotted out all these old colored people saying [adopting old-time southern black inflection], 'Lawd, that rap is so terrible! They talkin' real bad about our womens! Lawd have mercy, they needs to go to the choich!' So what you have now is all this booty-shaking, bling-bling bullshit, which means that the record companies are in control. It's no longer the CNN for the disenfranchised. Now it's all about how much I got that you ain't got. The corporations realize that Generations X, Y and now Z were raised on hip-hop. They always say, 'no' until they can figure out the angle where they can make money off it. It's like how they said no to downloading music: they ran Napster out of business, then they bought it up and co-opted it. They figure it out, and they take it over. This is not a new game, my friend."

Spleen duly vented, Mahal is finally disposed to discuss his own role in the big picture. Early in his career, he was called out for Tomming it by a counterculture that viewed the blues as an ugly, archaic echo of subservience to Mr. Charlie. Over time, Mahal's view of the music as an essential element of African-American tradition became the established perception, even among most hardcore Afrophiles. Mahal experimented with the music, giddily like a demented alchemist, and today he is belatedly accepted and revered as a key figure in the evolution of the blues—a musical Johnny Appleseed with foresight and attitude. How has he managed to stay in the game all these years without playing by the rules?

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