If you ask Springfield, Mass. native Taj Mahal about what inspired him to become a restless musical explorer, he won’t mince words.
“First of all, no one seems to think about it,” Mahal said by phone from his home in California. “People think what I’m doing is going all over these places and getting this stuff. But this is what came with me by people bringing African Americans to this hemisphere... The American music scene has a tendency to isolate circumstances. I’m showing the relative connectedness of one universe to another. I’m not going to my cousin’s house and stealing a whole bunch of stuff and putting it in a bag.”
“No matter how much I articulate it for American journalists,” Mahal continued, “that doesn’t come across.”
Over the last 40 years, Mahal (born Henry St. Claire Fredericks in Harlem in 1942) has become one of the most influential blues and roots musicians of the 20th century. When we spoke, Mahal had just returned from a blues festival in Mumbai, India, where he shared a bill with Buddy Guy, John Hooker Jr., Robert Randolph and others, one of the nearly 150 shows he does per year. His trio performs at the Ridgefield Playhouse on Thursday.
“They can expect to be frustrated because they can’t dance,” Mahal said. “This is dance music, man. I start out clearing the air and we work through all the great music we can cover.” If everyone’s sitting down, Mahal said, he’ll have “no idea whether or not people had a great time.”
In the early ’60s, Mahal studied agriculture at UMass Amherst, where he fronted the Elektras, a popular party band, and also caught the occasional show at Hartford’s Bushnell Auditorium. He later headed west for L.A., where he played with Ry Cooder in the Rising Sons, opening shows for Otis Redding, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas. He began releasing his own albums in 1967, right around the time he had an epiphany about the music business.
“It wasn’t going to get better, and they weren’t going to care about the music or expanding the culture or language,” Mahal said. “People started saying, ‘Well, maybe Taj Mahal is one of the first world music people.’ The music is always going out to the world. I’ve met musicians from 15,000 miles away, from the other side of the globe, who did everything they could to hear the music from the United States and to hear and to be part of that music... [In the U.S.] the music business got so standardized. It’s all about formula.”
One highlight was taking part in the Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus, a film project that got shelved until 1995. Mahal remembered playing a show at the Whisky A Go-Go in L.A. in 1968. “We’ve got some records out there,” Mahal said. “I’m aware of what’s going on in the business. I’m getting reports from Canned Heat, Ry Cooder, Jesse Fuller, hearing about Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson were going to Europe, having a great time with people who are loving the music. It was an extension of my father’s generation, when musicians who went to Europe, who couldn’t hack it here in the States, who were being judged on their talent for whatever reason.”
He was playing with his eyes closed, when he finally looked up. “There’s Mick Jagger dancing, Keith Richards dancing, Charlie Watts dancing, Brian Jones dancing,” he said. “I look over to my right and Eric Burdon’s dancing, Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, Graham Bond, this group from Japan called the Tigers. I’m saying to myself, ‘These people are all playing arenas, getting 15 bucks a head, and here we are playing for no cover charge.’”
When the set ended, Mahal went over and introduced himself, and a few months later, he received eight first-class, round-trip BOAC tickets to England. “We never reached into our own pockets for anything,” Mahal said. “For those two weeks, we were treated like royalty. In this business it’s all about the photo opp. But these guys really loved the music. I had a phenomenal walk one day along the Thames with Mick Jagger on one side, Marianne Faithfull on the other, arm in arm.”
If there’s anything restless about his music, Mahal said, it’s about showing everyone how connected all that music is. “I think it would be something different if Africans were never taken off the African continent and taken to other parts of the globe. They wouldn’t be doing the music that’s driven by the heat of Africa right now, or the rhythms or syntax of African music. I had a positive education about who I was, who I am, who I could develop myself to be. I had to wait for the magic wand of the music industry to catch up with me. If they got it, they got it. You can’t make them get it.”
“You can keep people dumbed down if you want to,” Mahal continued. “But I’m not going to do that. I’m going to stand up on my own feet and make my own choices. I don’t need the ethnomusicology department to pull me out off the cotton fields.”
Taj Mahal Trio, March 1, 8 p.m., $65, Ridgefield Playhouse, 80 East Ridge, Ridgefield, (203) 438-5795, ridgefieldplayhouse.org
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHamad
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