“It’s all connected. So that’s what’s exciting for me, man. I want people to stand up and say, ‘Hey, look at this. This is some more of that good stuff.’ ” Taj mahal
You can’t pin Taj Mahal down. While the blues runs through him, his genre-sweeping ports of call include the Caribbean, West Africa, jazz, Latin America and the Hawaiian Islands.
The Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal 1969-1973, a two-CD set of previously unreleased studio and concert material issued this month, signals the start of a reissue campaign for Mahal’s entire Columbia Records’ catalog.
“They’re finally figuring out that I’m not crazy,” the gravel-toned singer and multi-instrumentalist said earlier this month from a concert date in Apple Valley, Minn. “I’m really thrilled that they’re putting this stuff out there. I hope the fans who have already been there and new fans pick up on it.”
Born in Harlem in 1942, two-time Grammy winner Mahal, aka Henry St. Claire Fredericks, grew up in Springfield, Mass. His father was a jazz pianist and composer of Caribbean descent, his mother a gospel singer and schoolteacher from South Carolina.
The confluence of music Mahal experienced at home set his artistic exploration in play.
“It’s all connected,” Mahal said. “So that’s what’s exciting for me, man. I want people to stand up and say, ‘Hey, look at this. This is some more of that good stuff.’ ”
Mahal’s more recent appearances in Louisiana include a 2010 headlining spot at the Crescent City Blues and Barbecue Festival.
“The music of New Orleans is important to everybody,” he said. “There’s no jazz without New Orleans.”
Jazz had to come from the Crescent City, Mahal said, a place where people gamble, laugh, touch, eat flavorful food.
“It’s an environment that just isn’t in other cities,” he said. “I don’t think jazz could have happened in a Protestant city. It would have to be a Catholic city.”
You can bet Mahal made a happy visit to the musicians’ dining hall before he played his Blues and Barbecue Festival gig.
Just as New Orleans is the home of jazz, the South is the land where the blues began.
“You have all these different kinds of music,” Mahal said. “You got salsa, you got rumba, you got tango, you got mambo, you got cumbia. Every kind of music, but the most interesting thing in the whole thing — there’s only one place the blues comes from and that’s the United States.
“With all of the Africans dispersed throughout the Western Hemisphere, why is it that the United States is the only place you get the blues the way it is, as a separate, different kind of sound?
“So, me, I’m just communicating with my cousins. The music runs through the blood and the sound of the blood runs through the music.”
Mahal sees American music as a bigger story than has ever been told. Lazy Lester — the swamp-blues singer, harmonica player, guitarist and percussionist — gave Mahal his insight into the subject.
“Lester talked about what went down in the studios down there in Louisiana,” Mahal said. “We ain’t talking bad stuff, just about how everybody was in the studio together, working on each other’s projects. Lester comes in and puts harmonica on this, sings the chorus on that. Or this band played behind that. It’s a big story, but they always try to squeeze 25 pounds into a five-pound box.”
Having turned 70 this year, Mahal is old enough to have mingled with the classic blues men who preceded him, such as boogie master John Lee Hooker, country blues men Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachell, master Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence, Chicago’s Howlin’ Wolf.
“So many of them, you heard their music living through the records,” he said. “So, to meet them personally, most of it was seeing how they carry themselves as men.
“Back in ’66, Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachell stayed at my house. Joseph Spence stayed with me for about a month-and-a-half. They liked coming around me because, as a child, I learned how to hang out around old people. Old people talked to me. They wouldn’t talk to them other kids. They told them, ‘Boy, get on outta here. You ain’t got nothing but a bunch of foolishness!’ And then they’d say, ‘I remember back in the time ... .’ I was inquisitive enough and smart enough and respectful enough to be in their presence. They knew that somebody was actually paying attention.”
Mahal finds the offstage lives of the blues men especially interesting.
“The real Howlin’ Wolf went back to school,” he said. “He did a lot of stuff. He was a respectful, righteous, nice man. His stepdaughters thought an awful lot of him. He was protective. He made their mama real happy. A very good provider. He was wild as far as what the music was about, but that was a separate thing. He didn’t bring that home with him. He’s also the only one who paid his band workman’s comp. Yes, sir.”
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