Artist profiles: Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal in 2008 – Photo by Jay Blakesberg

Taj Mahal is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, producer, ethnomusicologist, and award-winning artists. His music includes elements of Afro-Caribbean music, blues, folk, hula, funk and other influences.

Taj Mahal was born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks on May 17, 1942 in Harlem but grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. His father a jazz pianist composer and arranger of Caribbean descent and his mother a gospel-singing schoolteacher from South Carolina encouraged their children to respect and be proud of their roots. His father had an extensive record collection and a short-wave radio that brought sounds from near and far to Taj’s ears. His parents also started him on classical piano lessons but after two weeks he says “it was already clear I had my own concept of how I wanted to play.” The lessons stopped but Taj didn’t.

In addition to piano, the young musician learned to play the clarinet trombone and harmonica and he loved to sing. He discovered his stepfather’s guitar and became serious about it in his early teens when Lynnwood Perry an accomplished young guitarist from North Carolina moved in next door. Perry was an expert in the Piedmont style of playing but he could also play like Muddy Waters Lightin’ Hopkins John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed. Taj was inspired to begin playing guitar in earnest.

Springfield in the 1950s was full of recent arrivals both from abroad and from elsewhere in the U.S. “We spoke several dialects in my house — Southern Caribbean African — and we heard dialects from eastern and western Europe,” said Taj. In addition musicians from the Caribbean Africa and all over the U.S. frequently visited the Fredericks’ household. Taj became even more fascinated with roots — where all the different forms of music he was hearing came from what path they took to get to their current states how they influenced each other on the way. He threw himself into the study of older forms of African-American music, music the record companies largely ignored.

While attending the University of Massachusetts at Amherst as an agriculture student in the early 1960s the musician transformed himself into Taj Mahal an idea that came to him in a dream. He began playing with the popular U. Mass. party band The Elektras then left Massachusetts in 1964 for the blues-heavy Los Angeles club scene. There he formed The Rising Sons withRy Cooder Ed Cassidy Jesse Lee Kinkaid Gary Marker and Kevin Kelly. At the Whiskey A Go Go in Los Angeles The Rising Sons opened for Otis Redding Sam the Sham The Temptations and Martha and the Vandellas at The Trip. Taj also had the opportunity to hear meet and play with such blues legends as Howlin’ Wolf Muddy Waters Junior Wells Buddy Guy Louis and Dave Meyers Sleepy John Estes Yank Rachel Lightin’ Hopkins Bessie Jones the Georgia Sea Island Singers and Hammy Nixon.

Taj Mahal circa 1968 in Los Angeles – Photo by Baron Wolmans

Taj tapped these experiences on three hugely influential records: Taj Mahal (1967), The Natch’l Blues (1968) and Giant Step/De Old Folks at Home (1969). Drawing on all the musical forms he’d absorbed as a child these early albums showed signs of the musical exploration that would be Taj’s hallmark over the years to come. “I didn’t want to fall into the trap of complacency,” said Taj Mahal. “I wanted to keep pushing the musical ideas I had about jazz music from Africa and the Caribbean. I wanted to explore the connections between different kinds of music.”

In 1970 Taj traveled to Spain to have a well-deserved rest and vacation in the home of the guitar. He carved out his own musical niche with a string of adventurous recordings throughout the ’70s, including Happy Just to Be Like I Am (1971), Recycling the Blues and Other Related Stuff (1972), the Grammy-nominated soundtrack to the movie Sounder (1973), Mo’ Roots (1974), Music Fuh Ya’ (Musica Para Tu) (1977), and Evolution (The Most Recent) (1978).

Taj Mahal circa 1974 in Berkeley, California – Photo by Baron Wolmans

Taj’s recorded output slowed considerably during the 1980s as he toured relentlessly and immersed himself in the music and culture of his new home in Hawaii. Still that decade saw the well-received Taj (1987) as well as the first three of his celebrated children’s albums.

Taj returned to a full recording and touring schedule in the 1990s including such projects as the musical scores for the Lanston Hughes/Zora Neale Hurston play Mule Bone (1991) and the movie Zebrahead (1992). Later in the decade Dancing the Blues (1993) Phantom Blues (1996) An Evening of Acoustic Music (1996) and the Grammy Award-winning Se?or Blues (1997) were both commercial and critical successes.

At the same time Taj continued to explore world music beginning with the aptly named World Music in 1993. He joined Indian classical musicians on Mumtaz Mahal in 1995; recorded Sacred Island a blend of Hawaiian music and blues with The Hula Blues in 1998; and paired with Malian kora player Toumani Diabate for Kulanjan in 1999.

Since 2000 Taj has released a second Grammy-winning album Shoutin’ in Key (2000) and recorded a second album with The Hula Blues 2003’s lush Hanapepe Dream.

Etta Baker With Taj Mahal came out in 2004. In 2005 he released Mkutano Meets the Culture Musical Club of Zanzibar. On this recording Taj Mahal took the blues to the mythical island of Zanzibar an East African island just off the coast of Tanzania. He collaborated with legendary local acts such as Culture Musical Club and Bikidude.

On February 2006 Taj Mahal was designated the “Official Blues Artist” of Massachusetts by Chapter 19 of the Acts of 26.

Taj Mahal in 2008 – Photo by Jay Blakesberg

Maestro, released in 2008 was a landmark album where Taj Mahal explored some of his favorite musical traditions from various regions including the Mississippi Delta the Appalachian backwoods the African continent the Hawaiian Islands Europe and the Caribbean. The album features his daughter Deva Mahal, Latin rockers Los Lobos, Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, the Phantom Blues Band, Ziggy Marley Angelique Kidjo, Toumani Diabate and the New Orleans Social Club.

With his record as with all my records I want people to roll back the rug and go for it,” said Taj about Maestro. “This record is just the beginning of another chapter one that’s going to be open to more music and more ideas. Even at the end of forty years in many ways my music is just getting started.”

Taj Mahal participated in the album True Blues, a 13-song live CD released in May 28, 2013 on Telarc. It was recorded at various venues throughout the United States including Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York True Blues explores and celebrates the blues and follows its rich history from the Mississippi delta of the early 1900s to the present day. The album includes performances by Corey Harris, Taj Mahal, Shemekia Copeland, Guy Davis, Alvin Youngblood Hart and Phil Wiggins.

Taj Mahal Trio

On True Blues, Taj Mahal performs “Done Changed My Way of Living” with the help of his Taj Mahal Trio. Recorded at Ram’s Head On Stage in Annapolis Maryland Taj uses his trademark growl that’s reminiscent (either by design or by accident) of the great Howlin’ Wolf. The trio reemerges later for a rendition of “Mailbox Blues” that hints at the mid-20th century swing music that would eventually evolve from the blues tradition.

In 2012 he released the two disc set The Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal 1969-1973 (Legacy, 2012).

In 2014, Taj Mahal received the Americana Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award.

A self-taught musician Taj plays more than 20 instruments, including ukulele, steel and dobro guitars.

Keb’ Mo’ and Taj Mahal

In 2017, Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ released their first album as a duo, “TajMo” (Concord Records). “TajMo” includes original songs and covers, featuring cameos from Bonnie Raitt, Joe Walsh, Sheila E. and Lizz Wright. The album was self-produced by the duo and was recorded by Zach Allen, John Caldwell and Casey Wasner at Nashville’s Stu Stu Studio.

Discography:

Taj Mahal (Columbia Records, 1968)
The Natch’l Blues (Columbia Records, 1968)
Giant Step/De Ole Folks at Home (Columbia Records, 1969)
Happy Just to Be Like I Am (Columbia Records, 1971)
Recycling The Blues & Other Related Stuff (Columbia Records, 1972)
Sounder (original soundtrack) (Columbia Records, 1972)
Oooh So Good ‘n Blues (Columbia Records, 1973)
Mo’ Roots (Columbia Records, 1974)
Music Keeps Me Together (Columbia Records, 1975)
Satisfied ‘n Tickled Too (Columbia Records, 1976)
Music Fuh Ya’ (Warner Bros. Records, 1976)
Brothers (Warner Bros. Records, 1977)
Evolution (Warner Bros. Records, 1977)
Taj (Gramavision, 1987)
Shake Sugaree (Music For Little People, 1988)
Mule Bone (Gramavision, 1991)
Like Never Before (Private Music, 1991)
Dancing the Blues (Private Music, 1993)
Mumtaz Mahal, with V.M. Bhatt and N. Ravikiran (Water Lily Acoustics, 1995)
Phantom Blues (Private Music, 1996)
Señor Blues (Private Music, 1997)
Sacred Island, with The Hula Blues Band) (Private Music, 1998)
Blue Light Boogie (Private Music, 1999)
Kulanjan (with Toumani Diabaté) (Hannibal Records, 1999)
Hanapepe Dream, with The Hula Blues Band (Hannibal Records, 2001)
Mkutano Meets the Culture Musical Club of Zanzibar (Respect Records, 2005)
Maestro (Heads Up International, 2008)
Talkin’ Christmas, with Blind Boys of Alabama (Masterworks, 2014)
TajMo, with Keb’ Mo’ (Concord Records, 2017)

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.
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