Conversatin’ with Taj Mahal
by Matt Kettmann
“It’s time to move man. It ain’t time to stand around.” That’s the prescription from blues doctor Taj Mahal for his upcoming performance at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Tuesday, April 25 with soul queen Mavis Staples. One of the greatest living musicians of any genre — in large part because he plays them all — Taj Mahal’s career spans from his Springfield, Massachusetts upbringing to his globe-trotting exploration into everything from jazz and reggae to hula, Malian kora, and Indian classical. I had the rare chance to chat with Taj — who’s got the gravelliest voice ever — over the phone last week, while he was at the San Francisco airport. Quite the talker, Taj jumped from institutional racism to Frank Zappa to the dirty business of music. What follows is the full version of that conversation.
The first time I found out about you was in college from a friend who was a real bluesman, in that he always had the blues and always listened to good blues music. The first thing I thought was, “Why hadn’t I heard of Taj Mahal before?” Because they had nobody that they could compete with me if I got out there — that’s part of it. The other side of it is this is a highly competitive business and if you don’t have people to look out for you, you can be in trouble. It’s very similar to integration: one day you have everything working for you, then you dump all your stuff in the big pot. And if you don’t send people in to lobby and create the political and financial and ongoing wealth infrastructure, you will end up on the outside.
So you gotta play the game, basically? It’s not that you have to play the game. You have to be aware that a game is being played and, then, how do you defend yourself?
When did you figure that out? I had pieces of the puzzle when I got in there. I owned my publishing from day one. That’s just the beginning. They laugh at you when you leave money on the table, because it’s a game with them, you know. I mean, they could be selling shoes, that’s what the trouble is: My orientation is toward people making real commitments to one another, theirs is only as good as what on paper …. Also the thing of it is, the way to play the game with the music business is by playing the kind of music they think is gonna be a hit.
So when you won those GRAMMYs a few years ago, was that vindication? Nah man, I don’t work off of that, man. I was glad that that happened. I was glad that a jury of my peers in the business thought to see that I got a certain kind of recognition for what it was that I did. I was really happy about that, and real happy the second time around (2000’s Shoutin’ in Key) when everybody in the band won their first GRAMMY. It was a group project and there was no reason for just me being the one singled out.
I’ve been listening to you about 10 years now and I saw you play the Lobero Theatre in an acoustic show a couple years back, but I had never done any research in your past. I found out you were from the Northeast, which was a surprise because your music sounds like it’s from the Deep South … Ha, ha, nah, what’s your real question?
Uhh, I was wondering how you got them rootsiness… No, what’s your real question? Y’all done pulled this off a long time ago. I’m gonna throw you a curve. Why is it okay for Mick Jagger to go to the London School of Economics and try to sing like a black man but if a black man comes from New England and sings like his people, something’s wrong with that? Talk to me now, you’re on the hot seat.
Uhh… Nah, nah, talk to me, come on now bro. Because you’re making assumptions. I don’t know what you look like, and I’m not gonna make an assumption. I’m putting the hot seat on you man.
Well, your music has the roots sound of blues from the Mississippi Delta, and… Okay, here’s the trouble — you didn’t really check up on me. If you really checked up on me, if you’d really checked up on the situation, you’da found out that black people were everywhere in the United States. Whole churches moved from Mississippi to Philadelphia, to Hartford, Connecticut, to New Haven, to Springfield, Massachusetts, to Boston. Whole congregations of people came out of the South. They didn’t just go from Mississippi to Chicago and hand it off to Eric Clapton and the Stones. That’s a popular misconception. They went all over the country…. We had plenty of people from Mississippi in my town. My next door neighbor was from Lewisville, North Carolina, and he played like Blind Blake, Lightning Hawkins, Brownie MacGee. He played like Muddy Waters. My neighbors down the street from me, they were from Stonewall, Mississippi—that’s where Muddy Waters is from. Clarksdale. And they didn’t say Clarksdale, they said Clark-dell. They did not say, “Mississippi” [in his best honky voice], they said, “Humpback, humpback, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, P, P, I.” …The interesting part is that half of my family is from the South and half of my family is from the West Indies. Do your homework, holmes. When people moved from the South to the Northeast, a lot of them still wanted to hear the blues. When I was around as a kid, I’m talking back in the days when I’m playing marbles; I be hangin’ out in my partner’s house, and his moms be wearing out some B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland.…Those people who come from the South, like my mother, so obviously I felt close to the South, but I also felt close to West Indians and other kinds of immigrants….My love for the people and the music just never let loose.
You’re saying the music makes the migration with the people? Most definitely man. Honestly, people don’t understand. They think they know everything because they live here. I still go back to that town [Springfield, Mass.] and it’s like a Southern town. We had a village. I don’t know how many people were in that town at that time, maybe 200,000 or something, and maybe one quarter were black people. I could go into the record store and seriously look at tons of blues albums if I wanted to …. Of course, all the other kinds of stuff was there too: bebop and swing, jump blues, and all that was a part of it .…The end that’s defined as blues and such, that’s a marketing ploy. That’s not how people live — people don’t just live like a blues album.
That diversity also explains why over the years you’ve been expanding your music into genres all over the world. Well, yea, because it was it already is there. All I was doing was picking up the line and saying what they were saying. “Americans, wake up!”
I heard you got an album from East Africa coming out soon. I was recently in Uganda, and stumbled upon a calypso-type band in a refugee camp. Do you have any Ugandan musicians? We’re a little farther to the south of that, in Zanzibar [off the coast of Tanzania]. I played with Cultural Music Club in Zanzibar. They had very strong African influences, very strong Arabian peninsula influence, very strong Indian Ocean influence. It was real nice, man.
In modern pop, the gripe always seems to be, “All the new music sounds the same.” Based on your traveling the globe and making all different types of music, what advice do you have for young artists to keep their sound original, expansive, and exploratory? It’s pretty simple. Find out what your roots are. I’m tired of these guys saying, ‘Oh, where you from?” “Oh, I’m from Cleveland.” No you ain’t — not with that dark hair, that nose, and those eyebrows. You ain’t from Cleveland. That might be where you were born in this country, but where are your people? What is at the root of what you’re doing? What would you be responsible for in the cultures that [you come from]? That’s what they want to go for. That’s why these kids make this kind of weird, to me, music. Because, number one, they ain’t focused on who they are — they’re focused on who somebody else is. I read something that said we fantasize that we’re Indians when we’re little kids, then we fantasize that we’re black people when were in our teens and twenties, when going through our rebellious stage. And then we’re supposed to come back around and be who we actually are when it comes time to check in on real life. So if you’re momma’s French and your dad is Italian, what would you be responsible for if you’re a 20-year-old guy playing music in that culture? Then take the depths of that and come over here to this smorgasbord of sounds and style and find something good. I bet you have something that sounds like you all the time, and kinda like nobody else.
And in America with so many different races mixing we have even a better history to draw on because usually you have two distinct cultures coming together as parents. One would like to think that, but I think that New Orleans is the only one who ever pulled that off. Most of what these guys got is a license to steal from black people and people of color. This is not about fair play. That ain’t the game. “Just let these darkies know what’s going on here.” I don’t think so.
Are there any people you see doing their own music in America that’s not ripping off black people? Uhh, pretty hard, pretty hard, pretty hard, that’s a hard one to deal with. I would say that the Musicmaker Foundation…Get your reading public to check in with musicmaker.org. Check in on that, and you’ll be surprised there’s an organization that’s actually looking out for all the black musicians who are part of the tradition but maybe not part of whatever kind of slick marketing that goes on that’s happening, that everybody’s all plugged into. But nonetheless they put in their years, they put in their times and their skills, and they have some precious gifts. People obviously want to hear them because in 10 years we went from having about $10,000 a year to distribute to now having a couple million every year and having these guys travel to Australia. They just left to Australia two days ago and they just got back from France. People outside of the United States are aware of the value of our folk music. Everybody here is quick to say, “You ain’t real African, you got this and you got that.” That’s when they’re trying to do it that way. But then on the other side, turn that thing around. How much money do you think the American government or the American art community is spending on blues every year? How much real money you think they’re spending? It’s minimal. This group of individuals made a huge impact on the music of the world, on what we hear now and what we listen to now. It’s the result of some hard times of some people who should be certainly getting some props for what we’re in. So that’s what we do. Musicmaker is really cool, man.
What’s the disconnect in America then? Why do other people around the world appreciate our folk traditions more than us? Is it the corporatism here? No, well, what it really is institutional racism. It’s also a disconnect between the bourgeoisies, the Eurocentric people who always looked down on black people. It’s been set up; it’s been institutionalized. There’s this sociologist from the Bronx or Queens, he stood up in front of his mostly white class and said, “If you had to be black tomorrow for the rest of your life, how much money do you think you’d need to make every year to deal with the pressure of being black?” Everyone said, “Oh, about three million dollars.” This is sociology, talk to people. The only guy I think that got it right was Frank Zappa. Frank Zappa said, “You know people, I don’t wish I was black; but sometimes I wish I wasn’t white” It took me a little while to get to Frank, but it took me less time to get there that it did to get to Bob Dylan. Frank was happenin’, man. Frank was my boy man, I really liked him.
Yea, I have some friends who are big Zappa fans. Oh man, Frank was all over it. That got to crazy dark ends, but he was on it.
You mentioned the musicmaker.org Web site. Do you think that the Internet is making the folk musicians easier … ? Yes, yes, yes, yes. That’s also it too. The Internet, that’s the best thing that happened. I know a lotta people who say, [in his best gangsta rapper drawl] “Man, you being stealing my music off the Web. You ain’t supposed to be doing that, yea dog. I don’t want you stealing my music.” Ahh, gimme a break man! What you talkin’ ‘bout, “Yea dog?” Where are you? Universal. ‘Scuse me? Where does that company come from? Its parent company, oh, it’s in France. Oh, it’s Vivendi. Oh, I see. Vivendi owns Seagrams. Seagrams owns Universal. Ahh, I guess so. So they swept through earlier and pulled up all the big kernels of whatever it was. So who is pushing down the road? That’s why I’ve always been an advocate of the individual door. I tried working with those guys in the corporate stuff, so I learned some hard lessons working with them. They don’t play fair and they don’t tell you the rules of the game that you’re playing.
Let’s talk about your show here, but where are you right now? In Canada? No, I’m in an airport. I’m in the San Francisco airport.
Oh, I grew up in that area there. Oh well, that’s why you’re cool. The area has had some serious human upheaval here. Try Berkeley in Moline, Illinois. It don’t fit.
About your show here, you’re cruising around with a trio right now? Before you were playing with ensembles. What’s the advantage of playing in a smaller group? Apart from the musical energy changing to where more of it falls on what I’m doing, the ensembles are practiced a lot of the time. Some of them catch on and manage to be out there with them a lot, I like playing all kinds of ways, but the trio format is a real good format and I think that for a long time, I was playing with larger formats and people had come onto me with the music, and they could really connect with where I was coming from; where in the larger ensembles, particularly the phantom blues band, they couldn’t make that connection between myself and the guitar. They’ve been supporting me for a long time, something they’re interested in. I can do this, and boom we did it; people had a lot of fun.
What’s up next for you? Ahh, everything. I never let nobody see the bread before its baked, no really. Then everybody got your business in the street. When I am ready to let everyone know what’s happening, oh this time around, you will know. Much more than anything, it’s been a big change in management and staff and that has been amazing for what it’s produced and how I feel about what is happening as a result of it. We’re working with some real good people now and the radar is getting nervous
One last question: You were the Gatekeeper in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Adventure. What do you think of Keanu Reeves’s music? You know, I haven’t really heard it enough to be able to make an informed opinion. I wouldn’t doubt that he’d be a musician though. He has a lot of magic, you know.
Well, I’ve taken up enough of your airport time … Sounds good, man. The main thing of it is, is that all them girls with big legs and big hips, will they please be there dancing? Will you get these guys off their butts and stop them from just staring at what goes on? It’s time to move man. It ain’t time to stand around.
It’s funny when you put people in a hall like that; they like to sit down for some reason. They’re afraid they might offend the people seated behind them or something like that. Right, right. So as people who are running the show, you’re the young people coming in and you’re all running the show, so how come we ain’t dancing? This won’t be a problem is everyone’s up shaking their butts.
Alright, maybe I’ll see you at the show. Maybe, whaddya mean, “Maybe?”
I mean, maybe I’ll search you out and say hi. Alright. Now say, “A’ight dog.”
Okay. A’ight dog.