"I've been able to play it as straight and as hard as I wanted to, and the audience has always been there," Taj Mahal explains. "My records have had a long shelf life ... I never followed the trends." Mahal's four-decade-long career has indeed been a long, strange trip. His travels have taken him from sidewalk cafes in Springfield, Massachusetts to folk clubs in Greenwich Village to Fillmore Auditorium jams with Elvin Bishop and Boz Scaggs to, most recently, places like New Zealand and Cuba. Speaking from a hotel room in Seattle, Mahal's voice resonates with the same wonderfully gruff rasp one would typically associate with a blues singer -- even if he's not your typical bluesman.
"I am a product of an Afro-American mother from the South and an Afro-Caribbean father," he states, which explains how he could identify with both Sonny Boy Williamson and Bob Marley, two of the many artists whose songs he's put his own spin on. Like most blues singers, his repertoire includes numerous standards -- he's recorded versions of Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues," Robert Johnson's "Dust My Broom," and Williamson's "Checkin' Up on My Baby." Mahal has also made his mark on folk music, recording traditional numbers like "Oh Susanna," "Railroad Bill," "Buck Dancer's Choice," and "Stagger Lee," and originals like "Going Up to the Country, Paint My Mailbox Blue," a bluegrass-stained fan favorite from his 1968 album The Natch'l Blues. Then there are Mahal's Carib-flavored tunes, which include covers of the Slickers' "Johnny Too Bad" and Marley's "Slave Driver," and Mahal's own "West Indian Revelation" and "St. Kitts Woman."
Without question, Mahal's got roots and Mo' Roots (to paraphrase one of his '70s album titles), being quite fluent with the idioms of jazz, soul, and funk as well. These influences come into play on songs like "The Most Recent Evolution of Muthafusticus Modernusticus," from the 1978 LP Evolution. The song's gumbo-like approach blends African thumb-pianoesque guitar, Caribbean steel pans, electric slap bass, conga drums, and screeching saxophone blurts. It sounds like a musical celebration of the various cultural strains of the African Diaspora, something Mahal says he's "always been in tune with." This is perhaps most evident in Mahal's arrangements -- he's been known to add upright bass to a basic blues progression. "Oftentimes, I've applied jazz sensibilities to the blues stuff," he says.
All in all, Mahal has recorded at least 32 full albums since 1968, a pretty good track record for any artist. Along the way, he's won two Grammy Awards, including one for 1997's Señor Blues. Recently, Mahal made a guest appearance on the Fela tribute album Red Hot + Riot, dueting with Senegalese superstar Baaba Maal on the album's closing track, "Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake." Mahal speaks of the project with reverence, noting, "I love Baaba Maal's work and Fela's music."
Mahal's credentials as a journeyman might put Eric Clapton to shame -- he estimates he spends about two hundred days a year on the road. But he keeps a special fondness for the Bay Area and the East Bay in particular, a place he always seems to return to. As a matter of fact, this week he lands at Yoshi's with his trio for a six-performance run concluding on New Year's Eve (510-238-9200, www.yoshis.com).
"One of the reasons I gravitated toward the East Bay," he says, is its "extremely diverse population," which no doubt reminds him of the multiethnic neighborhood, nicknamed "The Hill," that he grew up in back in Springfield. "I like being around different types of people," he reasons. "That's how you feel your American-ness."
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