TAJ MAHAL (1942 - )
Ry Cooder. Cambridge. San Francisco.
MUSIC ::: BLUES :::
1973 - Press Release - Oooh So Good 'n Blues
Country blues specialist Taj Mahal was born in New York and grew up in the New England countryside. But finding it strange to be " raised away from my people", he sought out his roots in traditional Negro blues and discovered what has now become his life's work.
The eldest of nine, a boy growing up in the country (although later moved back to the city), Taj developed a deep-felt love for the land and for all of its natural products and inhabitants. This influence led to an Animal Husbandry Associates degree from the University of Massachusetts - Stockbridge School of Agriculture.
But the feeling that he was living in a foreign culture, somehow displaced and out of tune with himself, was confirmed each time he heard the blues. "The kind of blues that I first got knocked out on was big band blues," Taj has said, "and it had almost gotten to be bop music by the time I heard it." He was introduced by his father, a noted jazz arranger and composer, to such artists as Albert Ammons, Mead Lux Lewis, Cow Cow Davenport, Trummy Young, Slam Stewart, Illinois Jacque, Leadbelly. "This used to be the traffic over my head, says Taj. "I used to hear sounds in my head that I wanted to play on an instrument and things that I put together that I thought would be nice.
"When I first heard the blues, I forgot about school and everything else for a while, and the guitar was where it was at for me." Taj Mahal's excursion into blues began with a small record collection, led him to search out the early bluesmen ... Willie Brown, Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Kid Bailey. His appetite and curiosity thoroughly whetted, he extended his research to Chicago blues ... listening to Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf.
While attending the University of Massachusetts, he became a member of the Pioneer Valley Folklore Society, studying the early roots of American black music. It was during this period, Taj Mahal says., that he "got an insight into the relation of blues and black music to American music as a whole."
Educating himself further in the blues, Taj searched out early blues musicians, their teachers, and even their devoted fans. He spent many years "listening to old records and old people". He scouted lyrics in the Library of Congress, haunted obscure record shops and labels, becoming more deeply involved in the music and earning a reputation as a genuine blues musicologist.
The country blues were the final piece in the puzzle. "There was a whole part of my cultural. life and my ancestral culture that was beginning to be pieced together," says Taj. "The country blues filled in a big gap and helped me to understand my own feelings, things I felt or knew or understood and did not seem to have any backlog of information on. A great way to discover yourself is to start from the tradition that you came from ... to find a thing to do for the rest of your life. I decided to play whether I made any money or not because this is just what I really want to do."
So, fortified with a knowledge of the blues, finding his special place within the blues, gifted with great natural musical ability, Taj Mahal is doing what he does best. Although he is an accomplished multi-instumentalist and can play piano, banjo, bass and fife, onstage he usually sings and plays guitar and harmonic, hums, whistles, chants and plays some unusual and "spontaneous" rhythm instruments.
He has worked with various bands in the past; The Rising Sons first, then his own band with Comanche Indian Jesse Edwin Davis III. In a brief return to his early big band influence, he astonished and delighted the pop music world last year with a 10-piece big band, including a four-tuba horn section.
Taj has released five Columbia Records LPs: "Taj Mahal", "The Natch'I Blues", "Giant Step", "The Real Thing" and "Happy Just To Be Like I Am" becoming a major recording and performing artist. Few match his charismatic presence - his relaxed, warm and friendly manner.
But rock band, big band experiments behind him now, Taj has come to the form he loves the best. The artist and his guitar alone on stage. Singing the blues, having a real good time.