Paste was thrilled to host two blues legends this week when Taj Mahal and Keb Mo brought their new collaborative project to our Midtown Manhattan studio for an intimate performance and a masterclass on the life of blues music.
The duo have a new album, the aptly titled Tajmo, out now, and it showcases everything that has made each of them a torchbearer for American music over the past few decades. Taj Mahal has been representing and redefining blues music since 1968, when he released his first album, Taj Mahal, an eclectic mix of traditional songs and modern revamps. With its authentic renditions of songs originally recorded by masters like Sleepy John Estes, Blind Willie McTell and Elmore James, Taj Mahal provided a vital bridge from the delta blues of the 1930s to the blues-indebted rock of psychedelic ‘60s, helping the music stretch its legs into the 1970s and become part of the permanent fabric of rock.
Twenty-five years later, Keb Mo emerged with the blues resurgence of the early ‘90s, reaching back to Robert Johnson and the deepest roots of the music just as another generation was coming around to the origin story of American songwriting. If their music is steeped in tradition, though, their personal touches are anything but derivative. Both men have spent many years and many albums infusing the blues format with sounds and styles taken from the far corners of the music world, from reggae to folk to calypso to rock ‘n’ roll, each with an immediately recognizable voice and guitar-picking style.
Incredibly, Tajmo marks the first recorded collaboration between Keb Mo and Taj Mahal, and Paste is honored to present it to our readers and listeners around the world. Asked how they had managed to avoid an alliance to this point, Taj noted that both of them are, well, busy.
“I’ve had a long and very active career in live performance, which a lot of people didn’t do—they made records and waited for the cash to roll, and they hated to go on tour,” Taj said. “What music is about is playing for people, and the original impetus for the African parent of this music is that the audience and the musicians are all a part of the performance. When the record business got involved in it, it separated everybody from the real experience of the music. And we’re the kind of guys that were busy doing that live playing, so we didn’t really have the opportunity to get together.”
Added Keb, who at 65 is a decade younger than Taj, “During the record process, we really came together. We were kind of out circling around before. When we started making the record, we found that we had way more in common than we thought.”
The duo performed three tracks from the new album which, taken together, span the history of the blues: “Diving Duck Blues,” a traditional made famous by Sleepy John Estes; “Life Is Beautiful,” a new composition; and the reggae-infused “Corrina,” from Taj Mahal’s second record, 1968’s The Natch’l Blues.
Taj introduced “Diving Duck Blues” with some history linking the first wave of Southern blues masters to the rock era he came up in and beyond. “John Estes was a favorite older bluesman from outside Brownsville, Tennessee, and his music didn’t get translated into the electric realm until 1967 when I did my first album and I took three of his songs and I transferred them into the electric realm,” he said. “But still, the original way of playing his music is just as powerful as the electric way. One of the things we did with this album to get everybody’s ears correct, is we played an acoustic version of the ‘Diving Duck Blues.’”
As they moved into their second song, “Life Is Beautiful,” Taj and Keb mused on the evolution of blues music over a century of interpretation, and whether the genre demands a certain aesthetic.
“When you look at traditional blues and where it came from—when you get down to the really raw, gut-bucket thing that made everybody like it, I think there is a… thing, like with any form of music there’s certain things that identify the genre,” said Keb. “But there’s always flexibility in what you can do with it. You can go far outside of it, and you can stay as far in as you want to do. At the end of the day, it’s just art. It’s all just art. It’s noise—it’s pretty noise.”
For Taj, much of the resonance of blues goes back to prototypical songs that were rarely even heard, when business interests, rather than any culture or community, decided which music saw the light of day. Much of the foundation of blues, he pointed out, was built on these undiscovered songs. “There’s a tremendous amount of music that didn’t get placed into that little spotlight that said, ‘This is commercial, and we’re going to hear more of that,’” he said. “And because of that, there is a reservoir of music back there that is so important to culture but didn’t get translated. This music has incredible resonance back then, and it has incredible validity in every time and era that you will be on this planet from this point forward.”
Check out the full session above, and go out on a high with this performance of Taj Mahal’s classic “Corrina.”