Taj Mahal

Music Features Taj Mahal
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Start talking about “the blues,” and for most people, a series of familiar images come to mind: shot glasses, neon lights, pork pie hats, and sweaty-yet-still-distinguished-looking men and women exorcising their demons in sawdust-floored juke joints. There’s plenty of electric guitar; perhaps harmonica is involved. Bad signs are born under and crossroads are gone down to.

That’s the popular face of the blues, reinforced by countless records and films—but while it certainly represents one facet of the music, it doesn’t tell the whole story. They aren’t just blue, after all—they’re the blues, plural, and they encompass countless crucial shades of the musical spectrum. You can hear them everywhere you listen—but most people aren’t really listening, are they?

Enter Taj Mahal. Since releasing his self-titled debut in 1968, the singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist has devoted his career to following the blues—from Harlem to Berkeley, from Hawaii to West Africa—and confounding expectations as he goes. He’s still going strong, by the way, but given that he turned 70 a couple of months ago, this is as good a year as any to celebrate his legacy with a suitably hefty reissue campaign—and that’s exactly what Legacy Recordings has planned for the remainder of the year.

Things kick off this month with the release of Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal: 1969-1973, a double-disc collection that bundles a dozen early studio rarities alongside recordings from a 1970 concert at the Royal Albert Hall. While far from a comprehensive overview of Mahal’s dizzingly eclectic career, it offers a thoroughly satisfying new glimpse at the playfully vibrant country blues he favored during his early years and includes some freshly unearthed tracks—including an epic 16-minute version of “You Ain’t No Streetwalker, Honey But I Do Love the Way You Strut Your Stuff”—that stand alongside the best of anything he released during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

As Hidden Treasures heads to stores, Taj is, as ever, on the road—but he took a few minutes to talk to Paste about looking back on his past, assembling the new retrospective, and where he might be headed next.

Paste : One of the hallmarks of your career has been your refusal to look back—a restlessness, if you will. Are you at all conflicted about retrospectives like this one?

Mahal: No, not at all. What seems like restlessness is…well, I’m a hard dog to keep on the porch. [Laughs] I mean, you know. But I just haven’t gotten used to the whole “being on a label” thing—I was with Columbia from the late ‘60s through the middle of the ‘70s, about 11 years. And that was it—after that, I was basically on my own. Independent stuff. Some good, some not so good.

Looking back at it reminded me—I mean, here are a lot of examples of the way the blues are connected to everything. You know, sometimes the blues are the whole meal, and sometimes it’s just a flavoring, or a side dish. Sometimes it’s a sauce that goes on it. Some jazz players have a blues flavor, and some blues players have more of a jazzy flavor, you know? Johnny “Guitar” Watson. T-Bone Walker. B.B. King. You can play the blues like there’s nothing but the blues, or you can make some connections.

Me, I want the music to be alive. I don’t want it to be the exclusive domain of some ethnomusicologist who’s expounding about down-the-dirt-road blues. That’s okay, but how come the people don’t know about it, and it’s locked up in some dusty old bin? Rather than doing it that way, let’s put a name and a face to it.

Paste : You’ve always worked hard to educate your listeners about those connections. I was just watching a clip from your 1972 performance on the PBS series Soul!, where you were talking about the banjo and your hopes that young black artists would expand on its traditions. And you were pushing the boundaries of “world music” long before it was fashionable.

Mahal: I was ahead of the curve, you’re saying. Yeah, I’ve never really tried to look at it in that way. I’m just here and doing it, and I think the music’s in a really good place right now. You have Robert Cray, Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Eric Bibb, Lee Arthur, Lady Bianca, Guy Davis, the Carolina Chocolate Drops—and there are lots more that haven’t quite shown up on the radar yet, but they’re still out there, coming along. There’s always some people somewhere. There’s always somebody.

Paste : How involved were you in selecting the songs for Hidden Treasures?

Mahal: They just brought ‘em to me. They brought a bunch of tracks and I listened to ‘em. And here’s the thing—what you hear is what was there. There isn’t any more stuff hanging around. There might be an alternative night for a live song here and there, but really, this is it. And the Albert Hall performance was just a special thing—Columbia sponsored that show with me, Santana, It’s a Beautiful Day, and another band I can’t remember.

It’s wonderful to hear what we were doing back then. You know, mostly I just hear my own live performances—I don’t spend much time listening to the albums. I record ‘em, say “Yeah, that’s good,” and keep moving. I don’t sit around recording all the time, because I’m always playing live. That’s why I got into music—that’s what I understand.

Paste : So that being the case, did listening to these studio cuts teach you anything about who you are now as an artist?

Mahal: Really, from everything on this set, there were really only a couple of pieces I didn’t quite remember—and there was only one I didn’t remember at all, which I think is pretty doggone good, because there are a lot of albums out. A lot of music. The only one that surprised me was the harmonica song, “Butter”—we felt like we tapped a vein with that one.

But what I said at the time was that I didn’t think those recordings sounded…I wanted something that had more of a spark, and I thought we got those with the live versions that were released at the time. The studio versions seemed very tame. Years later, compared to what else was going on at the time, it feels like pretty exciting stuff.

I really like hearing my old songs. I really do. A lot of what was going on at the time, I didn’t like too much—I felt like they were recordings, not music. I mean, there were exceptions. Ry Cooder? Music. Dr. John? Music. Allen Toussaint. The Meters. Some of these other guys who had big names then and they have compilations coming out now, well, it just didn’t hit me at the time. It doesn’t strike me now either, man.

Of course, sometimes I come around. One song I really couldn’t stand for a long time is America’s “A Horse with No Name,” and I get that one now. That song drove me crazy, I don’t know why. But years later, once we got past that whole California thing, I did begin to like it.

Paste : A lot of times when that happens, it’s nostalgia at work. Do you feel like you’re affected by nostalgia at all?

Mahal: I’m not a nostalgic person. I mean, I’ve always listened to all different kinds of music—I’m sitting here at my computer with my Dr. Dre headphones, and if I want to listen to anything new, it’s right here. Anything from any era or any continent is available to me, and I listen every day.

Sometimes, you just need to be able to get away from the song, or the sound, or the scene that’s being over-exposed. To move past whatever the radio is overdoing. I understand that, and I feel real bad for the people who are being herded like sheep into buying whatever’s popular at the moment.

Music is kind of like food in that way. You know, you work hard, you bring home your pay, and you go to the store and get what you think is healthy, but then when you get home and look at the box, you realize someone’s just trying to take your money. It’s the same thing with music. It’s all wrong! It isn’t until you decide to take responsibility for what you’re consuming that it gets better.

Paste : Given that, as you say, all the unreleased material is being collected on Hidden Treasures, what can we expect to hear in the rest of the reissues?

Mahal: It’ll just be every record I put out on Columbia, from the first to the last. There might be like a second version of a song here and there, but for the most part, I think they’re all pretty much going to show up intact, just as they were. It’s an exciting thing for people who left their vinyl behind, but want to hear what it sounds like on CD. Down the line, to keep this thing moving, I think one or two should be taken out of the lineup and pressed on vinyl. There’s plenty of room for that these days, and the market never goes down below six percent worldwide. October is when the full set comes out.

Paste : It’s great to see Legacy taking this kind of care with your catalog, but how about fans who are looking forward to new music? It’s been a few years. Can you talk at all about where you might be headed?

Mahal: Oh, I just open the door and I go out. [Laughter] I’m not headed this way or that. Believe me, the sounds are stacked up, waiting to be released.

My focus has always—I mean, if you listen to the songs on this set, all these things are there. African music, Carribbean music, Latin music, blues, gospel, country—it’s all there. What I was doing was just trying to find the common threads.

You know, Americans know the least about their own music. There’s an incredible musical tradition here, one that informs almost everyone else anywhere in the world who wants to play popular music, and people here just don’t know. They’ve been so sold, so commercialized. I was in Zanzibar recently, playing and talking with a friend of mine who’s in a jazz band in Morocco, and he told me he didn’t want to get into jazz because people over there only heard American jazz in cartoons. [Laughter] They thought it was awful. It wasn’t until he got to the States that he was able to really hear it.

Often, people in the United States have the same kind of concept. People work too hard, they’re too tired to absorb their own culture. I’ve always tried to open their eyes about how much more is out there, and how great this stuff is.