Friday, 5 April 2013

Feature - Taj Mahal

Published in the March issue of Rhythms magazine, as part of the 'State Of The Blues' cover feature. Full feature below.

The Maestro
For Taj Mahal, the blues is about happiness, and whatever you need to do to get it happening.

“The blues is always in great shape, man,” Taj Mahal expounds cheerfully. “The blues is like oranges, apples, bananas, pineapples… it’s always gonna be there.”
Taj Mahal aught to know. He’s been playing the blues (in one form or another) since the early ‘60s. He’s taken this genre and bent it to his whim, he’s become a legend, he’s part of the blues, of its lore and its history. Now that BB is coming to the end of his magnificent career, and Buddy Guy won’t be around forever, it’s players like Mahal, Robert Cray, Keb’ Mo’, Eric Bibb, who are becoming the next crop. The blues just keeps on going.

“It depends on when the [last time was] you got up next to it and realised how good it is – it doesn’t matter if you haven’t had much education, or you’ve got a lot of education, it’s the same place,” he says passionately. “And if it’s good, it’s gonna lift you up, and that’s the object of it, to lift you outta the doldrums, get you beyond yourself, into a good space with your life.

“And it expresses all kinds of emotions. The language of our galaxy, our universe, of our solar system, it’s music man, that’s just the one – you don’t have to understand a specific language, but you understand that language.”

I put it to Mahal that the language of the blues has evolved over the years, and that this music must do so in order to survive. Granted, that pure form of the genre that began this whole thing is aural gold, but times change, new things happen. “Well, it does have to evolve, it’s had various incarnations, but you know, a fish is a fish,” he laughs.

“I mean, you’ve gotta know how to catch it and all, and also prepare it and cook it,” he says, continuing with his analogy, “but the blues is always like that. There’s always room to learn the old style, and a new style – come up with something, add your touch to it, it’s quite wonderful. And it’s time more people see it like that and don’t see it as something that’s static, which doesn’t move.”

It seems Mahal doesn’t put much stock in the notions espoused by purists, who disregard anything other than the pre-war style of blues, as not ‘real’ blues. For Mahal, as he’s demonstrated over the past half a century, the blues is about a range of emotions coming together to create something joyous, something real, something raw and free that has the potential to go anywhere. It doesn’t have to be 12-bar, to be the blues.

Mahal is a modest one too, deflecting my earlier observation that the blues now rest in the senior hands of himself, Cray et al. “Yeah, Robert, certainly Keb’ Mo’, and there’s a lot of guys you don’t know,” he says, omitting himself from the list, despite the fact he’s at the top of it, in the minds of many a blues fan. “It’s just they’re not high enough on the ‘food chain’ for people to see ‘em. Michael Burks, man, he was fantastic… Ronnie Baker Brooks, he’s just incredible. There are some incredible people out there.”

So, the blues then, is destined to survive for a long time yet? “As long as the people are acknowledged and respected,” Mahal nods. “It won’t go away… people get mislead by mediocrity, you know? Dumbing everybody down with the music… but the blues isn’t going away.”

To Mahal, the blues is a celebration. It’s also a way of life. And it’s something which can stretch out in any way it pleases, still stemming from a certain place and ideal (that’s what makes it the blues), but embracing what it needs to, to make people feel good.

I’m in agreement with Mahal when he says this. Younger players, here in Australia, like Shaun Kirk and Claude Hay, older ones like Geoff Achison and Lloyd Spiegel, older ones still like Chris Wilson, Dutch Tilders, Hat Fitz – it’s all blues, no matter how it’s coming out.

“Yeah,” he smiles. “Your anthropologists and your ethnomusicology types, they all wanted it to stay in the same spot, and that’s ok. But the essence of it all… it translates in a lot of different ways.” That it does, and in the hands of a master like Mahal, the blues in in good hands, and will be for a long, long time to come.

Samuel J. Fell

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