Taj Mahal has been blending world music with blues ever since he started performing more than 50 years ago. The two-time GRAMMY winner developed his own inimitable style by incorporating jazz, African music, reggae, soul, Hawaiian rhythms, rock, and R&B elements into his sound. On his current World Blues tour, he continues to underline the connections between African-American roots music and traditions from other parts of the world by appearing with Fredericks Brown, a band from New Zealand comprsing his daughter Deva Mahal and South African singer/songwriter and activist Vusi Mahlasela.
In an exclusive interview with GRAMMY.com, Mahal discussed how his parents inspired his musical upbringing, how blues served as a refuge following the death of his father, his recent tie to Dave Matthews, and his two career GRAMMY wins, among other topics.
Your parents exposed you to music from all over the world. Why were you attracted to roots music and blues?
My mother was from South Carolina, where she listened to gospel and church music. My father grew up on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts and heard calypso, African and other Caribbean music when he was growing up. By the time they got to New York, jazz, big bands and the great singers of the '30s and '40s were popular. They loved all that music, as well as folk from all around the world, I didn't know there were people growing up who didn't get exposed to it.
They had friends that spoke every kind of patois, so I got used to speaking in different accents and languages and listening to real music, natural music. I wanted to play, and listen to, things that spoke to my background as an African-American. There's a lot of joy in most of the tunes that came out of Africa, and a lot of joy in gospel, but the blues have a level of sorrow that set it off from other styles. When my dad was 39, he died in a tragic accident. If it hadn't have been for the blues, I don't think I would have been able to work out the emotions his death brought up. Around that time, some family from the Deep South came to New York, so I learned to play the blues from people who knew how to play, not from records. I wanted to balance my emotions with something real, and connected with sounds that were meaningful to my heritage.
What was the inspiration for the World Blues tour?
I wanted to get out and tour with my daughter, who has a great band, and Vusi Mahlasela, who is a fantastic performer. It's a wide-ranging show, so it helps to have a title that shows some kind of focus. Columbia Artists Management, the organization that's putting on the tour, came up with the name, since we all have roots in the blues. My daughter will come out and play a song with me and, for the finale, she comes back with Vusi and my trio and we all sing together.
How did you meet Vusi Mahlasela?
My daughter met him first, playing at a WOMAD show in New Zealand. I met him later, at a benefit performance in San Francisco for Nelson Mandela's 46664 organization. He's extremely talented and shows you how you can come through an experience like apartheid without giving into hatred and negativity. He's an admirable man and a great person to travel with. I knew his music and a little bit about him before we met, but I've been listening to South African music since the 1950s and I've always liked what I heard.
You produced Mahlasela's 2011 album, Say Africa. How do you approach producing another artist?
It was done at Dave Matthews' studio in Virginia. He has a connection to South Africa, since he grew up there. He called me up and asked me to produce the album. Vusi knew what the music should sound like. He just needed someone to help get it all down on tape. There was no conflict, nobody came to me and told me to go this way or that way. We just made the music that was close to our hearts. I love the album and played on it a lot. He has an incredible voice, with a wide range, and writes brilliant lyrics. There were great players working with us. It was marvelous to sit there and hear the music when we listened to the playback.
What are your thoughts about the release of The Complete Columbia Albums Collection? [Editor's Note: Released in February, this box set contains 15 discs spanning 1965–1976.] What do you feel listening to your younger self?
I've listened to those records all along. I like them and, after a certain period of time, they all sounded great. I didn't hear the flaws anymore. I remember how I felt when I made them and I hear how the voice has improved with age and how my interpretation of songs has changed [since I first played them].
You won a GRAMMY for Best Contemporary Blues Album for Señor Blues at the 40th GRAMMY Awards in 1998. Do you recall any notable moments from that evening?
It's a wonderful thing to get nominated and an even greater thing to win. We were all so excited [when they announced our win] that we started shouting so loud everybody in the place was looking around.
You won in the same category again for Shoutin' In Key at the GRAMMYs in 2001. Do you have any anecdotes about that win?
The first win was for a corporate record that was made for the record company. The second time it was an album we recorded and mixed for ourselves, so it was even more satisfying. The first time, I was the only one [who] got a GRAMMY. The second time, everybody in the band got a GRAMMY, which was really great.
(J. Poet lives in San Francisco and writes about Native, folk, country, Americana, and world music for many national and international publications and websites.)