A Conversation with Taj Mahal
[The interview began with hotel miscommunications...Taj was waiting for my call, and I kept calling every five or ten minutes for about an hour, and the operator would tell me the line was still busy. We never did figure out how it all happened that way, but both of us had remained in a suitable mood.]
TM: Anyway, here I am.
PM: That's beautiful. Thanks for calling back. It's very nice of you.
TM: Yeah, man. Well, no, it was important for me. I got up early and did some shopping in the street, did what I had to do, and was prepared just to hang so we can do this. Anyway, let's go for it.
PM: That's nice. How's life, and how's it going?
TM: Well, life, I mean, it's the same life we've had for thousands of years here. Maybe the digital makes people think that something's different, but personally, I'm an analog guy. But I like to use analog with the digital.
PM: Yeah. Are you also literally recording analog?
TM: A lot of times, yeah. Most of the times I'm recording analog.
PM: That's getting hard to find in Nashville.
PM: My friends who had good analog studios now are going out of business because everybody's convinced that, well, "if it's not 5.1, if it's not Nuendo or it's not Protools, hey, I can't go there." It's a shame.
TM: Yeah. But see, that's like everything else. It's always like, "Okay, now we don't need horses." Then all of a sudden, "Wait a minute..."
PM: That's a funny analogy.
TM: Well, yeah, but you know what? They did that. They started doing away with all the horses. Think of all the bloodlines in those horses that people spent generations and centuries developing, but somebody thought that this steel machine was going to take over forever. I mean, it's another one of those big civilization things. These guys always think they know better than what the history of humankind on earth is about.
TM: I'm sorry, but once you start thinking you're the guy, you're in trouble. Anyway, what you got to talk about?
PM: So I grew up playing country blues, and I admire, always did, how your music has connected the dots between the blues and every other form of music, it would seem.
PM: Is it the fact that they're African derived that led you to all these other musics?
TM: Well, that was the knowledge I had before I played the music. See, I was really graced with parents who came from two different cultures. My father's people were from down in the Caribbean, in St. Kitts and Nevus. And my grandfather on my father's side immigrated to the United States over a hundred years ago, from down there, with a totally different background, identified more as a part of the commonwealth. And he also had a different kind of head as an individual. On the other side, my mother's father and my mother's family were from South Carolina. And they were landed people, through several generations of hard work, and progressive enough that my mother was the first person in her family to go to college. And at that time, there were people who did this, starting back in the late 1800s, but this is not common knowledge. They didn't separate themselves so far from the main stream of what was happening nor did they fall so far into the main stream that they were not connected to culture.
So, the cultural angle that Africans brought many gifts with them into the western world was something that I was raised on before I got down to finding these specific things that I personally was interested in, that I felt through the music. The music brings a lot of information. It's a lot less nowadays--not that the music doesn't have it in it, it's just that commercial music has taken over, where people just play the music from this particular area of the world, or this part of the country, or this group of individuals, or these groups of individuals together. I mean, all of these different things happened over the years.
The South and the Caribbean were a connection for me. My first hearing of, say, live acoustic blues started when I was a little kid and used to go to New York City with my father. And we would go to Harlem, and they had all these street players, people who played tambourines and sang on the street, played guitars and sang, played harmonicas, accordions, just sang on the street. A live person playing the music. So I'd never had the distance of hearing the music only through the recorded side of it, I heard it more as a living thing. Again, it was always in a backdrop that I realized that this is the modern form, in this particular society and in this particular culture and country, of what Africans do after they've been through the process of slavery and colonialism.
PM: I see.
TM: This has always been something for me, long before the other stuff was there. Then on the other side of that is to listen to professors at universities claim that black people have never done anything. We don't have any written languages. Look at us running around with spears and bones, and a bone in our nose. "Look at them, they're eating watermelon and playing banjos," and just on and on and on and on and on and on. And at the time, as a youngster growing up who was given at least the type of tools to be able to combat this, I never personally felt stung by those accusations, because I knew better.
TM: But the point is, knowing better has a tendency for some people to take them to a sort of a bourgeois distance from their own culture, and as well from American culture. I didn't want that. I thought that what was interesting is to arrive, with all the good things that you can from every experience that you can get, intact.
And one of the ways to do that was to show how the music is all connected. Although Spanish music develops amongst a bunch of people from the Iberian Peninsula, Spanish music goes all over the world. It goes back and forth between many Caribbean islands. You know, Cuba, Santa Domingo, Puerto Rico. Central and South America, Mexico. It goes back and forth between there. I mean, you know its signature. And if you add the African component to that, you know the signature of the African component. So we have been mixed with a lot of different things, the indigenous people to countries that we were brought to, along with whatever Europeans that mixed into our bloodline. continue