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Taj Mahal

A Conversation with Taj Mahal (continued)

TM: And so there are a lot of things going on that you can hear through the music, you can hear through your bloodline, you can feel through the history of your people. And I just think that Americans have a tendency to be very monolithic about the way they look at everything, including themselves. And they have no idea what's going on down deep--in what I call the deep Americana. There's so much beautiful music here, there are beautiful art forms, there are beautiful styles that people have that need to be brought out to the surface.

I think that for a long time Americans have only looked to Europe or outside of themselves. I mean, I'm not talking just about the musics that go back to Africa or India or Spain. I'm just saying in general, Americans look to Europe for culture and credibility when there's so much going on here in this country that has actually become credible to people in the rest of the world, and all you have to do is travel--not that everybody gets to do that. But if you don't get to travel, then you can travel, certainly, to the music. And that's one of the things that I give back, is to give people an opportunity to really see that, hey, the parts fit, so it must work.

PM: That's fascinating. Yeah, and I never thought, really, until you just detailed it there, how the stamp of Spanish music is all over Latin American music of various cultures.

TM: Oh, yeah, all over the world. You can go anywhere--give you an idea: We're in Norway, and we have a day off in Bergen, Norway. Bergen used to be a part of something called, I think, the Hansa, which was a series of cities and merchants in and around the North Sea, including Germany and places in Scandinavia that were all a part of this big merchant situation. Anyway, years and years and years ago Bergen was a German city in Norway. But the scene was, we had a day off and we were going fishing. We went way out onto the North Sea, where we fished and got some cod and had a wonderful day. So at one point when we were stopped there, before we started back in, the guy aboard the boat pushes in this CD.

And all of a sudden out comes this incredible salsa music. And we look at each other like, yeah, this is great. And then he apologizes and says, "I'm sorry. The only CD I have is salsa." And we say, "Oh, this is great music!" He says, "I'm learning how to salsa dance." He says, "Other than folk dancing, I've never done any dance like this before, but it's really exciting!" We are fishing with a fisherman in the North Sea, in a place where this big thing socially to do is to learn how to salsa dance. I mean, people don't understand how huge the Buena Vista Social Club was and is in Europe. I mean, it's huge! Huge! As big as it is here in the United States, you're talking about a big movement, but you also have a damper because people still have this thing, "We really like this, but what about the embargo." Well, the rest of the world doesn't think about embargo.

PM: Because they don't have an embargo. [laughs]

TM: It's all about, "Oh, this feels so good." I mean, the Buena Vista Social Club performances were sold out all over Europe all the time. We were on the road when they were, I think it was two summers ago when they were over there. And we kept on weaving across one another and meeting each other at breakfast time and being able to talk, and to communicate and see what's happening, and caught their shows several times. Unbelievable, just unbelievable! But everybody's dancing. There's nothing political to worry about. I mean, really, there isn't here, either, but a lot of people do. Even though they know that it's happening, and it did happen, I think it went down under a different type of regime. If it was the present-day regime, I don't think that they could have really gotten the clearance to be able to do those things. In fact, recently, as I understand it, Ry Cooder has had to remove himself from Cuba, because our government feels that he's kind of consorting with the enemy.

PM: Yikes.

TM: The other thing that most people don't know is like, okay, Cuban music or Latin music, the Afro-Cuban stuff started with Africans being taken into the Latin countries. And then the music went back to Africa, and it has been going back and forth for years. And the musicians have been going back and forth for years to reaffirm themselves with what they came from, between Nigeria, Congo and Ghana, and Mali and Senegal, and all those. I mean, the traditions have moved back and forth for years. But this is not information that they play here. I mean, it doesn't have Brittany Spears with a belly and a navel ring.

PM: Right.

TM: People might have to think. They might have to feel something, they might have to ponder some other kind of idea, so they don't really put that kind of stuff out. Yeah, but it's okay. I mean, I'm not worried about that. I just know that through the music it allows us to really have insights into the soul of other people.

PM: Yeah, and through artists like yourself--or like Bill Frisell, who we just covered, I think some of our listeners, and us too, are starting to get into these bands and musicians from Mali, and other places, and we've just got to spread the information around.

TM: Right, right. Well, the connection is there. I mean, you might not know who your Irish relatives are, but they do exist and you're connected because of your bloodline. They're not going to go away because you don't know them.

PM: [laughs] Yeah.

TM: I mean, the need to know that two and two are four doesn't disappear because a person can't read. I don't know why people don't somehow stand back and see it. It's not because I'm right, it's what's right. It's what's true.

PM: Speaking of Buena Vista and Galban and stuff like that, it's interesting, since your careers could be said to have begun literally together, to note the parallels between your work and Ry's, that you both have kind of a global view of things.

TM: Well, I don't know when and where Ry started. I know that my global view began long before I came to Los Angeles, and in fact, what I'm doing now musically, and what I've been doing musically, is something I thought about as a very small child, because I was really extremely concerned about the world and what it looked like people were headed toward. They were just unaware. And I didn't understand what was creating this unawareness, but I realized--well, I don't want to get into that. That's another lecture. But I mean, I just know that people were very unaware. And it made me very sad as a youngster that an idea could be right in the midst of everybody, but people would just walk over it. But if that idea got placed in a certain kind of context, it would all of a sudden appear as a brand new idea. Not only that, the people who saw the idea would think that they thought it up themselves.

PM: Of course.

TM: Which, at that time, I used to think it was terrible. But once you start reading people like Confucius and Lao Tzu, they said, "Hey, don't worry about whether the people think they did it themselves, be extremely happy that they got the idea. That's the most important part." Because bringing new ideas to people, that's the hardest part to try to really get across.

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