Taj Mahal has one thing to say about his music: It's for the people.
The 66-year-old musician has built a long and successful career with his innovative, genre-defying music, claiming rock, pop, soul, R&B and country blues as influences. Forty years of composing and performing have enriched the artist's free spirit, allowing him to stay true to himself and his style. It's difficult to strike a balance between pleasing yourself and other people, but Taj Mahal has mastered the art of both through his original music.
Style Weekly: Many people have tried to label your distinctive style of music. How would you describe your music?
Taj Mahal: A lot of fun. Putting a label on it is not going to make it any more available to people. You hear it, and you either like it or you don't. I mean, a label on classical music doesn't make me like something, or the "jazz" [label] doesn't make me like it, or folk. That's just where I'm coming from. I just know that the people who've been fans of this music for over 40 years have not left because there was no label on it. You know, they'll liken it to blues, and some people just say it's Taj's music - which it really isn't just my music. All I am is an amplifier for a lot of stuff that exists in the universe. People come to the concerts - we're talking standing ovations at the end of them. So now, what do you need to label that for?
You've achieved a great deal as an artist. With your awards and achieving such longevity in your career, many would say that you're a musical legend. What remaining goals do you have for yourself and your music?
There are never enough lifetimes to achieve all the things that there are, if you're going by achievement - and I'm not. I'm just hearing the next music that's coming along and I'm playing it. Who calls me legendary? Not me. That's the people that listen to whatever it is and have some idea of what kind of time has gone by, and what to compare it to. I'm not in the business to compare. It's funny because when I was beginning to make this music, nobody thought about whatever I was doing at all - it didn't mean anything to anybody. Now that [I'm] 40 years into recording and maybe almost 55 years into playing, people have to say, "Well how did you do this without following the roads that most people go down??VbCrLf Because I saw musicians who were who they were, not based upon what the industry was. Nobody ever figured out what the heck [these musicians were] doing, according to the industry - and [they] didn't worry about [the industry].
So, mostly only musicians taught me that there was nothing to worry about with the industry. It's about the people who like what you do, and getting to them is the most important thing. In my case, I just spent a lot of years on the road with that kind of energy from the audience. And sometimes they feel like they haven't heard from me for a while. Well, listen to XM radio, go on to Sirius satellite radio, come over to my Web site - there are 48 songs on the Web site. You'll find out where everything is - I moved up to modern times. So maybe a lot of people are still not quite hip to what's happening with the computers and downloads and all that stuff, but we're on it.
You seem like you are very comfortable with letting your music just be what it is for the people to enjoy. When you started your career, did you ever butt heads with the industry, and how so?
Big time, big time. Yeah, because I thought in the pure sense of a musician and music. They said, "Now here's a suit and now put this suit on and we'll push you out on the stage. Don't worry about what the contract says - what you really want is your ego to be massaged by the people in the audience. We'll take care of the money and the rest.?VbCrLf Right. And how many of [the musicians] died paupers after they give their whole youth up to these guys?
Going more into the music that you perform, I understand that you're now touring as part of the Taj Mahal Trio. Do you have a preference when it comes to working with a large or small ensemble?
No, mostly it's just if the music sounds right. It's a lot of fun with the trio because of different things. If you look at me as a composer, who has different bands and different songs and different compositions, and you hear them differently with those different bands, then it makes more sense. If you look at me as an artist that flips and flops and does this and that, then it can be confusing. It depends on how you look at it. But with the trio, we can get a big sound with three pieces - guitar bass and drums, piano bass and drums, banjo bass and drums. I play on those three instruments usually every night, and under some circumstances I play guitar, piano and the harmonica. In some other cases, I play maybe the guitar and ukulele. And my compositions are with people that I'm really excited about working with. So it all works really pretty good.
You play a plethora of instruments. How do you decide which instruments are best to play when you're composing your songs?
Well, it depends. I remember when I was learning how to play this six-string ukulele. While I was learning how to play it, a bunch of different chords kept occurring to me that I kept playing. I kept singing along, kept humming, and sort of scatted alongside of it. Now, that [has become] a full-fledged song. With the rest of the instruments, I didn't know what they would be or could be, but the song was formed around those chords. It could be with the guitar or the piano, or I might hear a mandolin part, knowing that the song would have to rest on the bass and drums. But [the mandolin] is a unique part to the song. You know, when I came along, a lot of these instruments were pretty locked up. Like the mandolin - you heard it in Italian music, but you didn't hear too much of it. You might hear it in a romantic restaurant or you heard it in bluegrass music, if you were interested enough to go over there and hear it. That was it. But I just said, well, wait a minute, how does an instrument like this get away? I heard it in some blues music, and I was really knocked out by it.
Many people say that music across all genres has really changed over the years. How has music changed since you first became a musician?
Yes, but the people actually change the value of the music. Now you can go to somebody's Web site and go download their music. There are the ones that the record companies are trying to put up, or music companies - I don't think you can really call them "record companies?VbCrLf as such anymore.
So do you think that these changes have affected the quality of music?
Yeah, most definitely. It has affected the quality of popular music, and the majority of music that everybody hears. When I was growing up, it was something called the Top 100 songs. You might have something like 163 with a bullet; next week, it's 102 with a bullet, and now it's number 57, and now it's number 17 with a bullet. Well that's like 200 songs that have a possibility of getting some air play. That's not what's happening anymore. You get pretty much the top 10 and maybe even the top five, so you don't get to hear the vast amount of music that's out there. Now people, because of the Internet and their personal interests, are stepping out to go hear it on their own. People want to go hear it on their own; they don't want to be told what to hear. That's where I was at - I didn't want anybody telling me that I had to hear this [music]. I wanted to hear it on my own, hear it myself. I've been doing that a lot longer, but with the knowledge, people now have the same views.
Do you have any advice for up-and-coming artists?
Yeah, I mean if you want to sound different, you need to dig into your own cultural background and find what you are responsible for as a musician from your own cultural background. Take the best of those things and blend it with some of the great styles that are from here in the West, you know, from Central and South America, the Caribbean, rock, and you should sound pretty unique.
I think the trouble is that people are using music in the wrong way. I didn't listen to Bo Diddley's music because I was trying to steal his thunder - I listened to his music because it made me feel excited about myself. Whereas, it seems like a lot of guys look out there and go, "Oh my God, there's the lead singer and look at all the tricks can do. People swoon over him - that's what I want.?VbCrLf Or some girls say, "Oh my God, I wish I could have that body.?VbCrLf I'm saying, honey work with the one you've got, that's the only one that somebody's really going to be looking at, not the one that looks like somebody else's. Because then, you don't really have any personality because that belongs to somebody else. If you want Ken, fine - all you have to do is become Barbie!
With all that said, what do you have in store for Richmond this Friday at Toad's Place?
Music to get up and shake what you've got with! It's a participatory type of music. I'm fortunate. I just think that a lot of people are couch potatoes and used to looking at stuff. But we're a band that really creates the kind of energy that people want to get involved with.
<i>The Taj Mahal Trio will perform Friday, June 13 at 7:30 p.m. at Toad's Place. Tickets are $25-$37.50. Call 648-TOAD, 1-800-514-ETIX or www.toadsplacerva.com. <i/>