The laugh is still that down low rumble of thunder and a box car about to go out of service, and blues-folk legend Taj Mahal laughs a lot. It’s not just a survival strategy for the guitarist who burst into public consciousness in the sixties, but more the reflection of a love affair with life that has informed the roots icon’s journey through the shifting tides of American music over the last four decades.
“I’ll play about 150 dates this year,” the 62-year-old musician says. “It’s down from when I did 250 dates . . . 280 being when I was really working.”
The twinkle in his eyes rolls down the phone line. A singular cocktail of country-blues infused with Caribbean, African, Latin, Cuban and Hawaiian music — as well as a healthy bit of soul, jazz, gospel, reggae, funk, folk and zydeco — makes Mahal’s sound a distinctly indigenous form of American music. It is everything that we as a nation are made of, and it’s earned the Harlem-born, Springfield, Massachusetts-raised musician a pair of best contemporary blues Grammys for Senor Blues in 1997 and Shoutin’ in Key in 2000.
“You know, it’s about keeping it real,” he says. “You keep doing what you do, and sticking with the music . . . which is what it’s about, you know, the music, and that’s what matters.”
Mahal can talk, and talk, and talk about permutations of contemporary music. He’s been there, seen it, seceded, reinvented. But mostly just kept coming, following his muse — from the Rising Sons with Ry Cooder, who came together in L.A. in the mid sixties opening for Otis Redding and other tastemakers of the day though only recording one self-titled album to mark the collaboration, to co-headlining this year’s Claremont Folk Festival with Jackson Browne and Ben Harper.
By keeping it real and keeping it about the music, 40 years into creating on his own terms, the man born Henry St. Claire Fredericks is on the verge of releasing Maestro to commemorate his musical journey. With guest collaborations with Los Lobos, Ziggy Marley, Angelique Kidjo, Jack Johnson and Harper, it explores the vast palette of Mahal’s explorations —and also places him in as contemporary a light as any artist working today.
“We go lots of places,” he admits. “Lots of rhythms, lots of textures, lots of everything. Working with all these people keeps it fresh.”
That freshness makes Mahal as vital a presence on the jam circuit, college campuses and hip roots venues as any artist out there today. With Maestro dropping on Sept. 30, the man who plays National guitar, dobro, ukelele and 15 other instruments will embark on an ambitious tour of small theatres, performing arts centers, colleges and jazz festivals.
Even First Daughter Jenna Bush picked Mahal’s Lovin’ in My Baby’s Eyes for her first dance at her Texas wedding this spring. Though it seems like perhaps the unhippest place for his music to be played, the man who’s scored Zora Neal Hurston/Langston Hughes’ collaborative Mule Bone does what he always does best: looks past the obvious.
“You know, music reaches beyond politics . . . . And the kids hear these songs around, They recognize what they’re made of; they know that these songs are real. I think it was cool they picked it. Because the politics, I don’t worry about, just the songs . . . .”
Famous for saying, “You don’t play the music, the music plays you,” Mahal approaches life with the same sense of passion and gusto. He is a connoisseur of books and cigars, food and restaurants, music and fishing . . . and each has a depth of appreciation in his soul.
Just as he numbers Vineyarder Carly Simon among his myriad friends, he is quick to demonstrate his sense of the Island by confessing where he really goes when he finds himself here. “Oh, you know, I’m usually up in Menemsha ... with the fishermen . . . You know, that’s where I go, and I’ve got friends up there. So, if I can get some fishing in, then that’s a pretty fine day.”
Certainly Fishin’ Blues has been an earmark of his vast catalogue — in addition to a definitive acoustic take on Statesboro Blues that rivals the Allman Brothers’ plugged in rendition, the traditional Texas Woman Blues, laconic tropical (Clara) St. Kitts Woman and the perennial Leaving Trunk — but it’s what’s to come that makes the man who tours with his Phantom Blues Band, a trio, solo or in any configuration stay vital.
“I’m slowing down some,” he says. “But there’s always stuff to do . . . and that’s just the way I like it.”
Like it is probably too mild a phrase, but when you don’t know what’s coming, you want to leave room. After all, after 40 years of critical acclaim, collaborations and even a First Daughter’s First Dance, it’s hard to know what the future will hold. For Taj Mahal, though, there’s one thing for certain: the future’s out there, and it’s going to be sweet.
Taj Mahal plays Wednesday, July 30, at Outerland at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport. Tickets are $60. Doors open at 9 p.m.