Legendary musician Taj Mahal recalls first performing in Taos in the late 1960s with his band. He said the show attracted many of the young people from Taos Pueblo who were drawn to see band member Jesse Ed Davis, a guitarist of Comanche and Kiowa background. Since then, Mahal has come to Taos at least a dozen times. In 2007, he played a thrilling and packed show with his trio at the KTAOS Solar Center.
This Tuesday (Nov. 17) Taos audiences will have a chance to hear Taj Mahal performing solo for his first-ever livestream concert held at 7 p.m. MST. The Taos Center for the Arts (TCA) has teamed up with the UC Theatre in Berkeley, California, to offer the concert to a Taos audience. Tickets for the livestream are $20 with a portion benefiting the TCA and provide online access to the show for 48 hours. A special live online meet and greet with Taj Mahal is available one hour prior to the show to a limited audience for a $150 ticket. To order tickets, go to tcataos.org/calendar.
Mahal's career spans six decades. In 1964, he formed a six-piece band called the Rising Sons with Ry Cooder. Rising Sons opened for Otis Redding, the Temptations and Martha and the Vandellas. Since then, the composer, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist has become a multi-Grammy award winner, multi-Blues Music Award winner, a Blues Hall of Fame member and a recipient of the Americana Music Association's Lifetime Achievement. But Mahal is not just a top-notch performer. His love and knowledge of the music he creates runs deeper than entertainment, and he has spent considerable time digging down into the roots of the blues he loves, studying Black music of the Americas, Caribbean and Africa which he incorporates into his music.
On the day following Election Day, I interviewed Taj Mahal by phone from his home in Berkeley, California. It had been eight months since his last live show in Honolulu, Hawaii, in mid-March, and he said it's the first time in the 60 years that he's been a touring musician that he's been able to sleep in his own bed every night for an extended period of time. Mahal is enjoying the time off from the road for rest and relaxation and some project work.
One of those projects is called "Song for Cesar: The Music and the Movement." According to songforcesar.com, the film documents how a group of artists including Carlos Santana, Joan Baez and Taj Mahal collaborated with Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers movement in the 1970s. The musicians performed for benefit concerts to draw attention to the mistreatment of U.S. farmworkers and call for social justice.
Agriculture is a strong interest for Mahal, who once considered becoming a farmer himself. Mahal talked about this along with other subjects. Following is an edited excerpt from my interview with Taj Mahal.
Can you tell me a little about what you have planned for your show on the 17th?
I'll play guitar. I might play a couple of other instruments besides guitar. Maybe banjo, ukulele, piano. I mean, I really play off the moment. There, of course, are songs that people like to hear and songs I like to hear. And, then songs that come to me and say, 'It's my turn to be played now.'... I have some fun with the music.... I love the element of surprise.
You once chose between a career in agriculture and one in music, is that correct?
Well, that's, that's almost correct. On closer inspection of native Black culture in the United States, being people of African descent, you realize that music and agriculture go hand in hand in the culture … What happened is that because people were so abused, and their work during the agrarian development and consequent development of the United States of America [was abused], a lot of people came out of that experience never ever wanting to deal with agriculture ever …
But there's no way that you are going to be able to function as a human without agriculture. So, it wasn't the agriculture that was the problem. It was the situation that the agriculture was placed in, and the situation of individuals who were in agriculture.
I saw this really clearly. I also lost my father to working in the industrial section of this country while he was trying to become independent. My idea was that there's no way that you could really separate music and agriculture, because it was not separated in the ancestral cultural tradition. And, so I pursued it.
At first, I was only going to talk to the elders about it. And then I realized that I was young enough at that point in time that maybe there was something that could be learned from a university and from studying at that time. I studied two years. And I did three years of vocational agriculture in my 10th through 12th grades in high school and then spent my summers and weekends and vacations working on a dairy farm and then eventually a year and a half on a farm.
Ultimately, what made the decision [for me] was that the startup for agriculture was a pretty steep climb … and they just weren't loaning that kind of money to young black men to be a farmer back in those days.
That didn't deter me, but I thought maybe I would get involved in the music business and play music and make a living that way. And, perhaps, I would be able to make the necessary money that it would take to have a farm. But those points never seemed to really cross, although I didn't lose my enthusiasm and my interest in agriculture, both here and abroad, globally. The music was the road that I could take. Even though it gave me resistance, it didn't give me as much resistance as agriculture did.
That's interesting. It seems to me that both music and agriculture have a lot to do with cultural heritage, like you said.
Traditionally, Africans make music while they do their farming or they're walking, or whatever. That was a part of it and that rolled over into something else here in the West when the countries in Europe came and colonized North, Central, South America and the Caribbean.
You've got all these different musics that have happened from … the South Pole to the North Pole in the Western hemisphere. And, then, consequently, those musics kept going, with the music of the United States and the South being a global resource. I mean, essentially, there really isn't any modern contemporary music without having to nod to, or at least stick your feet in up to your knees in, the river of music that happens here in the United States. It just doesn't happen. You might have your own indigenous music, but when it goes to playing the popular stuff you're going to have to point toward the Mississippi Delta and take a big drink.
So, you've been doing this for a long time and you've obviously accomplished quite a bit along the way. I'm wondering what you're most proud of either doing or being?
Well, I thank you for asking the question. It's a good question. There are lots of high points. One of the amazing things is that [through] my instinct that I started picking up on as a young child, listening to the music and eventually finding my way … to be able to express myself … I was able to actually make a connection to musicians on the African continent who were the ancestors of the sounds of the finger-picking style blues and Mississippi blues that I love. They're their original ancestors. That was really, really exciting to me. Here I am an artist and seven or nine musicians from Mali and we're playing … We meshed right away.
And, leading and opening for a week for Otis Redding and seeing his recording "Live on the Sunset Strip" for three days while they were recording was another tremendous connection.
Meeting a lot of the older blues musicians and musicians from a lot of other traditions, because I wasn't there just to be on stage and be worshiped … It was knowing the history of the music, the history behind the music and the people behind those histories, you know, men and women, the history and herstory of the music.
Is there anything else you'd like to say?
I'm excited to make contact with everybody at this time. And, I'm very thankful that I'm having the career that I'm having as a result of people who've been sensitive and interested and have supported me during this journey. Because I didn't take the same road as other artists, and you might've had to stretch a little bit personally and get familiar with what I did. Nonetheless, folks have really stayed in there and it's been so far, and going forward, it's been a wonderful trip. Part of traditional West African culture says one of the things that you must do is since you're living in this living culture is to reach back periodically to something that you know is good, bring it into the time that you're living in, use it and pay it forward. So, you're constantly, constantly, like that infinity symbol, regenerating the great ideas of the past into the present and keeping both the present well alive and the future well alive …
I have, and many of us [musicians] have, lots of information online - concerts, music, etcetera. Please come to our websites and platforms and support us. And, also go on to YouTube and see the incredible amount of music that's there.
For more information, visit tajblues.com.