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A Touch Of Taj

By Joy Horowitz

The voice over the loud speaker at Paul's Mall resonates clearly. "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Mr. Taj Mahal." Mr. Taj Mahal? The name sounds pretentious enough. I can't help but wonder how many people in the world have been similarly introduced as Mr. Westminister Abbey. Ms. Parthenon, Dr. Eiffel Tower or Mrs. Coliseum. But as soon as the lights come on and the man struts on stage, all preconceived doubts about Mr. Taj Mahal are quickly erased. His presence is charged with a playfulness that know of no pretentions and his music oozes with the mmmmmmmmmmm's, uh huhhhhh's, and ooooooooooOOOOOOOOh's that belong solely to his funky style.

Taj Mahal is non-stop energy. When he sings, his body is constantly in motion: his head bobs from side to side: his eyebrows leap up and down; his hips grind rhythmically; his foot stomps and his facial expressions never stop changing. If he's not accompanying himself with his Mississippi National steel-bodied acoustic guitar, then he'll play the piano or banjo or mandolin of kalimba or maracas or Spirit of '76 Fife. His raspy voice sometimes turns lyrics into a stammer reminiscent of Otis Redding. At other times, words are replaced altogether by suggestive mumbles or a bent guitar note accompanied by a telling smile. And most of the time, his audience can't help but clap, stomp and sing right along with him.

Taj's music, which incorporates what he calls "recycled" blues lines, celebrates earthy sensuality and living close to the land. Above all, he cherishes his ancestry and origins. From his first albun, Taj Mahal, to his latest, MoRoots. Taj's music, which he calls "the real music--a song of the human spirit, of the universal spirit," is a reflection of personal discovery and transition. Having started out in folk music. Taj's sound has changed radically within the past ten years and has matured. Whether he plays with four tubas (The Real Thing), or adapts a Carole King song originally recorded by The Monkees ("Take a Giant Step"), or sings with the Pointer Sisters (Recycling the Blues and Other Related Stuff and Oooh So Good 'N Blues), he creates tasteful, non-commercial music. And last week at Paul's Mall, with the help of his six-man back-up band, his music entwined the sounds of country blues, gospel, jazz, rhythm and blues and reggae. Says Taj, "What most people don't understand is that all musics are related."

Offstage, Taj exudes the same warmth he generates when he performs. When I called him up from the lobby of the Hotel Lenox last week to confirm his room number, he good-naturedly answered the phone. "Arby's Chicken Palace!" As I entered his suite, he ruffled his bedspread into place, greeted me with a grin and handshake, lit some incense, sat down in a rocking chair while toying with a soccer ball, and began to talk and sometimes ramble, his verbiage interlaced with words like "cosmos" and "vibes."

"People aren't committed to the real music, nor are they close enough to their roots or the basis of who they are as a people or where they come from, to be able to draw on these things for positive energies," he began in a surprisingly serious tone.

Taj has made a career out of understanding his origins. The eldest of nine children, Taj (born Henry Fredericksin New York City in 1943) lived first in the Jamaican ghetto of Brooklyn but mostly grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. His father, a noted jazz composer and arranger of West Indian descent, introduced his son to the likes of Meade Lux Lewis. Cow Cow Davenport and Leadbelly at an early, age. His appetite whetted. Taj sought out the early master Blues artists such as Willie Brown, Charlie Patton and Kid Bailey. His pursuit of the music of Southern country blues men developed almost as a means of defying his mother's and grandparents' denial of their bitter memories in South Carolina.

"You could never get any answers from them about lots of things. But you knew it was painful because you could feel the vibes from so many people who had been bent and broken and twisted and done in under that kind of structure. They wanted to get rid of the traces of any memories of slavery times." Yet Taj reveals those memories in "Slave Driver," a song written by Bob Marley on Mo Roots:

Everytime I hear the crack of the whip My blood run cold I do remember on a slave ship How they brutalized my very soul...

Taj's music was also deeply influenced by his grandmother from St. Kitts, who would openly tell him stories about the country, her childhood and music. "She was crazy about me because I was her first grandson," Taj explains. Again, he has transformed his experience with her into "Clara (St. Kitts Woman)."

When asked if changing his name wasn't a kind of denial of his origins. Taj dismisses the idea with a shake of the head and a wave of the hand. "It all came about in a really bizarre dream that I've gone into too many times already. Right now, the East seems to fit in my mind more than the West. At the time, I thought anything would be better than Bobby, Billy, Joey, Sammy, Freddie, or Richie--all of which reduce to zilch. I never really thought about the repercussions of changing my name. And you know, all three of my uncles have different names. But the music is what's really important. It doesn't matter what your name is, the music is what people understand."

But not all people have been willing to understand his music, Taj started to perform the country blues (after receiving a degree in Animal Husbandry from the University of Massachusetts) and later Chicago-style blues at a time when most young black musicians were involved with either rhythm and blues of the avant-garde jazz movement that was then flourishing. His early explorations into the Blues were also ensnared by the commercially oriented black blues revival of the late sixties. As long as he was classified as a blues singer." It was clear that few black people would ever rush to hear what he was about or learn what his music had to say. Not to mention criticism for his use of the banjo--a so-called white-washed instrument since country and western performers began thriving with it. As a result. Taj until recently, found himself playing his music to predominately white audiences in a predominately white band.

"For what was going on at the time and for what I had to work with, there were no black musicians out there who wanted to play--at all. I felt terribly upset about that. But I just wanted to play music that was pleasing to the ear. That was the whole thing. You know, there's some who'll say. 'Well here we are, white playing in black, or here we are black, but we play so white.' And I just say, 'Why don't you just play some music, please, instead of saying who's the blackest and who's the whitest of the blackest of the whitest of the blackest?'"

"I don't think that black people have been afraid to get into the Blues. It's just that there's a stigma attached to the Blues: down South, black, dark, ignorant, illegitimate children, hookers, gamblers, killers, knifers, razor blades, Ma Dixon's Douche Powder....A lot of people see different kinds of music individually because they don't understand the stream from where it all comes from."

Though Taj says that "playing music is one of the strongest social statements that you can make in this day and age," he openly discusses his understanding of racial tension going on in South Boston. "You have a bunch of people in this town who really got short-changed on their education, quiet as it's kept. That's exactly why they don't get along today. They've put a lot of years in the factories around here, in the sweatshops--above and under the ground--and they're not going to give up their little corner to anybody. That's one of the reasons why I could never live in Massachusetts now--because of the relationship of the people to each other. Different factions are fighting inside each other and outside each other."

"I came to Boston in 1961 and I saw this place and I told people. You know something? This place is going to go sky high one day the way people are cramped together.' People said, That would never happen in Boston--that's something for Selma, Alabama.' There's a lot of resentment going down now because there's a failure in this state to give the people the services they pay for especially with regard to education."

An avid fisherman who now lives in the hills of Berkeley. California. Taj is most concerned about people's lack of concern for the land. "Nobody's paying any attention to the ecology...People have no respect for the land, and that's because they don't have any vested interest in it...Folk music was developed by people who wanted to maintain the tradition of the land because they had to work it all the time. You've got to have a song to work the land. That's why I think that sometimes certain people from Northern Europe are closer to black music than other people, depending upon what kind of work they've been doing for many generations."

He says that he's been seriously disillusioned in his lifes by an unsuccessful marriage, by the deterioration of cities in this country, by antiquated prison systems that have destroyed too many people he knows (which led him to be the first performer to play for the inmates on Death Row at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla).

But he has his music, which he considers to be everybody's music. And for that, he's grateful, if not optimistic. "My music has helped me to maintain a very nice space as a human being...I'm interested in genuine commitment from people to the arts. All you've got to do is open the vibe up for alternatives to this insanity and you find there's a lot of people there who've got some good things going."

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