Taj Mahal explores the roots and branches of the blues
Taj Mahal has been called a towering musical figure. A legend who transcended the blues, not by leaving them behind, but by revealing to the world the dazzling scope of the blues.
Mahal received a plethora of artistic seeds from his family. His father's roots were in Jamaica and he was a jazz pianist and arranger. His mother was a gospel singing school teacher. They came to live in Harlem at the time of the Harlem Renaissance. Mahal was born in 1942, a little late for the Renaissance, however it’s influence continued in Harlem and beyond.
Mahal’s musical parents brought a wide variety of musicians from around the globe into their home. His family relocated to Springfield, Massachusetts in the early 1950s. It was a microcosmic melting pot for immigrants from across the globe: The Caribbean, the American South, Europe, the Mediterranean, Syria, Lebanon.
“Music was everywhere," Mahal said during a KNKX Studio Session in 2008. “I was raised really conscious of my African roots, so I was trying to find out: where does what we do here, connect to what we left there?”
Mahal wanted to play what he heard in his heart and once he started college in Amhurst, Massachusetts, he began in earnest to pursue and elevate the blues. The young man saw the blues was crucial, but was shunned by the white record makers and sheet music publishers. The blues was even pushed aside by young Black musicians. They didn’t want to play what they called that “old gutbucket music”.
Mahal heard it differently. He saw that blues were in everything, even works by the superstar classical musicians like Mozart.
He traced the origins back to all the spots where the music he’d heard growing up came from: The Caribbean, Africa, the American South. He didn’t imitate the sounds but melded the blues with them to create entirely new sounds over and over, for over 50 years.
His work has been a boon to the biggest rock stars like Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, plus obscure, ambitious, artists inspired to create new sounds that have heretofore been unheard.
This is how Mahal became an icon for being simultaneously traditional and avant-garde. His work is inspirational for so many of us to this day. Find the notes in your heart and play those sounds.