Interview With Taj Mahal – Part 1

As a preamble to the Ottawa Blues Festival; here is our 2 part interview with Taj Mahal…enjoy

Orcasound: How did you get your name Taj Mahal?

Taj Mahal: It dates back to some crazy dreams in 1940s and 50s and it's like this whole long process to talk about it. However that's how it came to be what it is.

Orcasound: How is 2006 treating you so far?

Taj Mahal: Oh, a lot of changes, a lot of changes but it's all good, you know.

Orcasound: Are you still touring with the trio with Bill Rich on bass and Kester Smith on drums?

Taj Mahal: Yeah, I work with them pretty regularly. That's like the nucleus of several different bands that I have. I keep the rhythm sections together and it keeps us pretty sharp.

Orcasound: Anyone else joining you onstage tonight?

Taj Mahal: No. Just the trio.

Orcasound: Your latest album "The Essential" is terrific. Are your shows packed with your greatest hits or are you gonna be introducing any new tunes to your fans?

Taj Mahal: New songs? No, it's such a large body of work it's like there's no concert that gonna hold the thing. We have certain things that if we don't play 'em people are really disappointed. Over the years we've not played certain songs for years and people have been really disappointed and I really don't like disappointing people. Certain things Fishing Blues, Corrina and Mailbox Blues and tunes like that we play. Course I might tonight. It changes.

Orcasound: It changes night to night? Is every show uniquely different or do you stick to a certain setlist?

Taj Mahal: No, the setlist is in our heads. We've been playing this music for 35 or the past 40 years now so

Orcasound: You've been nominated for 9 Grammy Awards and you won 2. Which Grammy award or Grammy nomination are you most proud of? And why?

Taj Mahal: Well, I'm proud of all of them. I mean, considering where I came from in the business. You know, pretty much a maverick and different style and my own ideas. My peers, they would recognize what I was doing and occasionally I got in. It was very nice to win. It was also very nice to be nominated, so it's all good.

Orcasound: What was it like growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts in the 1950s and 60s?

Taj Mahal: 40s, 50s, 60s and then I left.

Orcasound: What was it like?

Taj Mahal: It was a very interesting city. It was a community. In fact I was just there for some awards and we were talking about it. I was just talking to one of my oldest friends a jazz drummer named Eddie Marshall and his dad and my dad were real good friends and his mom and my mom were real good friends and we were just saying that we really had a village. You know, people really looked out for you and instead of just being like Southern African-Americans we were more from the North, South, Caribbean and Africa. Plus there were significant immigrant numbers from Eastern and Western European descent and even Southern European and Lebanon and Syrian and places like that, it rocked. You became really aware of people and their cultural values. And my parents were from the Caribbean, so it's like really strong on cultural values. It was great and a lot of people came up from the South. From Louisiana, from Mississippi, from North and South Carolina, from Arkansas and of course there was mountain people too. Virginia, West Virginia, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, so it was like being North, but there was a modest Southern vibration to it.

Orcasound: I'm sure it's changed a lot.

Taj Mahal: Yeah, well, eventually the next couple of generations urbanized themselves.

Orcasound: Do you still visit friends and family there? Your roots are still there?

Taj Mahal: Yeah, well, and in the Caribbean. My mother's family is in South Carolina and I've been to visit there and then down in the Caribbean also. Try to plug in and make a connection. That's why music for me is a big visit. It's also making people aware through sound what's happening.

Orcasound: You live in California, I guess.

Taj Mahal: Yeah, I live in California.

Orcasound: I read that you play more than 20 instruments. What are they?

Taj Mahal: It's not hard. I started out playing piano, then trombone and clarinet and don't really care about that. I still like to hear somebody else who can play it play it. Those instruments don't work good in my hands. Mandolin, banjo, mandola, dulcimer, 6 string guitar, 12 string guitar, penny whistles, lap steel guitar, slide guitar, congas, maracas, balophones . Anything with strings, you know, I like strings. Fiddles. All that kinda stuff.

Orcasound: What do you prefer? I guess obviously guitars.

Taj Mahal: Well, I work with the guitar a lot. You know, I working now with Liiu ukuleles. It's like a 6 string ukulele with harmony strings. What doesn't happen anymore. Sting bands used to have lots of different instruments. We tend to think of guitar, bass, piano, drums, and saxophone. There used to be bands with guitars, banjos, mandolins, mandolas, different kinds of instruments that would make a different kind of sound wave, make the sound thicker. A lot of times I'll put in a mandolin. Put in a banjo. Put in another guitar track. Play against what's in there. Because it's a recording and if you want to dance off of it….it's one thing when the music is live in a dance hall but when you have to listen to something it's nice to have not so much filler as it is to have other voices.

Orcasound: Are you part of the whole mixing process as well?

Taj Mahal: Oh yeah, the whole record. I don't always do that but I can produce any kind of record from one end to the other.

Orcasound: Are you still producing albums for other people as well?

Taj Mahal: I been known to do that, but I haven't been able to do that as of late.

Orcasound: What is your favourite electric guitar or acoustic guitar that you've ever played?

Taj Mahal: That's pretty hard, man. If you pick good in the first place it will last. Naw, that's pretty hard.

Orcasound: Are the ones you're playing on tour and in the studio the ones that you enjoy the most?

Taj Mahal: I've got some that are really good guitars – that are road hardy. They're not high-end guitars price-wise or quality-wise, but they are durable on the road. I had some old guitars from the 40s and the early 50s and you can't take those girls on the road; they can't take the beating.

Orcasound: So you're a real collector of guitars?

Taj Mahal: I don't know if I'm a real collector. I've got a few guitars, not a lot. I'm not like some people.

Orcasound: Do you have any favourite venues or cities that you enjoy playing?

Taj Mahal: No, pretty much all. There's no reason… It's night to night. You are only as good as the next concert you're playing. It really is. That's really it. You know, a lotta guys they have had hits and so that's basically what they are playing off of. But I like the idea of earning my ups every night. Either people have a good time or they don't.

Orcasound: Can you tell if you're gonna be on one night?

Taj Mahal: Naw

Orcasound: So it's really night to night? Do you wake up in the morning feeling a certain way and say you know I'm expecting a hot show tonight?

Taj Mahal: I don't think like that. It's a hot show every night regardless. Whatever I've got that's on I play.

Orcasound: I've seen you play and I'm amazed by the amount of energy you put out every night.

Taj Mahal: It used to be a lot more (laughing).

Orcasound: I have to ask this question because we've come from Montreal. Any plans on returning to Montreal? It's been, what, a good 5, 6, 7 years? What impresses you about Montreal?

Taj Mahal: It started out for me really growing up in New England. Quebec had some serious hockey players back in the 50s when I was coming through. It was also that I worked for a Quebecois family for about 6 or 7 years when I was raising money to go to college. I picked up a lot of stuff there. Plus the area, Springfield, there's a whole lotta Quebecois. Tons of Quebecois. So you pick it up. Southwest Louisiana, the Acadians made their way down there. The old man up on the farm used to always tell me about this song called "Ma Jolie Blonde". I used to talk about "Jolie Blonde". I never heard the song until years and years later. Some zydeco player did it and there's another version of it by Leo Soileau . Harry Choates back in the 40s.

Orcasound: Also Daniel Lanois did it.

Taj Mahal: Yeah, Lanois did it. I've been reading this guy James Lee Burke. He's a writer and he lives between Louisiana and Montezula, Montana and he writes about this detective named Dave Robichaud. Just gives you this time capsule of what was going on there and he works sometimes in New Orleans and sometimes he has to go up to Baton Rouge. He's nostalgic for the old days when they didn't speak any English at all.

Orcasound: Any plans on going back to Montreal?

Taj Mahal: Yep, usually what happens is that we get shows up there, but no one's called to offer shows. But hey, anytime! I would come up every year. You just have to call me up to play. I used to go up all the time to the Rising Sun.

Orcasound: Last time I think I caught you in Montreal, I think was at the Spectrum with Ry Cooder.

Taj Mahal: Right.

Orcasound: We talked way beyond our time limit about tuning guitars, adding in 6 guitars and such. Do you get involved with that kind of innovative sound concepts? Do you still keep in touch with Ry Cooder?

Taj Mahal: I haven't talked to him in a while. We actually just lost a great friend in the last couple of days here. I don't know if we're gonna have any conversation about that. I haven't done any work with him lately. He's been pretty busy and I've been pretty busy. About the concept most of my concepts are sound concepts. Bringing in different musicians changing the music that people are familiar with and replacing it with different sounds.

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