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Taj Mahal: Still Cooking Up 'Heirloom Music' His Own Way

Taj Mahal is credited with helping popularize American blues over the course of his five-decade career.
Jay Blakesberg
Courtesy of the artist
Taj Mahal is credited with helping popularize American blues over the course of his five-decade career.

Taj Mahal has a degree in animal husbandry and agronomy, and planned to be a farmer. Music was just something he did.

"No matter what went down, music was always going to be a part of my life," the guitarist and singer says. "What ultimately happened is that, over a period of time, I just kind of looked around and when like, 'Wow! I'm actually making a living doing this.'"

Mahal started making that living in Massachusetts, where he grew up and went to college. He also created a stage name for himself. He was born Henry St. Clair Fredericks, Jr., but he admired Gandhi and Indian philosophy.

"In looking out into the world, it didn't look all that nice out there," Mahal says. "And who were the nice people? Certainly Mahatma Gandhi was."

So, he became Taj Mahal? In 1964, with his new name, Mahal headed for Los Angeles, where he joined up with a group of musicians that included Ry Cooder. They called themselves the Rising Sons and played a mix of blues, rock and country.

The Rising Sons were not a commercial success; Columbia didn't even release their first album at the time. But Mahal stayed with the label and began his solo career. He traveled with his band up to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he finally settled in 1971 — when it was still a fervent center of the anti-war movement and the counterculture. As we drive through Berkeley, he recalls why he moved here.

"The weather, the mix of people. The university was in the middle, the ideas were there, the sound of music were coming out of everywhere," he says. The places he used to play are legendary: the Winterland Ballroom, the original Fillmore, the Carousel Ballroom. Most of them are gone today.

But Mahal is still here: After a stint living in Hawaii, he came back, still in love with the diversity of the area, especially its food culture. Mahal is a devoted cook, and we make a stop at his favorite spice shop in Oakland, Specialty Foods Inc. Pointing out a particular spice, he swears, "Put this on a fish and you'll have to come back."

Both Mahal's parents were musicians. His grandmother was from St. Kitts in the West Indies.

"My grandmother had many children. She lost most. So when we came along, we were really special. I was the first grandchild that could see her spirit moving to a new generation," he says.

At home he was exposed to traditional Caribbean music and jazz. One of his neighbors, Lyn Perry, was the nephew of famous bluesman — Arthur "Big Boy: Crudup. Perry taught Mahal blues.

"He was playing grown man music at 13, 14 — so when he found out I had a guitar and I found out he could play there was no stopping it," Mahal explains. "You know, I spent all my time hanging out with him. He would just play, and I would learn how to play what he was playing."

Fat Dawg — that's his legal name — runs Subway Guitars, down the street from Mahal's house; the store has been there since Mahal first came to the Bay Area.

Mahal comes here most days to try out guitars and sometimes ukeleles — or just to hang out incognito.

"We call him The Maestro," Fat Dawg says, "because there's a lot of baggage with the other name."

Some don't call him the maestro. With fame came critics who didn't like the way he reinterpreted traditional blues and mixed it with rock and unusual instruments. But that is exactly what makes Taj Mahal special, says Jorma Kaukonen. He was playing guitar with Jefferson Airplane when Mahal moved to the Bay Area, and he recalls seeing Mahal play at the Fillmore.

"And in that band it was Taj and an army of tubas," Kaukonen says. "I mean, in an era where the guitar was sort of approaching ascendancy, to come to a rock 'n' roll venue and have a tuba band — I mean, what more could you say, really?"

Over the years, Taj Mahal has faded in and out of the pop music world. But, he says, there are food fads too.

"It's just like heirloom tomatoes; this is heirloom music," Mahal says. "We used to have all kinds of diversity in our poultry, in our vegetables, in our fruits, and slowly but surely the monoculture beast comes in. I'm saying that's not a good idea. And if it means that I gotta do it on my own, then I do it on my own."

At 71 years old, Mahal still tours 160 days a year. And where ever he goes, he says, he likes to find a kitchen and cook.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.
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