[fa:p:a=72157594267830938,id=293898927,j=r,s=s,l=p]AUSTIN DAZE: How did you get started in music?
TAJ MAHAL: It was always something that surrounded me; it was something that I didn’t have to think too much about – like breathing. It was around me for as long as I can remember which would be since I was about 2 years old. I don’t think I knew it, I just knew the culture was musical. At that point I could talk about what I was hearing.
Both my parents were musical – they both played piano. My mother sang, my father was a composer and bee bop player – jazz and what not. I had piano lessons, clarinet lessons, and trombone lessons and none of those at that time were something that I could really get a hold of except for the piano, which I had already heard boogey woogey and stride on. That was music that I really liked. It wasn’t until I was 13 or 14 that I really came into contact with players that had learned from one generation to the next without the aid of musical lessons or any of that kind of stuff.
AD: You’re pretty much self-taught. How do you start learning a new instrument? Do you just pick it up and start fiddling around?
TM: Yeah. If you’re lucky you get to see some people play. By the time I was in my teens the majority of the people that I wanted to learn how to play like played in places that I was too young to go into and actually see them play. You saw stuff people played in church and sang in church and you could hear a lot of popular music on the radio so most of what I could do early on was sing anything I heard–the instrument or the voice. But the stuff that was the deeper stuff was rooted certainly in the blues and then moved out to jazz from there.
AD: How do you know when you have something?
TM: When it sounds like music. Sometimes it sounds like practicing or a close order drill. Other times, you take an instrument and it sings the minute you put your hands on it. Then you know you’ve got something going on.
AD: Why did you choose the name Taj Mahal?
TM: It came to me in a dream.
AD: What initially drew you to blues music?
TM: I was born in 1942 and these were the years that blues grew a lot from the rural areas to cities like Chicago and Memphis. I got to hear a lot of that because it was popular music and in the culture. My mother was American and my father was Caribbean. So if you look at it as a painting, already I had an international and national concept. That’s something that you know other people don’t have. And I was an inquisitive, odd kid interested in a lot of stuff. Africans in the Western civilization wherever this group of individuals were brought – they brought amazing music to the world. That music always had a certain deep feeling for me. It became an obsession with me to figure out why is this music so vital to the world? It’s everywhere that you go in the world and that’s an amazing thing to consider for music that was black music and music from people that were considered to not have anything to offer but their labor.
AD: Tell me about your song writing process.
TM: Sam Cooke said, “If you want to write songs, listen to what people talk about.” If you listen to what people talk about, that will give you music. Sam Cooke was my inspiration and we know that this gentleman was a very inspired songwriter and you can hear it. Those songs will be classic forever. And that was one of those things that he said: listen to what people are talking about. And read. Sam was an avid reader and about everything.
My songwriting process is as such: a friend of mine runs a guitar store not too far from where I’m living and I go there to hang out. He went to a concert that I had, probably about two weeks ago, and on the night that he was there, there was a song that he heard that he really liked at the time. There was a line in the song: “It makes a strong man holler, it makes a weak man lose his home.” So he was standing in a juice bar and this absolutely gorgeous woman walked in and about 10 minutes later he found himself singing that song. He didn’t really get it at the time but when the situation came up he got the song. And the next line, “No man knows the day he went away. Nobody knows how long you would stay.” That essentially is a shout – out to a very good looking woman who has a lot of power and is desirable.
A lot of times there will be a partial piece that will be hanging around for awhile and I’ll play it and go on to something else. And then one day it will all come together in my head and I’ll go boom, “Ok.” I’ll tell you one thing I do: one of the things I gained from my Caribbean side of the family is one of the things that Calypso musicians used to do. They would form a circle of all Calypso bands and then the crowd would be on the outside. There would be a subject, and then you would get in the circle and you could stay in the circle as long as off the top of your head you could come up with new lyrics. A lot of my records, even on my first album, I would have a theme that would be what I wanted to talk about but I wouldn’t write the lyrics down because if you write the lyrics down you are stuck with going over them. But if they are coming into your consciousness as fresh as they are going out and being recorded then you get an excitement with what you are doing. Certainly, I’ve learned other methods and styles of singing and communicating but that was a real big important thing to me: to be able to create life on the fly–which is what these musicians did. They weren’t lyrics in the sense of, “You know I have a great song.” They weren’t much more past the second or third grade. This was an oral tradition.
So I work at any angle that works for me. There is no one set way. I don’t sit down and say ok, “Here is the paper; the guitar is in my lap.” Now that has actually happened sometimes too when something comes and I know I better write this down. I don’t have many lyrics like that – maybe I’ll write down a song idea and a few verses about what I want to say. One of the greatest things about the blues, Big Bill Broonzy used to say, is, “Look you’ve got an apple. Well, an apple is red. Ok that’s one. An apple is sweet. You can make an apple pie. You can make a cobbler. Now you’ve got four verses.” What people do to make music comes down to a basic way of saying what is happening. Then you’re centered from whatever traditional music form anywhere in the world. And then if you simplify the whole thing,
the songs that are amazing to you are the ones that just come out of the air. You’re sleeping and they come in the middle of the night and if you are able to get up and figure out what needs to be done then there you go–you’ve got a song.
Music, before you understand language, is already in your bones. You don’t understand Spanish but if that beat is right, if the sound is right, if it gets your shoulder shaking and your feet moving, then you can translate the lyrics. Sometimes it doesn’t have anything to do with what the lyrics are saying.
AD: What do you think of Austin?
TM: I love Austin. Austin is the first place I ever went and played back in 1968 – somewhere around there, ’68, ’69. I’ve been in a few places in Texas over the years and Austin somehow feels like coming home.
AD: Tell us about the Taj Mahal Trio. How has it been playing with the guys?
TM: All of the musicians have at least 35 years of time playing with me off and on. Bill (Rich) was playing with Buddy Miles and I met him in the late 60’s and we started playing. And he’s been on many of the recordings that I have made over the years. We’ve been working pretty solid for 15, 20 years now. Kester Smith started working me in the 70’s – he’s Caribbean. We just worked a lot of gigs together – we would just get up and get it down. So whatever I want to add to the core rhythm section I can. We are always out playing, we’re always warmed up. It takes time for the whole rest of the band to warm up because they have to catch up to us. It keeps everyone on their toes. Everybody does other projects and what – not but when it’s time for me to go out there they go.
AD: Tell us about your fishing competition in Costa Rica.
TM: We raise a lot of money for the older blues people who often have fallen on hard times. We’re working with probably 150 artists – some who are working for the first time in their life and never had a chance to have a CD out. We raise money to get them to have some concerts and get their health checked. Just take care of people who have given an awful lot and a lot of times don’t get anything back. They give 70, 80 years of stewardship on the music.
Fishing is something that I really love, the salt and the sweet water, and we do mostly salt water fishing. We created a situation now where people can come down and really get to enjoy themselves in a really wonderful setting while basically living very close to the local people down there in a kind of lodge – type situation – not ostentatious setting at all. There are a lot of ex-patriots down there that go down for the surfing and the fishing and whatever else. So it brings people from all around the area.
AD: What is next for you?
TM: More music. Next year will be my 40th year in the record business and I have my own record company now and I’m real excited about that. It should be a big year. ***