‘Giant Step’ puts Taj Mahal in Tahoe (w/video)
Taj Mahal’s melting pot of music is the result of a young man keeping his eyes and ears open.
As a teenager in Springfield, Mass., he watched an influx of all types of ethnicities move into his neighborhood.
“All the girls would come up, and they walked different, talked different, cooked different and danced different, and I was into it,” he said.
Taj Mahal, who was born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks, was 14 when another teenager with a guitar moved in next door. Mahal learned to play the guitar, one of 20 instruments he now plays, in a style that reflected the different people he was around.
Always based in country blues, Mahal plays Caribbean, Hawaiian, African, Latin, and Cuban sounds and rhythms mixed with folk, jazz, zydeco, gospel, rock, pop, soul and R&B.
“And up the street was a whole family of people from Mississippi,” Mahal said. “They played guitars and harmonicas. So what are you going to do? It’s not like I was an intellectual looking for an opportunity to express myself. It was just the luck of the draw.”
By the time he was 17, Mahal was collaborating with Jesse Lee Kincaid, whose uncle was 12-string folk guitar pioneer Fred Gerlach. Mahal and Kincaid moved to the West Coast where they joined Ry Cooder in 1964 to create a band called the Rising Sons, which was relatively unsuccessful despite its legendary talent, recording just one record. (The band released a second album in 1992.)
“Hands down, out of all the guys who play in the United States, I don’t care what they play, Cooder’s the best,” Mahal said. “He’s an eccentric kind of guy, but he’s an all-seasoned, incredible player. We went our own separate ways after our brief, historic connection.”
Mahal received national acclaim after going solo and recording the double album “Giant Step.” Although Mahal is a huge fan of John Coltrane, whose best-known album is “Giant Steps,” he said the jazzman did not influence his record. The track “Giant Step” was a radio hit, but afterward Mahal decided to redefine, or rather undefine, his music.
“That’s when I got tired of all that stuff and worrying if it was this or if it was that,” he said.
“Giant Step” included the acoustic folk song “Fishing Blues,” which to this day has been a standard for anglers everywhere.
Mahal made Kauai, Hawaii, his home base during the busiest time of his career, from 1981-95.
“It was a sleepy little garden island,” he said, lamenting the island’s recent development. “There were cattle all over the place, sugar cane, wild chickens and surfers. I was away a lot, and I wanted to have a real nice place for my kids to live. That is what I could do with and for them at that time. It allowed me to work real hard, over 200 dates a year, and know they were in a solid place. The upside of it was all the music and culture we were able to exchange.”
After the children were grown, Mahal moved to Los Angeles, which he did not like. Now he lives in Berkeley.
“Either you’re going to be a cowboy way out in the boonies, or you come to the city and deal with all these expensive houses,” he said.
Although he now lives close by, Mahal said he hasn’t played Tahoe much.
Mahal will be playing in a trio with bassist Bill Rich and drummer Brian T. Parker, who is filling in for the ailing Kester Smith, who is expected to rejoin the tour in April.
Mahal requested that Lake Tahoe Action tell its readers to check out his Web site, tajblues.com, and to give them this message: “Tell everybody if you come to the show, come to dance and come to have a good time. Come to hoot and holler.”