With two Grammy awards and a further eight nominations to his name, multi-instrumentalist Taj Mahal can truly be regarded as one of the best in blues. Indeed, ever since 1968, and the release of his self titled debut album, this legendary performer has exerted an influence that transcends genres. When recently he appeared at the Bandshell in Daytona Beach, for a performance at the American Music Festival, I was allowed exclusive backstage access to talk to him. He had just completed his pre-show sound checks and as we sat together in the VIP area it quickly became obvious that there is something special about being around people who might be described as "The Best of The Best". Yes they are world famous and definitely they know they are at the top of their profession but, then again, (and particularly in the case of the great Taj Mahal) they are really just like you and me.
JazzReview: So, how do you like Daytona Beach?
Taj Mahal: I love it here. I always love performing outdoors whenever the weather is really good, to see the people, to see the water. It’s a good feeling.
JazzReview: You have a pretty cool name. How did that come about?
Taj Mahal: It really happened because of a bunch of dreams I had, well, as a youngster. In the late 1940’s Gandhi, because of the work he was doing, became very popular in the world. He basically changed the relationship between India and England. He was just such a popular person and really put India into peoples minds. Then, in the late 50’s early 60’s, when it came time to pick a stage name, to think of a name, it sounded like a great name. So I went from dreams to reality and back again.
JazzReview: You grew up around a lot of music, as part of a musical family. Because a lot of kid’s now sit in front of the computer do you think it’s different for them?
Taj Mahal: Yes and no. Back then there was a combination of live music. My mother was a gospel singer and a school teacher so often times she’d rehearse with people. Then there were the records. Whatever technology there is now, there was a version of that then. We heard music from records and over the radio. Where now everyone sits around and listens to television, we used to sit around and listen to the radio. You didn’t have the picture but you did have your own imagination. The culture was extremely musical.
JazzReview: You play a lot of instruments. What is you favorite? Any you’re learning now? How about the steel drums?
Taj Mahal: Yeah, funny you should ask that. In the 70’s, I had one of the best steel drum players, the guy who now plays for Jimmy Buffet, Robert Greenidge. He is from Trinidad, a place called Laventille, and there are about 4,000 residents that are in a steel band and he’s the band leader down there. He played with me for seven years and we made lots of records. I love steel drums. I haven’t learned them yet but I gave my son a set. I just came back from Rio de Janeiro and there’s a little guitar they have there called the Cavaquinho and I took a lesson on it. There are certain instruments you hear, you either have to know someone who plays it or you have to play it yourself. Steel guitar, I’m learning that too.
JazzReview: When you were growing up, what was it like? I mean did you play music or sing around the house? I remember talking with Darius Rucker who constantly sang around the house and Jack Johnson who would sing with his neighbors. That stuff made a big impact on them!
Taj Mahal: Yeah, but what was really popular was singing groups, so you’d have two or three guys singing harmony, and then all of them could sing lead, and then the other guy would get up and we’d sing like that. I’d also sing around the house, or when I rode my bike, that kind of thing.
JazzReview: You have a mixture of styles, a blend of jazz and Caribbean?
Taj Mahal: Basically I grew up with a lot of jazz around me. My father was from the Caribbean side and my mother was American from the southern Bluesy side and sang gospel. Musically that made for a pretty exciting life.
JazzReview: Being a two time Grammy winner and an eight time nominee has identified you as the best in your field. Do you have any musicians come to you for advice?
Taj Mahal: Oh, all the time. Young people come up to me and say what should I be doing or after a lecture a mother will ask what advice do I have for young people and I always say the same thing. Find out who your parents are and what traditions they have. Think what your traditions are and if you put that together you’ll be a unique individual. But if you watch someone who’s already got something going, like Alice Cooper for example, and you try to be like Alice Cooper well, you haven’t worked out who you are yet. Once you figure out who you are maybe you can borrow a little bit from Alice Cooper, and they’ll see a little of Alice Cooper in there, but they won’t think you are trying to copy Alice Cooper. You’ll have a lot longer career if you have your own personality.
JazzReview: Do you have any plans for what comes next?
Taj Mahal: Make more music, help people record and maybe work with more African musicians.
Not surprisingly Taj Mahal gave an awesome performance at the Bandshell. It was very clear to everyone who was there, in Daytona Beach on a sunny September afternoon, that he not only has his own personality but is also living his dream.