Acclaimed Musicians Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’

The musicians discuss their historic collaboration and accompanying tour.

TAJ MAHAL

Taj Mahal has been recording and performing his unmistakable blend of blues and world music for over 50 years, winning multiple Grammys and collaborating with the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and more along the way.

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KEB’ MO’

Keb' Mo', who has often cited Taj as one of his musical heroes, is a 3-time Grammy Winner who has collaborated with everyone from Raitt to Jackson Browne and Buddy Guy.

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TRANSCRIPT

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Pleased to welcome Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ to this program. The blues giants have joined forces to release a historic collaboration. It’s called “TajMo”. What else would you call it [laugh[?

The project has spent the past four weeks in the number one spot on Billboard’s blues albums chart and I can tell you why it’s number one. It’s an awfully, awfully good project. I saw you guys last weekend at the Playboy Jazz Festival and y’all killed that thing.

Taj Mahal: Well, thank you.

Keb’ Mo’: Thank you very much.

Tavis: I mean, absolutely killed. I guess when you’re onstage, you can feel the energy coming from the audience?

Taj Mahal: Yeah, you can. It’s also interesting too because, you know, jazz people, you can stretch out. I think Roy here has played before. I said, “Roy’s stretched out [laugh]” He was stretched out. It was good.

Tavis: But you guys killed that thing, man. Keb’, I’m just curious. When did you first meet — Taj is a legend, as we all know. When did you first hear of him? How did you first come to know him as a child?

Keb’ Mo’: Well, I first came to know Taj at Compton High School. H came and did a performance in 1969.

Tavis: At your high school?

Keb’ Mo’: At the high school.

Tavis: Wow.

Keb’ Mo’: And I got to go to both shows. That opened up a whole other portal of “What was that?” The blues I’d heard before that was not like that. Oh, wait a minute now. I had to reevaluate everything. Not that I was really into the blues back then because I wasn’t, but it definitely opened another portal and I kept encountering Taj Mahal all the years.

Tavis: How long, since you weren’t into it when you first heard him in high school, how long before you made that turn to being a blues man?

Keb’ Mo’: It took probably a good 16 years.

Tavis: 16 years?

Keb’ Mo’: Yeah, because I was on another path. I was wanting to be a songwriter, wanting to a producer. I didn’t want to sing before. I just liked being a side man. I wasn’t looking for an identity, but once life kind of hit me and I went like, “Okay, you have to do something now. I’m gonna do this blues.”

Tavis: So how do you process seeing somebody perform twice at your high school and then fast forward a few years and you’re doing a collaboration with him? How do you process that?

Keb’ Mo’: Well, something inside me knew that what happened was very important. You know it’s something you don’t even know? And you don’t know that later on you’re going to actually meet this person, work with him. Every time I’m going like, “Wow! Whoa! [laugh]”.

Tavis: That’s Taj Mahal, yeah [laugh].

Taj Mahal: That’s Keb’ Mo’ [laugh]!

Keb’ Mo’: I tell everyone in the band, like the band we put together, “You guys know who you’re working with. You know who this is. You’re about to have a life-changing experience here because you’re around a legend, a real master of the blues.” You kind of tend to be like the people you hang out with. Some of that might rub off, you know.

Tavis: How did these tracks get picked for the project, Taj?

Taj Mahal: Well, between the two of us, I’ll tell you what. The tracks pretty much picked themselves. You know, there’s two ways you can go. You can ponder over papers and sit with the piano and score notes or you can, you know, let the music come in and tell you what time it is, you know.

I mean, we just sort of stayed in that space. As much stuff as we recorded, you know, we went back and forth with things that we were gonna do. The thing that was most important is that eventually the songs that speak are the ones that end up being on the record.

Tavis: But there’s got to be some way of knowing — you tell me what that process is — but if you have 100 songs, there are some of those songs that lend themselves better to what you two do together. How do you figure out what those songs are?

Taj Mahal: Well, no. Everything…

Tavis: So y’all can sing anything together?

Taj Mahal: Pretty much.

Tavis: Okay [laugh]. I like the confidence, man [laugh].

Taj Mahal: No, no, I’m serious. I ain’t…

Tavis: I feel you.

Taj Mahal: I mean, really, if you talk to him — I mean, when I came close to him and we started talking about it, he had experience playing music that actually jumped out of where I thought he was and came closer to where some parts of my family musical experiences was the Caribbean.

You know, it was like steel drums and doing the limbo on the poles. I was like, “What? He isn’t be doing all that. What are you talking about?”

Tavis: Speaking of family, those background singers are your daughters?

Taj Mahal: Yeah, my daughters, Zoe and Deva.

Tavis: They’re good.

Taj Mahal: Oh, they’re having fun.

Tavis: I noticed you guys did a cover, “Waiting on the World to Change”.

Taj Mahal: Yes.

Tavis: What made you do that? That’s John Mayer, of course.

Keb’ Mo’: Well, in picking the songs, I suggested that one because I wanted something contemporary on the album and that’s why we did “Squeeze Box” as well, you know. So some of the contemporaries that was of a more modern day artist that has a connection to. John Mayer is a very profound artist, in my opinion, you know.

He’s collected the blues, he does the blues thing and it just kind of — so anyone who didn’t know us, we could have a place where we could kind of be there and the song became very relevant in the coming couple of years again.

Tavis: That’s the nice way of saying it’s relevant in the Trump era [laugh].

Keb’ Mo’: Well, I was just…

Tavis: That’s what you were trying to say, being diplomatic about it, yeah, yeah.

Keb’ Mo’: I was gonna stay out of there, but…[laugh].

Tavis: Yeah, we all waiting on the world to change [laugh]. But in fairness to you guys, Taj and Keb’, you recorded this before he got elected, though. So you didn’t know he was gonna be as relevant as it is.

Taj Mahal: We had no idea.

Tavis: It is amazing, though. Maybe you wouldn’t be amazed. An artist is funny like that. You’d be amazed at the number of projects and the relevance they have in this moment that people didn’t see coming pre-November.

Taj Mahal: Well, you know, the world is always teetering on that kind of way, you know. So if you’re doing timely stuff for yourself, somehow or another, worlds collide.

Tavis: And it seems to me — you’re the expert here, Taj — but it seems to me if ever there were a music that is always relevant, it’s the blues.

Taj Mahal: Oh, always, yeah. Never gonna go away. All the people that get up there and whine and talk about, “Oh, I’m over here saving the blues from total extinction. We got it all going on over here. We got a blues society over here and we got a bunch of young kids…” Come on, calm down.

You know, people gonna have heartache, they ain’t gonna have enough money, they ain’t gonna have enough food…

Tavis: Their girlfriend gonna leave ’em [laugh].

Taj Mahal: You know, I mean…

Keb’ Mo’: It’s gonna be sitting right there.

Taj Mahal: It’s gonna be sitting right there. Blue be right there saying, “I been waiting on you.” [laugh]. They used to say, “Y’all got the blues now, but you just wait.” [laugh] You think you got the blues now, you just wait.

Tavis: Blues, and I been waiting on you, huh?

Taj Mahal: Oh, waiting on you.

Tavis: What’s that line you used before? I loved that line where you said something like, “You can’t chew the flavor out the blues.” [laugh].

Taj Mahal: Oh, yeah, yeah. No, they ain’t never chew the flavor out the blues.

Tavis: You can’t chew the flavor out the blues.

Taj Mahal: You know what? I don’t care who they put up there that’s supposed to be touted like the latest one to carry the blues. Sorry. Like I can say there’s some cats who are real good technically. I can listen to ’em all night, listen, listen, listen. Ain’t got eight bars of music. It ain’t reached me yet, you know.

Tavis: And what is that thing that you have to have to reach the people?

Taj Mahal: Well, the whole point of it is there’s a portal in your soul that connects you to the ancient ones who have been sending messages for centuries, and if you don’t fall into that thing, it doesn’t make any difference what kind of music it is.

You look at all the music on the planet and say, okay, everybody that was removed into the western hemisphere, you can listen to all the music. As soon as you hear it, even if you never heard it before, you know it. Both of us been dealing with DNA, so now, okay, well, why was this first record that I bought, an African record that came in my house [inaudible] from Nigeria? Why was that the first record?

Why is that when I hear Cuban music or Brazilian music or Haitian music or music from Santo Domingo or Puerto Rico or any of the islands down there or Central South America, it’s already relative? So we’re here because it spreads out all over the place. So you got your blood everywhere and, in the blood, is the message, you know. Here it is.

Tavis: Taj, you got your DNA yet? Did he pull you into it?

Keb’ Mo’: I just got it this morning.

Tavis: You got it this morning?

Taj Mahal: Yeah.

Keb’ Mo’: I got it this morning.

Tavis: This is breaking news [laugh].

Taj Mahal: Breaking news.

Tavis: Breaking news on PBS! Keb’ Mo’ knows who he really is now! What did you find out? Would you mind sharing with me a little bit of what you found out?

Keb’ Mo’: Well, I found out that I was mostly Black [laugh].

Tavis: That’s breaking news, all right.

Keb’ Mo’: I had no idea.

Tavis: I know you got the percentages. What did you find out? I’m really curious. What’d you find out?

Keb’ Mo’: 83% African.

Tavis: Okay. What part?

Keb’ Mo’: Nigeria, Congo…

Tavis: Oh, hold up. Just what the world needs. Another Nigerian [laugh].

Taj Mahal: He got more Nigerian than I do. I’m 26%, but…

Tavis: That’s a real problem.

Taj Mahal: He’s 33% Nigerian.

Tavis: What percent?

Keb’ Mo’: 33%.

Tavis: 33%. How much are you?

Taj Mahal: 26%.

Tavis: What else you got? I know you got some white in you. We all do.

Keb’ Mo’: There was 7% Scandinavian.

Tavis: Whoa, whoa! Scandinavian? [laugh]

Keb’ Mo’: I don’t know. Maybe it’s right here. I don’t know [laugh].

Tavis: 7% Scandinavian. That’s actually funny, but it leads me to a serious question, I think, which is when you’re onstage, Keb’, and you look out in the audiences many nights — back to Taj’s point — of people thinking they’re trying to save the blues, when you look on the audience and you see an audience that is overwhelmingly white in many of the places, most of the places you play, I know you’re grateful for your fans, grateful for the audience, but how do you process that, though?

Keb’ Mo’: Well, for me, when I go and see mostly a white audience, all I see is the people that I’m there because of my church, my relatives, the music that came before me. That’s why I’m there. So I look at maybe the audience is not, you know, primarily Black, but the Black audience put me here.

Tavis: So you bring all your blackness with you.

Keb’ Mo’: Oh, yeah. That’s why I’m there. Without them, I wouldn’t be standing there. So if I don’t see one person, they’re there to me.

Tavis: How do you process it, Taj?

Taj Mahal: Same thing. It’s like what I am, that’s the thing that you learn early on. You know, I remember I used to try to sing like Ray Charles and I got at it. I got so good at it, I used to put on the dark glasses and they would lead me to the stage [laugh]. I mean, I was serious. I was always a good mimic.

Then all of a sudden it became a thing where I couldn’t open my mouth where I didn’t sound like Ray. I was like, “Okay. Well, now what you gonna do? You got what you wanted, but now what you gonna do?” So I just realized and said, “Hey, you have to find who you are musically and be that person.” Once I started going in that direction, everything was perfect.

Tavis: But as you both know, every artist does that, including Ray Charles.

Taj Mahal: Oh, yeah, sure.

Tavis: We all end up emulating, copying, somebody else until we become our own originals.

Taj Mahal: Charles Brown…

Tavis: That’s exactly right. Ray Charles was trying to sound like Charles Brown.

Taj Mahal: And Nat King Cole.

Tavis: That’s right. Nat King Cole, yeah. Gotta find your own voice.

Taj Mahal: Them early records? Oh, I have all of Ray. I love Ray.

Tavis: I wish I could sing. I wish I could sing like Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ [laugh]. And they sound awfully good together. The project is called “TajMo”. I was just telling both of them I’m gonna push them higher up on my prayer list. They got about 85 days left to go [laugh].

They’re really just getting started, so there’s a good chance if you go online you will catch Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’, “TajMo” together, somewhere on the road this summer. I can promise you that you will not be disappointed if you see them. I loved it and I love both of y’all.

Taj Mahal: Well, thank you.

Tavis: Good to have you back. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: June 15, 2017 at 6:30 pm