The two-time Grammy winner reflects on his career longevity and latest release, the box set “Taj Mahal: The Complete Columbia Albums Collection.”
Musician Taj Mahal
Tavis: Taj Mahal’s eclectic career embraces the blues, Americana, roots music, world music, and jazz. A two-time Grammy winner with nine other nominations in his 50-year career, he’s been everywhere on a musical odyssey, from the Caribbean to Africa to Europe.
That journey can be heard now, thankfully and finally, in a new boxed set that includes 15 CDs, 170 tracks. Here is just a small taste of this remarkable compilation.
[Video of Taj Mahal performing]
Tavis: You just mentioned “Daddy” in that lick, in that lyric, and I think that’s a great place to start. Tell me about your daddy’s record collection.
Taj Mahal: Yeah, my dad was a really interesting guy (unintelligible). In fact, recently I just visited the islands that my grandparents came from in the Caribbean, St. Kitts and Nevis, and they came here to the United States about 100 years ago and started having their children in New York City. My dad was born in 1915.
The Caribbean way is that everybody’s going to know that you have a African background and you’re supposed to be predisposed to playing music and rhythm. So if you learn how to play classically and they can see that you can play classically, then they know you can really play music, okay?
Tavis: Right. (Laughter)
Mahal: There’s no question that this jump-up that you’re playing is based on something.
Mahal: So he was taught classical piano, and then grew up in the era when all that music was transitioning, everybody was transitioning. In fact, me met my mother at the Savoy barroom just after Ella Fitzgerald had “A Tisket, A Tasket” with Chick Webb’s band. That’s what she was. All that kind of stuff like that.
But anyway, when they got together, he quit being a composer and a copyist for bands and everything, and talked to my mother and he said, “Look,” she said, “Well, what do you want to do?”
He said, “Well, I want to have a big family.” She said, “Well, you know I’m a college girl,” a 1938 graduate from South Carolina State. She said, “If I have a family, I’m going to want to go back to school and continue my education.”
He said, “Well, that’s cool. I ain’t got no problem with that,” he said, “But just let me be able to keep up with the music, and we’ll be able to have, like, buy the albums and have some way to be able to play them.”
So man, he had all, he had everything. From the time I was a kid, I don’t never remember not hearing music and not hearing music from them, hearing music from their friends. They used to come over because by the time I was, mm, I was a young person, they were like in their thirties. So they were still young and they were rolling back the rug in the house, moving everything. (Laughter)
Having them, what you call them, potlucks. Everybody come over with food and their records in crates, and they would just party. The kids would get to dancing, (unintelligible) come on, Junior, come (unintelligible) and dancing.
Mahal: We had all of that kind of – it was like a whole thing, it was almost like “Lackawanna Blues,” you know what I’m saying, with all that action going on all the time.
Tavis: Right, yeah.
Mahal: So just hearing the music all the time, Nat King Cole, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Chick Webb, man, I just – I remember when I was seven years old, like, my favorite song, if I was – they would get kind of weird and I would be like just a little bit off the edge, I would think of “Body and Soul” by Coleman Hawkins, and everything would be perfect.
Tavis: Right, just meditating on that song.
Mahal: Just meditating. I didn’t realize that was something so different from what other kids had had in terms of music in the house.
Tavis: What was it about that Coleman Hawkins tune that did it for you, that just calmed you and stilled you?
Mahal: It just filled my whole spirit with the knowledge that if you sought the light of everything being all right, it was going to be all right.
Tavis: Right. What did that say to you then, and if it didn’t say to you then, how did you come into the realization later that music was pregnant with that kind of power?
Mahal: Because it was everywhere with people. Well, there’s two distinct, three distinct areas. People coming out of Mississippi went up the river. People had been going up and down the river from New Orleans, Arkansas, Tennessee, up the river to Chicago, up the river to Detroit, but then most people don’t know that there’s an East Coast movement.
Florida, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, all that went up to Philadelphia, it went to Delaware, New Haven, Connecticut, Springfield, Massachusetts, Boston, all that kind of stuff.
All those people came up, so I was always with either the Southern bunch of people or a mixture of Southern and Caribbean people, and it was all about music. Everybody brought music. You’d be out in the backyard playing marbles with your friends, bam, bam, boy, I got a big (unintelligible). Pow, pow, okay. (Laughter) I’m serious, I’m serious, man. You got your hands up all like this and you’re trying to -
Mahal: And in the kitchen it’s something (unintelligible) hairdressing salon. She up there saying, “Girl, now hold your head straight now, so I can get that hot comb in there. Don’t burn my kitchen.” And B.B. King would be wearing you out.
Mahal: So this was all a part of what I knew. Then the city where we lived in was called American International College, so we had international people coming there from, like, Africa, from the West Indies, and oftentimes, these people ended up at our house. So eight or nine years old, I’d go to the door because the door knocked, and my father’d tell me to go.
I was the eldest, so I went to the door and opened the door, and I opened the door and the guy says, “Good evening. Are your parents at home?” (Laughter) I turn around and holler, and it turns out there’s this guy named Ashford Wilson from Liberia. He’s studying.
Someone told him that my father was a good place for him to go buy and hang out, and I got to hang out. Nine, ten years old, Africans coming from there, from Mali, Senegal, West Indians, people coming from Cuba.
Tavis: You had an eclectic household.
Mahal: Yeah, it was happening, man.
Tavis: But your dad, a lot of respect to your father, though. He wasn’t just a collector. Your dad was an artist.
Mahal: Oh, yeah, yeah. Originally, that was what he was doing. He was supposedly – and actually, we’re in the process of doing this. My brother (unintelligible) discovered a piece of furniture that he had, and he’s one of these guys who puts stuff and fixes stuff all the time.
He turned the thing over and pulled it out and a whole drawer full of manuscripts falls out. Nobody ain’t ever heard about these manuscripts. So now we’re getting all the stuff copied and we’re taking it to some friends of mine who are musicians, and I want to hear how this stuff plays out. I never heard it.
Tavis: This is your dad’s stuff?
Mahal: Yeah, my dad’s stuff. We had – who knew?
Tavis: Stuff your dad wrote?
Mahal: Yeah, stuff he wrote.
Tavis: That y’all just discovered?
Mahal: Just discovered, man. So this is like a message from – not even a message in a bottle, man. This is like -
Tavis: Yeah. A message in a couch.
Tavis: Is it the kind of stuff that you think could one day be played, so many years later, by his son?
Tavis: Might you play this stuff at some point?
Mahal: Oh, yeah. Well, actually, I’ll tell you what. If you – there’s a record in there called “Recycling the Blues and Other Related Stuff.” Well, it’s like – I’m saying (unintelligible). Remember, “Recycling the Blues” was like 1972 and ’73. You don’t know any other blues band at all who was talking about recycling. You hear me? (Laughter) You hear me now, okay? All right.
But on that record, I had discovered working with the Pointer Sisters, and there’s a song we do called “Texas Woman Blues,” where I play bass on it and sing, and that’s all I do – bass and singing.
Then I had them come in and sing with me, and the line that they sing at the beginning is (singing) “Far below the northern lights, mm, far below the northern lights.” Well, when they sing that, that’s a piece of my father right there.
Mahal: My mother was just crying when she heard that, that I remembered that. She used to say – these people were like here’s a little seven-year-old kid. My father would hear the car pull up at night (makes racing engine noise). Slam the door.
He’d whistle up the stairs those same notes – (sings notes) – and she’d whistle down the stairs in a higher register – (sings notes) – and who else knew what happened after that? (Laughter) But I know there’s more brothers and sisters.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. (Laughter) When Mama and Daddy are whistling in harmony -
Tavis: – something is likely to happen. (Laughter)
Mahal: So but it’s hard to tell people these kind of stories. For me, looking at the spyglass of anthropology from this end, going like, wow, man, that was some different stuff.
Tavis: Your dad passed away when you were how old?
Mahal: Oh, I was about 11, going to 12.
Tavis: How did you – I read that once, and I wondered how that impacted you. Because it’s your dad – any child who loses a parent is going to grieve, obviously, maybe even for life.
Tavis: But your dad was the person, by these wonderful stories you’re sharing now, who introduced you to, turned you on to music.
Mahal: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: He’s dead when you’re 11.
Mahal: Yeah. It was pretty heavy. I’ll tell you, this is what I’m trying, this is why when people give me grief about well, being a northerner and loving the blues, well, collard greens and black-eyed peas and cornbread and head cheese, you name it, and cobbler and all that stuff was the way my mama raised us, man.
My mother was like, she was low tech. Take a little bit of coal oil and put some sugar in it, and that’ll take care of anything.
Growing up in that environment, man, made me really need something, and that’s where the blues as something to be able to soothe you being in bad shape and getting you over it so that you can begin to laugh in the future of your life.
Mahal: That’s what the blues did for me. I didn’t even realize it at the time. It just was this thing that came along. It was in the music. It was in the music like somebody took a dollop of it and put it in a Basie song, or Duke Ellington would go through a piece of it. Wynonie Harris would jump it up; Louis Jordan would do something with it.
But to hear the original, when real blues came in like that, it was like guitar music and everybody was listening to it, and you could feel it. Plus, like I say, all these people coming up, and the Southern girls knew how to dance to the blues. Northern girls didn’t even know what that was.
Tavis: Didn’t know what it was, yeah.
Mahal: They did not know what it was, but the blues is really what helped me, and also agriculture. Connecting myself to the land and really understanding what the real – what it was really about. Had it not been for the modernization of agriculture, I probably would have been a farmer.
Tavis: There are two things you’ve mentioned now I want to go back and get. I promise we’ll get to them -
Mahal: No, no, that’s okay.
Tavis: – and the music in this conversation, but these stories about how you got on this path are so rich, and I want to explore them.
Tavis: I want to just ask one more question about your father, though. So as I hear it, while your father never got a chance to see you play, he never got a chance to experience your gift as, thankfully, we have, it was the experience of losing your father that opened you up to the music, opened you up to the blues, opened you up to -
Mahal: That took me, yeah, so deeper, to really see that what was happening is that the commercialization of music often took people’s minds off of the cultural forward movement of the music.
Mahal: It’s like because the door was closed once, people got more, were brought to the United States. When you go to Africa, they can go back 2,000 years and their music, or the history of whatever they’re talking about, and the music is still full of all of the changes.
Whereas that most of the people here can get back to some point where they start hearing gospel or they hear this. That is the backdrop, and so the importance of what I saw, from my perspective, was the importance of our music to our sanity.
That is a cultural thing. We can’t just give this away and just make hits out of it.
Tavis: That’s right.
Mahal: It’s like the most important thing there is. Okay, well, I’d love to have big hits, but this is the music and this is the next movement to it. This is how I felt about it, so I just went there. I was lucky enough to be stubborn enough to just say, “No, it’s about the music, and that’s the most important thing.”
Tavis: So for a long time, although your dad turns you on to it when you were a kid, for a long time it wasn’t about the music per se, because to your earlier point, you had dreams at one point and plans of being a farmer.
Tell me about that.
Mahal: Well, I looked at the movement of Africans in the Western civilization, and a big part of the reason why we’re here was because of the propensities that we had toward agriculture, animals, architecture, and many other things that we’re brought here for, which you don’t really get to hear about in this history of it here in the United States.
So I said, okay, well, hm – I’m not interested – I see my father put his music to the side, take a day job, eventually worked at a – he worked at a brass foundry and then eventually worked for – what was the name of that place – turned out to be Kelly Springfield, but Firestone Tires.
Mahal: Fits tires as a tire molder, molding them big tires, every kind of tire you can imagine. That was what he did. Then different things happened. He left this life. So I saw him always working basically to try to bring home a check to take care of his family.
But somebody else held the keys, or the strings, to whether we lived or didn’t, and whether he lived or died. I was like, “You know what? I’m not going to let that happen to me. I want to be a farmer, so that at least my family’s eating, I’m eating.”
Tavis: Right, right.
Mahal: I’m young, I love music. I said, “Well, I’ll play music on Saturday, open up the barn.”
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Mahal: Come on down, bring your bass. Bring your guitar. I’ve got a piano up in the barn.
Tavis: So when did you figure out that farming was not the way you were going to go, and that all this gift that you had, this musical talent that you had, had to come out?
Mahal: Probably, well, I think that – I can’t say that this was the exact day, but I remember a day sitting in class. I’d gone to the University of Massachusetts Stockbridge School of Agriculture.
I was sitting in class, and this man was trying to tell me that you could put poisonous ammonium nitrate on the soil, and that would make the plant grow and it would raise the per-acre yield. I’m sitting there saying, “Okay, now I’m going to study this thing (unintelligible).”
The plant is going to be like a vein up to the sun, and the sun is coming into the plant and the photosynthesis is going on, and it’s drawing this information and energy up in there. I said, “Now, how is it not that when I eat this plant I’m not going to be eating that poison?” (Laughter) I was like, “These,” my mama said, “These people crazy.”
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) “These people are crazy.” So I said, “This is nuts.” So then I started trying to say, “Well,” started talking about it, and nobody seemed to hear me.
They were saying, “But no, you have to understand that the yield per acre.” (Laughter) I was like, “Man, bump the yield per acre? You put poison in the ground”
Tavis: You’re putting poison in the ground.
Mahal: And they’ll be spraying poison on top later. That herbicide, pesticide. I said, “No, no, no, no. Oh, no, no, no.” I said, “No, music.” And music just said, “See? I told you.” (Laughter) “I put my arms around you before. Now come on in.”
Tavis: Come on back.
Mahal: That’s right.
Tavis: And you went.
Mahal: I went.
Tavis: And here we are.
Mahal: I went, just dove in.
Tavis: And here we are all these years later. Tell me about how special it feels to have this collection out? I was saying to you when you walked on the set before we came on the air here how beautiful it is to have been around long enough and done enough good work to have a boxed set.
Fifteen CDs, 170 tracks – most folk who love music are just trying to get a record out. (Laughter) You’ve been blessed and have done this long enough now to have a boxed set of your stuff.
The packaging is gorgeous. I love it. I love what’s in it, obviously. What do you make of this boxed set?
Mahal: Well, Tajblues.com and our website, I have a wonderful person that works with me that really kind of like looks over my shoulder about that stuff and makes sure that that kind of thing, and with everybody together, we managed – the band and the people with the website.
We all got together and they passed a lot of stuff past us, so we had opinions on it and fortunately, some friends of mine, who had taken some great pictures back in the day, everybody had forgotten about them.
Said, “Oh, I have these pictures from back when you first came to California.” I was like, “Really? Look at that.” I was like, “Yo. Okay, I guess I was doing it then.” (Laughter)
Tavis: Oh, you were doing it in Columbia, and Columbia is happy that you were doing it. What I love about this is is that every record on the inside, it’s obviously all been repackaged, but the original album covers -
Mahal: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: – are on each of the CDs.
Mahal: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, that’s how – the first album cover and the last album cover. The first one I had nothing to do with. They put together – “The Rising Sons.” That came out years later. We recorded that and that didn’t come out until the ’90s.
Tavis: (Unintelligible) Ry Cooder.
Mahal: Yeah, yeah, Ry.
Tavis: He was here not too long ago.
Mahal: Oh, good.
Mahal: Good, good. Believe me, out of all them that played, that’s the man.
Tavis: Ry Cooder (unintelligible).
Mahal: Ry is the man.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Mahal: I don’t have no problem letting everybody know that when I came out I heard everybody who was supposed to be somebody. When I heard him, it all stopped. They all fell away.
Mahal: On that album, but after that, every album cover, I was involved in. This house was downtown L.A. somewhere, and I just couldn’t believe that they actually were going to destroy that house. So I said, “Well, I’m going to take a picture of it, and sit right out in front of it.” Then this one is available now as a beautiful print.
Tavis: It’s a piece of art, yeah.
Mahal: Yeah, and that just blew my mind. I think that also scared a lot of people, too. (Laughter) But every album cover, I was involved with.
Tavis: How did you become – I’m looking at all this stuff. What all do you have over here? You have – what all do you have?
Mahal: Oh, eight-string ukulele, a (unintelligible).
Tavis: Pick them up so I can see (unintelligible).
Mahal: Oh, sorry.
Tavis: A ukulele.
Mahal: Yeah a ukulele. (Strums ukulele)
Tavis: What else you got over there?
Mahal: Okay, I have a – it’s actually set up like a six-string banjo.
Mahal: Which it’s a five-string banjo with an extra low string on it. (Plays banjo) It’s a – my friend from Mississippi said, “Man, that sure is a devilish instrument.” (Laughter)
Tavis: Is there a third one over there?
Mahal: Yeah, there’s a guitar over here, and -
Tavis: How did you become so proficient at so many instruments?
Mahal: Well, I looked at them like people that you hadn’t heard from in a long time, and just kind of I like – (strums guitar) – to see what -
Tavis: Give me something – yeah.
Mahal: (Playing guitar) That’s like, that’s like -
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Mahal: That’s like – you know what this is?
Tavis: You’re killing it, man, you’re killing it. (Laughter)
Mahal: It’s like the line in the song said, where the ghosts of Mississippi meet the gods of Africa. That sound is like right, you got one foot -
Tavis: Yeah, right in the middle. (Laughter)
Mahal: – one foot over here, one foot over here.
Tavis: I’m going to ask you to go back to that ukulele one more time and play a little something.
Mahal: Oh, okay.
Tavis: It ain’t too often I see Negroes play the ukulele. (Laughter) Because you were so unique, so I wonder if you can just play a little something something on that ukulele, man.
Mahal: (Unintelligible) Oh, okay. (strums ukulele) Oh, yeah. (Playing ukulele, singing) Ooh, you big-legged, corn-fed, Midwestern girls, oh, you (unintelligible) they drive me out of my world. Oh, that’s, uh, what makes Big Daddy come back home to you. And a big tractor and a great big old cornfield, mm, (unintelligible) holes in his big heels.
(Singing, playing)Oh, baby, that’s what makes Big Daddy come home to you, mm, mm, mm, mm. And then you – and then you – (laughter) and then I’ll – and then I’ll – and then you’ll – and then we’ll – (laughter) and then we’ll – tell me, baby now, woo, tell me right, oh, you know, Daddy gonna love you all night. Oh, that’s what brings Big Daddy home to you. You know? (Laughter) But a lot of people – Sam Cooke, man.
Tavis: Oh, yeah, yeah.
Mahal: Sam Cooke used to play it. That was what he took on the road to write his songs on, a ukulele.
Tavis: You a bad man.
Mahal: I don’t know about that -
Tavis: No, you -
Mahal: You a bad man.
Tavis: No, you, man.
Mahal: No, you the man.
Tavis: No. I’m just the man hanging with the man. (Laughter) The new project from Taj Mahal is called “The Complete Columbia Albums Collection.” Fifteen CDs, 170 tracks. I am so delighted and pleased to have this now as a part of my collection, and I think you will be too.
Just as pleased to have had, after all these years, the chance to sit with you and just have a conversation.
Mahal: My pleasure. I’ve been looking forward to this, man, just because I love your work, and I pay big attention to you, because you have your own mind. A lot of people don’t have their own mind. (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah, well -
Mahal: I like that.
Tavis: – it gets me in trouble a lot of times, but anyway. (Laughter)
Mahal: Come on, now.
Tavis: Well, I’m just trying to represent, though.
Mahal: All right.
Tavis: Appreciate you, man.
Mahal: My pleasure.
Tavis: Love you, Taj.
Mahal: All right.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. Until next time, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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