Here's the truth: All other things being equal, all other life obligations set aside, and if the stupid battery on my cell phone had more than a spit's worth of endurance, I'd want to keep on shooting the breeze with Taj Mahal. Not "interviewing" him. Shooting the breeze with him. Here's why:
Speak with the man for a few minutes and a handful of things become abundantly clear.
a) Here's someone who's thought a good deal about the items on a list entitled "Things That Matter."
b) That list of "Things That Matter?" It's a short list.
c) He pays attention.
d) He's got opinions — well-considered opinions (and questions to go with them).
e) He doesn't hold back.
Long before it was a cool thing, Taj began digging around in what we now call "world music." To him, it was a personal mission. He calls his interest in world music "a big, lifetime project."
"See, this didn't just start with me," he says. "My dad was from the West Indies. As a young black man growing up in the U.S., I had a different kind of support and substance. You had to really find your footing, find your music, develop your sense of direction. You had to be thinking about what you were going to do."
Taj says that while he'd always been intrigued by his heritage, musical and otherwise, following it all back to Africa, that information was not readily available to him in the States.
"The Caribbean is much more connected to Africa than the United States," he says.
There's a cultural exchange between the two, a back and forth.
"A lot of it got transmitted to me, and I saw that it wasn't going to get transmitted to the next generation because the music business is not interested in transferring my cultural information. All they want to know is did they make enough money? That's how it was, and here's Taj Mahal playing a different game, and not everybody was ready for it. That was just too bad for them, 'cause it was going to happen anyway. I felt that it was important for Americans, of whatever stripe, who were interested in knowing where their music came from to hear about it. And I was saying, 'Here are some ways that you can blend it up.'"
Blending it up is another part of that big, lifetime project, too, finding ways to get those textures — eclectic, raw, and surprising — into his music.
"When you're talking textures, you're talking personality," he says. That dovetails perfectly with his notes for musicians just starting out, too.
"Who are you? Maybe your mom's French and your dad's Italian. Go into those traditions," Taj says. "Take the best of that, and mix it in with some R&B or jazz or blues or hip-hop. You might have something pretty unique. Have a voice. And don't discount the rest of the world. Find out what's going on. Pay attention."
Paying attention, not discounting or ignoring the rest of the world, is a theme he comes back to again and again. His own work tracing back his roots led him to a collaboration with Mali's Toumani Diabatem and an album titled Kulanjan that for Taj felt like coming full circle, like coming home. He had, in the broadest sense, achieved a heartfelt objective: to bring the blues back to its homeland, its heartland. Blues may owe a debt to its progenitors, like children owe the debt of life to their own folks, but ultimately, they make their own way in the world.
"The blues can stand up for itself," Taj says. "It has its own voice. It's a fantastic music, and we should be very proud that we have been able to generate that in this hemisphere."
One thing he is adamant about is that you — as a person, as an artist — can't be fully independent if you don't know who you are. You need to get out into the wider world, shake off our narrow definitions.
"Cleveland plays Miami. That's the World Series? Australia plays Sri Lanka — now that's the World Series," Taj says.
He should know, too. South America, Japan, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Fiji — Taj has toured them all, played for those audiences, learned from them. You get the sense that he is a man who is at home in the world, and that broader world always beckons. He has a commitment to expanding his horizons.
Along the way, it helps to have good traveling companions. People like bassist Bill Rich and drummer Kesster Smith, musicians who form part of the Taj Mahal Trio, musicians he's been working with for decades.
"Bill was a guitar player years ago and morphed over to being a bass player," Taj explains. "He asks me where my chords are, what are the changes? 'Show me.' And then he jumps right in with something no other bass player would think to do. Kester's from the Caribbean. So he brings himself in with all that calypso, quadrille, and bossa nova. I'm thrilled to have that. What I wanted were musicians who could hear because I wasn't going to be playing like everybody else. When I was growing up, I heard everybody play different. It's too easy for people just to throw the same riffs around. Safe. Everything starts to sound the same."
Still, when it comes right down to it, Taj Mahal's music has one straight-ahead goal: to get you on the dance floor, to get the blood moving. Why is danceable music so important to him?
"How important is it to you?" he laughs. "It's like oxygen. When a musician is walking around regaling you with some beautiful melody, that's great. Not against that. Ain't mad at that at all. But when there's that certain kind of music — that people say they like — well, why are they standing there? Get everybody out on the floor. Rock this place."