The well-documented career path of many blues legends began in Mississippi and ended in Chicago. But for Taj Mahal - born Henry St. Clair Fredericks - the road to success led from Massachusetts to California. This deviation from the well-traveled path is only fitting when you consider that Taj Mahal is perhaps the most indefinable artist of his genre. With a sound described as "Afro-Caribbean," "Hula Blues" and "Folk-Blues" among others, the 65 year-old singer/guitarist offers a multi-cultural sound underpinned by a traditional blues platform.
"My mother is from South Carolina and my father is from the Caribbean," Taj says, speaking by phone from his northern California home. "So the palette I got to paint music with already was a world perspective in the first place. "
On Sunday, November 11, the Taj Mahal Trio will close the the Alys Stephens Center's "Blues & BBQ Fest" with a 7 p.m. performance. The trio - Taj Mahal, bassist Bill Rich and drummer Kester Smith - has been performing together for parts of the past 30 years.
Having transfigured himself into his current persona while attending the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Taj Mahal relocated to Los Angeles following college graduation in 1964. There, he immersed himself in the city's thriving music scene and formed The Rising Sons alongside fellow legend Ry Cooder. Since beginning his recording career as a solo artist nearly 40 years ago, Taj Mahal has opted for substance over style in a business known for trends and fleeting fame.
"It's not based upon a song or a hit - it's based on the ability to continue to vibrate with people as they move through life. The heart of music is not to be on David Letterman - it's to really affect people's lives. It's about the music playing you."
True to his Caribbean heritage, Taj Mahal has taken to the idea of performing on "Blues Cruises" in the past several years. As implied, these events bring artists and fans together on cruise ships for music and camaraderie in tropical locales. To date, Taj Mahal has performed on approximately 10 blues cruises.
"It's Americans and international people who love the music - a lot of these people have never been on a cruise before. This is the thing that brings them on to a cruise. There's plenty of music to hear on the boat and the people love to dance and party. It gives them an opportunity to be in close contact with the musicians," he says.
With a lengthy career perspective, Taj Mahal is intrigued by the ever-changing nature of the music business. Though the emergence of the Internet, iTunes and satellite radio have radically altered the landscape of the industry, Taj views these outlets as the next steps in an ongoing progression.
"When any kind of technology comes in, everybody's got to rearrange what they're doing. It used to be radio - AM and FM - and XM is the one happening now. I think the industry didn't take the opportunities that were presented to them early on - that there was new technology coming and that they needed to embrace it and get involved with it. And if you're not going to embrace it, you at least need to know what it is and not be afraid of it. I think they saw it as a threat. When they tried to get rid of [file-sharing site] Napster, all it did was set them up for the turmoil they have now. If you want to be successful and survive, you have to deal with the tools of the trade of the day," he says.
In the live setting, Taj Mahal is in the enviable position of possessing a large catalog of material.
"If I have a song that doesn't sound good for one night, I'll retire it until it comes back up in its own rotation again. We've got a lot of material because instead of waiting for the industry to tell us when we could record, we just went off and did our work." www.tajblues.com
The Taj Mahal Trio will perform at the Alys Stephens Center's Jemison Concert Hall on Sunday, November 11 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $28-$62 ($10 for students) and can be purchased by calling 975-ARTS or online at http:main.uab.edu/Sites/ASC