||For more than 40 years, Taj Mahal has kept on touring and reinventing his own music. Burhan Wazir on the blues musician's autobiography
Sunday September 9, 2001
Taj Mahal: Autobiography of a Bluesman
Taj Mahal with Stephen Foehr
Sanctuary £16.99, pp288
Blues musician Taj Mahal has already recorded a glorious total of 39 albums. That is twice the number left by the Beatles and 34 more than Bob Marley. Yet, like many of his blues peers - Bo Diddley, B.B. King and Muddy Waters - Mahal's true legacy is as a wandering musician, constantly touring and reinterpreting his songs.
'For many musicians, touring was associated with having a product out,' he says. 'My touring was associated with my being an artist. My music was a reaffirmation of the individual.'
Taj Mahal: Autobiography of a Bluesman is lucidly told to Stephen Foehr, author of Jamaican Warriors: Reggae, Roots & Culture. Foehr's sympathetic approach allows Mahal time to elucidate on race, his career highs and the Sixties.
Prodigiously talented and unmistakably cool, Mahal quickly won over a generation of rock'n'roll fans in the mid-Sixties. As white America rediscovered its musical roots - jazz and the blues - he was perfectly placed to take advantage.
On the Rolling Stones, he is insightful. He was invited to London to help with the recording of Rock'n'Roll Circus, their disastrous 1968 movie that also starred Clapton, Lennon and the Who. Mahal questions the widespread theory that Jagger and his men plundered the blues of Muddy Waters and B.B. King for monetary gain, without thought for tradition or respect.
'I was interested that these guys were covering old blues songs and were real positive towards blues people. The Stones wanted to meet Muddy Waters and talk to him. They were genuinely interested in the old blues and artists, whereas many of the American rock'n'rollers looked at the old black guys as people they could steal from. The Stones - British bands in general at that time - never looked at it like that.'
During the later part of his career, without a record deal, Mahal has reinvented himself as a continually touring live act, an archivist of a dying tradition who is happy to play both blues and jazz festivals. In 1979, he and his International Rhythm Band toured West Africa on a venture sponsored by the US State Department, itself a musical first. The band crossed from Zaire to Zambia during a border war and half their instruments were stolen. Undeterred, Mahal has returned to Africa many times and, with the advent of multiculturalism as a buzzword in the US (the term has been fashionable among blues musicians for at least 30 years), his current standing must now be reinterpreted - he stands alongside Miles Davis as a musician who has continually opted for the unique.
His 1999 album, Kulanjan, made with musicians from Mali, was a huge critical success. He says: 'For me, Kulanjan was highly personal. It was closing a gap before the year 2000. I've been able to make a musical connection to my roots.'
In Foehr's final chapters, it seems as if Mahal is now ready to retire. But, he says, the blues deserved to be saved from the dustbin of history: 'It seems to me that the call from the ancient people is still strong from one generation to the next. My quest has been to rediscover the combination, to find what door to go through.'
Every day he's got the blues