‘Just let go’
Taj Mahal has a cure for the music-industry blues
“This weekend I’m headed down to that function—the Grammys. The people of this country still do acknowledge blues, but you will not see me receive a Grammy because [the music industry in] this country does not acknowledge blues.”
Those were the somewhat dismissive words of legendary African-American blues/roots artist Taj Mahal as he spoke by phone from his Berkeley home just days before he was due to head down to Los Angeles to attend the 51st Grammy Awards ceremony. Despite his new album, Maestro, being nominated for Best Contemporary Blues album, Mahal doesn’t have confidence in the musical powers that be. (He was right; he didn’t win. Dr. John’s City That Care Forgot did.)
Maestro is a lively collection of old-school blues and reggae-, rock- and African-influenced songs celebrating Mahal’s 40 years in the music business. It features such widely known and varied artists as Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, Beninese singer Angélique Kidjo, Los Lobos, his daughter Deva Mahal, as well as longtime musical cohorts, bassist Bill Rich and drummer Kester Smith.
The outspoken 66-year-old bluesman took the opportunity of this interview, pretty much from the get-go, to enthusiastically tear the music industry a new one.
“The record industry is taking advantage of everybody,” Mahal said. “Personally, I’m glad they’re dying. Seriously, it’s like, ‘Die, dog, die!’ The business needs to die. There’s not one among them that can say they did good by the artist. It’s a huge business based on ripping people off since the beginning of the business. [The record industry] took advantage of the creative side and the consumer.”
Mahal had much praise for “rappers, indie artists, jam bands, bands like Radiohead and Nirvana,” who have had “great innovative ideas, like marketing music online [and are] more caring about their fans than these other clowns.”
“I love the rappers, the hip-hop artists,” the likeable, mildly ranting Mahal went on. “They realize that the regular business model is just not that good.”
In fact, Mahal has taken a page from the indie-artist book: Even though Maestro is on the Heads Up label, Mahal has maintained much creative control by being in charge of production, administration and promotion of the album (which, besides being on CD, is also out on vinyl, at his request). Heads Up issued Maestro under exclusive license from Mahal’s own recording company, KAN-DU Records.
“I produced the record on my dime,” said Mahal. “They’ll handle it for four or five years’ time, then it belongs to me.”
For Maestro, Mahal assembled an all-star musical cast of longtime friends. He’s known Hawaiian-born singer-songwriter Jack Johnson for about seven or eight years since they played a couple of concerts together, and rocker Ben Harper and Jamaican reggae star Ziggy Marley longer than that. (Ziggy’s iconic father, Bob, helped record and mix Mahal’s 1974 album Mo’ Roots.)
New Orleans Hammond B3 man Ivan Neville and the New Orleans Social Club join Mahal on the track “I Can Make You Happy,” and Mahal’s Phantom Blues Band is back after backing him up on his (Grammy-winning!) albums, 1997’s Señor Blues and 2000’s Shoutin’ in Key.
Mahal had particular praise for working with Kidjo, who was a longtime friend of his late sister, well-known Parisian chanteuse Carole Fredericks, who passed away in 2001.
“Angelique is a very special person—full of energy, exciting to be around,” Mahal gushed. “She’s incredible, very innovative.”
The track that Mahal and Kidjo recorded together, the happy and danceable “Zanzibar,” also features internationally known Malian kora player Toumani Diabate.
The point of all of Mahal’s music actually is that it is dance-inspiring.
“You [Americans] bring a bunch of Africans [slaves] over on a ship—from an agrarian, musical culture,” Mahal said, sounding a little baffled, “but [some Americans] still don’t get it. … Tell the women they need to be dancing. Man, let go! Just let go!”