"My drummer Chester Thompson says, 'What you ain't seen hasn't passed you yet,'" says singer/songwriter/blues innovator Taj Mahal. Considering that his career has spanned five decades, taken him around the globe and seen him combine forces with the likes of Ry Cooder, kora master Toumani Diabate and Indian slide guitar player V. M. Bhatt, it's kind of hard to believe that there's anything Mahal hasn't seen yet.
In fact, Mahal is one of the progenitors of world music, fusing sounds from the Caribbean, South Pacific and Africa long before Peter Gabriel or Deep Forest dreamed up those 1990s-era cross-cultural exchanges. And 25 studio albums in, his most recent release — Maestro from 2008 — shows no lack of fusion inspiration. "Doors always open to all types of opportunity," Mahal tells Xpress.
In an interview with Rolling Stone last month, Mahal's daughter, Deva, (whose soul band, Fredericks Brown, sometimes opens for Mahal) said that her father "is always working on something." Mahal describes himself as a "walking ocean of music," but even as he's looking forward to the next project, he also remains enthusiastic about Maestro.
"We all are friends from different levels of our musical development," he says of the who's who of star-studded guest lists that makes up the album. Like Ben Harper, who adds vocals to "Dust Me Down," a tune he also wrote.
"I knew Ben Harper when he was a toddler in a backpack carrier — I knew about his grandparents before that," says Mahal. "He's one of the few guitar players who also knows how to repair any instrument. I gave him his first professional job." That was at Claremont College, where Harper showed up outside Mahal's tour bus, playing slide guitar.
It's Deva who co-wrote and shares singing duties on reggae tune, "Never Let You Down," but the backup band is Latin outfit Los Lobos. "They're like my brothers," says Mahal. He's especially tapped into Latin music because his father, late musician Henry Saint Clair Fredericks Sr., came from the West Indies. Even so, Mahal isn't interested in pigeonholing Los Lobos as Chicano rockers. "Those guys can play any kind of music," he says.
Reggae royalty Ziggy Marley was also tapped for a Caribbean-influenced tracks: "Black Man Brown Man." "I knew Ziggy Marley's grandmother," says Mahal. (He worked with Cedella Marley-Booker on a collection of African children's songs.) According to press, Bob Marley helped record Mahal's 1974 record, Mo’ Roots. And then Mahal contributed harmonica to Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers' 1999 album Spirit of Music. "I kept saying, 'Ziggy, we gonna get together?' Finally the opportunity came along."
One opportunity that's presented itself on a number of occasions has been the Warren Haynes Christmas Jam in Asheville. Mahal last played the annual fundraiser concert in 2006. (He returns to Asheville this week for an Orange Peel show in which he promises to “tear the roof off the sucka.”) His relationship with Haynes is through Gov't Mule — that band and Mahal's band played together. Since then, Haynes joined the Allman Brothers Band, another group with whom Mahal shares some important history. "I knew them guys back in the '60s, when Duane listened to my slide guitar player and started really learning how to play that stuff," he says. "We did a tune called 'Statesboro Blues' that they eventually became very famous for, but the first version of that they heard came from our first album."
Mahal has brought blues a lot further — philosophically and geographically — than delivering that one song to that one Southern rock group. "I look upon myself as involved in world culture," he says. "It's always so much of a shock when you travel to see how much everybody loves [the blues]. I'm playing at festival in Sweden with musicians from Mongolia and Tibet — and they know the music."
The first time he had that realization, he says, was in Spain during the 1970s. Immersed in European music, he'd stumble upon someone playing Wilson Pickett or Aretha Franklin. "Once you get out there and hear it coming back at you… You don't get a chance to be objective until you get out of here," he says about traveling beyond the U.S. "Once you start to travel, your perspective changes."
One place the musician has not yet traveled, surprisingly, is to his own namesake — the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. "But I cook the food," he says. "And I sure have amassed a large number of Indian friends."
— Alli Marshall can be reached at email@example.com.
who: Taj Mahal Trio, with The Dirty Guv’nahs
where: The Orange Peel
when: Thursday, April 14 (9 p.m., $26/$28. theorangepeel.net)
when: Wednesday, Oct. 6 (8 p.m. $47.25. ticketmaster.com)