He’s celebrating four decades as a solo artist with a guest-studded new album and a tour, but 66-year-old Taj Mahal is not one to dwell on past accomplishments.
“It’s in progress and in motion,” the gravelly-voiced roots-music master says over the phone from his home in Berkeley, Calif., when asked about his career. The phrase echoes the title of a 1998 retrospective of his wide-ranging work, and 10 years down the road from that milepost he hasn’t slowed down at all.
The singer, writer and multi-instrumentalist born Henry St. Claire Fredericks was in a band with Ry Cooder called the Rising Sons before debuting as a solo act in 1968 with straight-up blues. Since then, he has branched out to explore everything from reggae to Hawaiian music, from the sounds of West Africa to the music of Latin America, taking time along the way to also do children’s albums and soundtrack work.
Bluesman long ago became too narrow a description for him, even if his Web site is called www.tajblues.com.
“I’m a composer, man,” he says. “I base myself in African-derived music. Blues is one of the modern forms of African music”—and the foundation for so much American music.
Sticking to “The Natch’l Blues” (the title of his second album) and following his muse into other roots territory hasn’t always been easy. But he resisted the temptation to, as he says, put on a sequined suit and slick back his hair (i.e., sell out), and his persistence has paid off: “It took a long time for this to work, and it did.”
The new Taj Mahal album, “Maestro,” starts out of course with the blues and then stretches out, all of the music conveying the innate joy he brings to his performances. Ben Harper, Ziggy Marley, Jack Johnson and Los Lobos are among the guests—just some of the artists he has run across in his many travels.
“Ziggy Marley is the third generation of Marleys I know,” he says. “I knew his grandmother and his dad—I did a children’s album with his grandmother. They’re like family.”
“Maestro” may celebrate a milestone, but Taj Mahal as usual is already looking ahead.
“I’ve got tons more stuff to do. I’m not saying (what it is) till it happens. Then it’ll be, beep, beep, here it is.”