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Taj Mahal


(Heads Up; US: 30 Sep 2008; UK: 29 Sep 2008)

Recycling the Blues

Folk blues artist Taj Mahal has been putting out recordings for 40 years. He has a distinctive style of playing the guitar with his thumb and middle finger that adds syncopation to his leads, and a recognizable vocal style. His voice is simultaneously gruff and sweet, like someone sandpapered his throat and then coated it with honey. As a result, it’s always been easy to identify a Taj Mahal song after hearing just the first few notes.

The problem with this is that many of his albums sound the same. That’s certainly true of Maestro. Although he employs a number of high profile guest artists that include Jack Johnson, Ziggy Marley, Los Lobos, Angelique Kidjo, and Ben Harper, there’s a generic quality to the release.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Mahal wrote or co-wrote almost all of the tunes.  While some of songs are better than others, they all seem reminiscent of other songs one has previously heard. In a weird way, the two most unique songs are actually covers: James Moore’s “Scratch My Back” (made popular by Otis Redding) and Willie Dixon and Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “Diddy Wah Diddy”. These tunes sound different simply because one has never heard them done Mahal style.

Mahal does know how to create an intimate atmosphere. He tends to use his accompanists one at a time so that their individual contributions stand out. A good example of this is “”Slow Drag”, where the individual horn players take turns on the solos rather than belt them as a unit. Mahal doesn’t make himself the star of the songs. He just sort of sets them up and leads the others through the process.

When Mahal was a young man, he had trouble deciding whether he wanted to be a farmer or a musician. He loved working the land and has continued with projects introducing city kids to the wonders of the country where a person can grow one’s own food. There’s an earthiness to Mahal’s music as well. His reuse of styles and sounds no doubt comes out of his philosophy of composting and recycling. Nothing should ever be wasted. Everything can be reclaimed.

So perhaps one should be more generous when one hears Mahal sing a new song that sounds like an old composition. When he delivers lines like “Your smile is my sunny day / chasing all my many troubles away”, “Take all my love / You’ve been away from my arms too long”, “She’ll still make a strong man holler / Make a weak man lose his home”, etc. on brand new songs that sound like old ones a person has heard thousands of times before, maybe one should smile and say that Mahal has still got it. He’s connected to the roots he began singing about 40 years ago.

But as the disc’s title says, Mahal is a maestro. One expects him to keep on getting better. This album is a testament that shows Mahal can still make a solid folk blues record. One just presumes a maestro should do more than that.


Steven Horowitz has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, where he continues to teach a three-credit online course on "Rock and Roll in America". He has written for many different popular and academic publications including American Music, Paste and the Icon. Horowitz is a firm believer in Paul Goodman's neofunctional perspective on culture and that Sam Cooke was right, a change is gonna come.

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