Taj Mahal Interview/Profile
(Blues Cruise Diary)
When I started this piece it was going to be a diary of the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise of that embarked from Fort Lauderdale, Florida on January 13, 2008.
Looking back through my notes though, perhaps the only worthy note I made was on day 1 where I wrote:
Bumped into Irma Thomas. "Not doing bad for an old broad," sez she upon my inquiry. Claimed a little frustration at being given bad directions. I introduce myself as the author of the feature article on her that appeared in the Feb/Mar 2007 issue of BLUES REVUE Magazine. After a warm handshake we pledge to hook up later…"
It became clear before the first day was done that the diary concept would fall short in terms of conveying to the Soul-Patrol readership the tons of fun, music, history and information that was forthcoming from the artists on board.
Taj Mahal, the "Grand Marshall" of the cruise afforded me an opportunity for an exclusive interview, most certainly African in its points of origin, yet globally universal in its content. There is no question in my mind that it belongs on Soul-Patrol.
Approaching the halfway point in the weeklong cruise, the ship docked at the island of St. Croix. Taj came off the ship to headline the St. Croix Music Festival. He reached the stage at about 9:30 p.m. after a daylong lineup of great music. The crowd was jubilant and in the zone. I noticed that during some up-tempo numbers, Taj's singing voice slips into what I perceived as kind of an "alter ego", lower register voice that seemed to inject spurts of party down, dancing energy into the crowd. I asked Taj about that alter ego and he clarified my perception by saying, "that voice exists deeply in Africa. It's a spirit channeling voice. You find it in West Africa, Central and South.
If you listen to the South African vocal group Mahiathina & The Mahotello Queens, they have section with two different guys that sing real low. They're called Groaners. They channel the spirit voice of the ancestors. It's like the song says:
when you hear that spirit
movin' in your soul,
it's a message from an ancestor
who lived a long time ago
(ruled the world and all of it's gold.)
(The following is, transcribed to the best of my ability, the words and thoughts of African Elder Taj Mahal, Ethnomusicologist, Philosopher and Funky World Traveler and Musician…)
The Master's Dissertation
We've had to go through the experience of re-aligning ourselves after slavery disconnected us from the cultures in Africa; West, East, wherever people came from. We had no cohesive cultural situation short of redeveloping ourselves in this new land that we were brought to and enslaved in.
By the time the technology to record came around, of course the dominant culture first recorded everything that had Euro centric ideas. Then they recorded Black music. The technology recorded the information but someone outside the community decided what got recorded. They made the choice according to what they thought was the most commercially viable music and that's where a lot of confusion stems from.
This history is a bittersweet pill. Everybody has to take the position that they took. Number one was coming up with the information and giving it up. Two was getting the information and deciding it had commercial viability.
So, over the years, it was a hand in hand thing, but ourselves, the ones generating the information were not necessarily conscious of it. It was always tied to the monetary factor that was not connected to culture. If you're lucky enough to visualize how music fits in our lives as a cultural aspect then you realize the necessity of getting busy and passing it on to the next generation.
You see, the music is connected. It's a common mistake that African Americans make when we say, "well, I don't wanna hear that because that's taking me back, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah."
Brother, you can't get forward if you do know what's goin' on in the back. There's a wealth of information that's there in modern antiquity as well as ancient antiquity. Information that is empowering to you being in this world. You don't necessarily have to be, or feel outnumbered. You can feel you! You by yourself. Are you with? Are you without? Wherever you are, you've to to stand the ground that you're on.
My perspective is that artists like myself have a huge audience that's under serviced. I'm talkin' bout Keb' Mo', Guy Davis, Corey Harris, Sparky Rucker, Jerry Ricks and Otis Taylor, among others.
Responsibilities Of Black Artists
If you know that what you are doing as an artist is important, then you need to protect that work. It needs to be protected all the time. You can't allow yourself to get so far out there that there is no protection around what you are doing. You don't have to go back too far to understand how deep this is. All I have to do is say Fred Hampton or Sam Cooke and let it rest.
The real point of it is, not what you are against, but what you are for. In the end, it's what you are for. Oftentimes, because of the way we were raised in this environment, we tend to use the negative as the conversational point. We sit up and spit all day long about how this person is or ain't this or that. It goes back to that Master/Slave relationship. "If "Massa" would do right, kind of thing.
Then, when "Massa" walk up on you and wanna know what you talkin' bout' we say, "Oh, nuthin' Massa. We ain't got nuthin' ta say roun' h'yar. Whus it lak? We sick today or sump'n?"
It's all a version of that mindset that we must grow out of. We have to move toward a more global way of doing things. We must face the fact that we are not going to be able to refit the pieces the way they were before they changed them. You gotta go from where it is now.
One of the reasons I take people off the cruise to St. Kitts, where my Father's people are from is that most Americans have very little idea beyond themselves about anyone around them. No common understanding about other peoples. The whole system was designed and conspired to keep people workers. You don't wanna be thinkin' too much. Now, there ain't no jobs so they don't care. You can starve! Go to jail. We'll let you work!
We need to get above all this craziness that they have layered in on our minds and become proactive. Information like The Secret and The Four Agreements is great in that respect. That is what I liked about the '60's. There was so much information around. So much they didn't want you to know. A lot of it only went through a couple of different printings and it was gone. Great stuff on alternative energy and alternative spiritual stuff. Yogi Bhajan, Baba Meir, they were all coming through. Of course it didn't come through on the commercial side of things. You have to have your antennae up. As the Rasta's say, serious reasonings for you mind. That's what I appreciate.
The Failure To Support Originators Of The Music
Everything is tied to the money scene. People are used to making decisions based on having or acquiring more money. When you do not have, you make a different decision the decision to go play for $125 at the casino as opposed to $35 at a juke joint, for example. What's a brother to do? One is the environment, the other your pocket being fat.
You really figure out the politics involved in what people are supposed to do. They are not going to work on what's right. It's going to be based on the politics. You see, the average guy can never afford to fail upwards. You see these other guys come in, lose several billion dollars, get ousted, beat down in the publics eye, then somehow in a couple of years, morph into the head of blah, blah, blah, inc. Wait a minute. You know that wouldn't happen in the community. You mess up, we don't forget it.
Ultimately, we must become responsible for creating the places that young people can study the history of and play the music. Until we do that we just have to put up with the way it changes.
Conservative estimates say that over 500 billion dollars go through the hand of African-Americans yearly. That would make us somewhere between 9th and 13th as a country in terms of gross national product. Can you imagine the impact on Haiti and other Third World, Central & South American, South Pacific Island and African countries we could have if we actually controlled that? Anywhere we wanted to really. That's as opposed to still having to come out from under Massa's house. "Oh, Massa, you really gon' let me go to Africa? Oh, Lord have mercy, Massa."
Why do we have to have the table set for us? And I ain't mad at nobody. I'm just talkin' 'bout, well, here's the money. And we have all these people posturing, sitting around.
I'm sure the dominant culture looks down on us. We have all this money coming through and we don't even have national convention hall!
So our work is cut out for us. We sorely need a sound economic base if we are to begin to implement real change. We need to impress upon our youth the historical connection and impact it is having on what they/we are doing and not doing.
And what might be working for us spiritually is the fact that the one drop theory may yet come back and kick the dominant culture in the butt!
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