Ninth Wonder of the World?
If India’s Taj Mahal is not regarded as the Eighth Wonder of the World, is it any wonder that America’s renowned blues guitarist Taj Mahal is not considered the Ninth?
From markedly different backgrounds, the three men share a passion for all things musical. The Dalai Lama once said the more an action is motivated by love, the more fearless and free the action will be. Their unconditional love of music inspired fearless experimentation with many styles – Caribbean, Latin, African and Hawaiian are but a few. Mahal was one of the first American artists to perform reggae music, and all three of the musicians played together at the 20th Havana Jazz Festival in Cuba this past December. Between the three of them, if they haven’t done it yet, you can bet they’re thinking about it.
As recently reported in the Aspen Times, Mahal believes diversity is a natural expression of what it is to live on a planet that contains so many cultures.
“I try to show this diversity of music in humanity over years and years and years and years,” says Mahal. “We have to be conscious that we are not the only ones here, that this is not the only way. My music goes to show the diversity we have on our planet, and what the music can do for people.”
Seeds for the trio’s formation were planted in the late ’60s at a little place in Los Angeles called The Whiskey a Go Go. Mahal was in the audience while Rich was playing electric bass for a band called Buddy Miles Express. As Los Angeles was the place to be at the time, Rich and Mahal kept running into each other. Admirers of the other’s work, the two began collaborating. Their early musical explorations included a tuba band and an international rhythm band, complete with steel drums and a conga player. Smith and Mahal met in New York City in 1972 while both were guests on a public television show, but it wasn’t until a couple of years later, when they ran into each other again in Los Angeles, that they began playing together. The rest, as they say, is history.
Born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks in New York City in 1942, Mahal was raised in Springfield, Mass. Though he did not start his musical career until graduating from college, music was an integral part of his upbringing, as his father was a jazz pianist from the Caribbean and his mother was a gospel singer in the church choir. Their neighborhood was rich with ethnic diversity which exposed Mahal to a wide range of musical styles at a young age. Equally important was an old short-wave radio that belonged to his father. Through it, young Mahal was able to listen to London, Rio, Havana, Kingston – he “could hear people’s souls through their music.” When Mahal decided to work with Smith and Rich years later, it was because he’d heard their souls and liked what he heard.
Smith brought with him a preference for Latin-influenced and calypso music. Born in Grenada and raised in Trinidad, he didn’t start playing the drums until he was 18.
Before becoming a musician, he says, he would pay “adults” to take him to clubs just to listen to the bands. He moved to New York City in 1969 and considers his time in New York “like going to school.” He took advantage of every opportunity and never refused a gig.
“Things happen,” he says. “You never know where it will lead.”
Unlike Mahal and Smith, Rich began playing music at an early age. Born into a musically gifted family in Omaha, Bill picked up the guitar at age 7. He switched to electric bass seven years later and never looked back. His early prowess landed him a spot on tour playing with The Whispers when he was barely out of high school. “You never know where it will lead.” The Whispers tour led him to San Francisco where he met Buddy Miles and, eventually, Mahal.
Combined, Mahal, Smith and Rich have more than 125 years of experience performing live music. Their performance promises the allure of the unexpected. The most beautiful aspect of a live show is that the outcome is uncertain. According to Rich, the show will be “really happenin’.”
No promises were made but both Rich and Smith were smiling when they spoke of a favorite tune from their Mo’ Roots album called “St. Kitts Woman.” It’s a sentimental song for Smith.
“It has a nice groove-calypso with country blues,” he explains.
As for his own style of playing, he aims to “just go for it.” Mahal, on the other hand, strives to “keep the tradition alive.”
Taj Mahal (guitar, banjo and vocals), Kester Smith (drums) and Bill Rich (electric bass) will be performing this Sunday at the Vilar Center in Beaver Creek at 4 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are still available for the 4 p.m. show for $38. For more information or to buy tickets, call the Box Office at 845-TIXS or visit http://www.VilarCenter.org.
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