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Vail: Sharing culture through music

Stewart Oksenhorn
Vail, CO COlorado
Taj Mahal photographed in 1974 in Berkeley, Calif., by Baron Wolmans
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VAIL, Colorado “-Taj Mahal, who plays in Vail, Colorado Thursday, seems to have a point of view on most everything, and consistently his opinions are informed, enlightening, colorful ” and lengthy. You don’t want to raise a serious topic with the singer ” born in 1942 as Henry St. Clair Fredericks ” unless you’ve got some time on your hands to hear what he’s got to say on the matter.

So it is with guest-star albums, which numerous artists of Taj’s vintage have released. Pick a musician with longevity and wide recognition ” say, B.B. King ” and surround him with a fleet of guest stars ” say, Bonnie Raitt, Ryan Adams, Bela Fleck, Jimmy Buffett, Tony Bennett and Chuck D ” and call it a project. Just don’t call Taj Mahal to endorse it.

“I don’t really like those albums. They come off real smarmy and non-musical,” said Taj, speaking from his home in Berkeley. “It’s like a bunch of buzzards coming out. I would not buy these albums. More like a marketing project than a bunch of friends getting together to do something.”



The exception, in Taj’s eyes, is “Maestro,” a 2008 album featuring guests Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, Los Lobos, Angelique Kidjo, Ziggy Marley and members of the New Orleans Social Club ” and honoring, no surprise, Taj himself. The album was meant to commemorate Taj’s 40th anniversary as a recording artist, a reasonably significant occasion (even if the timing arguably underestimates that career by a handful of years). But it is the spirit of “Maestro” that Taj believes puts it in a category of its own.

“I knew everybody on this album, and it was an opportunity to have some fun,” said Taj, who will perform a free concert at Golden Peak in Vail tonight. “It could have been a three- or four-CD set.”



Another aspect that sets “Maestro” somewhat apart is that the music actually makes sense; the guest artists actually share an artistic foundation, apart from a friendship, with Taj.

Of course, it would be hard for a musician not to have some musical background in common with Taj. He is often placed in the blues corner; “Maestro” was nominated for a Grammy as Best Contemporary Blues Album, a category which Taj has won twice before. But a far better description of his full bag of sounds is roots music, and Taj takes a broad, worldly view of exactly what fits in the roots realm. He has not only played a variety of blues ” the rural, acoustic sort he specialized in early on; more sophisticated sounds with bigger arrangements later on ” but also delved into Caribbean, African, Jamaican, Hawaiian and Indian styles.

The key to adopting so many various styles is finding a cultural connection to the music. When Taj was growing up, mostly in Springfield, Mass., he noticed a distinction between the music that was popular ” “My Fair Lady,” Bob Dylan are two examples he cites ” and what was played in his house, and seemed to actually come from someplace familiar, from roots he recognized as his own.



“I have a different background,” he said. His father, whose ancestors came from the West Indies, was a gifted musician who quit playing to take work in factories when he started his family. His mother was an African-American from the South.

“That’s the information I got as a young person,” he said. “In my house it was music from those roots. I decided I would focus on that music ” Latin, Caribbean, African, Southern. It was hard for white people to think about that stuff. But it was part of my language as a child. I wasn’t trying to push what the industry was trying to push. I was trying to be my own person.”

Taj says it is not that the music he was listening to was necessarily better than what the white folks listened to. But he had the advantage of seeing clearly the lines between himself and the styles, so the sounds came with history and meaning.

“I was lucky,” he said. “The majority of people didn’t know the connections in this music. It was a much more interesting way to be involved in music. Because it was my culture, and no one could tell me what I could or couldn’t do.”

Taj absorbed his musical lessons in a church choir, and gathering spots like the Elks Club, Moose Lodge and the Caribbean Social Club ” places where music wasn’t so much entertainment as a way of maintaining a tradition.

“There was music going through the culture of the time, from grandmother to father to son, neighbor to neighbor,” he said. “I liked the idea that you could share culture through music.”

What: Bluesman Taj Mahal performs.

Where: Colorado Ski Classic’s Golden Peak stadium at the base of Vail Mountain.

When: 6 p.m., today.

Cost: Free.

More information: Visit http://www.streetbeatconcerts.com.


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