LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
The blues musician Taj Mahal has been at it for five decades. Some even credit him with helping to popularize the American blues. Mahal made his name in the California scene in the late '60s and early '70s. Now, Columbia Records has released a boxed set of his music from that era. NPR's Laura Sydell visited with Taj Mahal in Berkeley, where he still lives.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Taj Mahal has a degree in animal husbandry and agronomy, and planned to be a farmer. Music was just something he did.
TAJ MAHAL: No matter what went down, music was always going to be a part of my life. What ultimately happened is that over a period of time I just kind of looked around and when like, wow. I'm actually making a living doing this.
SYDELL: Mahal started making a living doing that in Massachusetts, where he grew up and went to college. He also created a stage name for himself. He was born Henry St. Clair Fredericks, Jr., but he admired Gandhi and Indian philosophy.
MAHAL: In looking out into the world, it didn't look all that nice out there. And who were the nice people? You know, certainly Mahatma Gandhi was.
SYDELL: So, he became Taj Mahal? In 1964, with his new name, Mahal headed for Los Angeles, where he joined up with a group of musicians that included Ry Cooder. They called themselves the Rising Sons and played a mix of blues, rock and country.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STATESBORO BLUES")
RISING SONS: (Singing) I woke up this morning now, I had the Statesboro blues. I looked over in the corner and my grandpa had 'em too. Mama got them. Papa got them. Sister's got them. Everybody's got them...
SYDELL: The Rising Sons were not a commercial success; Columbia didn't even release their first album at the time. But Mahal stayed with the label and began his solo career. He traveled with his band up to the San Francisco Bay Area, and finally settled in 1971, when it was still a fervent center of the anti-war movement and the counterculture. As we drive through Berkeley, he recalls why he moved here.
MAHAL: The weather, the mix of people. The university was in the middle, the ideas were there, the sound of music were coming out of everywhere, and all kinds of it.
SYDELL: The places Mahal used to play are legendary.
MAHAL: Winterland, the Fillmore, the original Fillmore, right? The Carousel Ballroom. And in the early days, I played at the Jabberwocky.
SYDELL: That's gone, right?
MAHAL: Oh yeah. They're all gone. All this stuff is gone.
SYDELL: But Mahal is still here. After a stint living in Hawaii, he came back, still in love with the diversity of the area, especially its food culture.
MAHAL: Well, one of each.
SYDELL: Mahal is a devoted cook, and we make a stop at his favorite spice shop in Oakland's Specialty Foods Inc.
MAHAL: Serving the Bay Area, African, Caribbean and Latin-American community since 1970. These items just arrived. Yeah, I'm from Ghana, Nigeria, Jamaica, jumbo bouillon cubes.
SYDELL: You're as eclectic about your food as you are about your music.
MAHAL: I got people in my family, you know, Southern, Caribbean.
SYDELL: Both Mahal's parents were musicians. His grandmother was from St. Kitts in the West Indies.
MAHAL: This is what came into my soul as a child. My grandmother had many children. She lost most. So when we came along, we were really special. I was the first grandchild that she could see her spirit moving to a new generation.
SYDELL: At home he was exposed to traditional Caribbean music and jazz. One of his neighbors, Lyn Perry, was the nephew of famous bluesman, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup. Perry taught Mahal blues.
MAHAL: He was playing grown-man music at 13, 14. So, when he found out I had a guitar and I found out he could play, there was no stopping it. You know, I spent all my time hanging out with him. He would just play, and I would just kind of learn how to play what he was playing.
SYDELL: Mahal's training is apparent on his first solo CD.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAVING TRUNK")
MAHAL: (Singing) I went upstairs to pack my leavin' trunk. I ain't seen no blues, whiskey made me sloppy drunk. I ain't never seen no whiskey, blues made me sloppy drunk.
SYDELL: Fat Dawg - that's his legal name. He runs Subway Guitars, down the street from Mahal's house. Mahal comes here most days to try out guitars and sometimes ukuleles...
(SOUNDBITE OF UKULELE)
FAT DAWG: He makes it sound like Arthur Godfrey.
MAHAL: No, I don't.
SYDELL: The store has been here since Mahal first came to the Bay Area.
DAWG: I've been here for 44 years - actually, it's almost 45 years now.
SYDELL: Fat Dawg says Mahal sometimes comes just to hang out incognito.
DAWG: We call him The Maestro. It's much better that way because there's a lot of baggage with the other name.
SYDELL: Some don't call him The Maestro. With fame came critics who didn't like the way he reinterpreted traditional blues and mixed it with rock and unusual instruments. But that is exactly what makes Taj Mahal special, says Jorma Kaukonen. He was playing guitar with Jefferson Airplane when Mahal moved to the Bay Area, and Kaukonen recalls seeing Mahal play at The Fillmore.
JORMA KAUKONEN: And in that band it was Taj and an army of tubas. I mean, really, you know, in an era where the guitar was sort of approaching ascendancy, to come to a rock 'n' roll venue and have a tuba band - I mean, what more could you say, really?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SYDELL: Over the years, Taj Mahal has faded in and out of the pop music world. But, he says, there are food fads too.
MAHAL: It's just like heirloom tomatoes; this is heirloom music. It's like we used to have all kinds of diversity; in our poultry, in our vegetables, in our fruits. And slow but surely, the monoculture beast comes in. I'm saying that's not a good idea. And if it means that I got to do it on my own, then I do it on my own.
SYDELL: At 71 years old, Mahal still tours 160 days a year. And wherever he goes, Mahal says, he likes to find a kitchen and cook. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.