A Real Soul Man

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

The blues comes to Carmel’s Sunset Center in no uncertain terms this Thursday in the form of the Taj Mahal Trio.  For over 30 years, Taj Mahal has been at the forefront of the movement to preserve traditional blues and African-American roots music, and is a noted musicologist.  He is also a Grammy nominated writer and composer, and plays over 20 musical instruments.

Mahal (real name Henry St.Clair Fredericks) was born in New York City and grew up in Springfield, MA.  The oldest of 9 children, he grew up surrounded by music. His mother, a schoolteacher from South Carolina, sang gospel and his father, a composer and arranger from Jamaica, was a jazz afficionado.   While he was growing up, Mahal would listen to his father’s short-wave radio.  “I could listen to London, Rio, Havana, Kingston, Moscow… all around the world, and I could hear people’s souls through their music.” 

While attending the University of Massachusetts, where he studied agriculture, Mahal saw concerts by Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker.  The time was the mid-1960s, and the folk-blues revival was in full swing.  Mahal loved the music that he heard at these campus coffee-house shows; something in the songs spoke to him of his own African heritage, of which he was deeply proud.  He began to study blues history in his spare time at college, and soon realized that through the preservation of this music he would be keeping alive the history of the African-American people.

Mahal’s study of the blues led him to explore other forms of music, and he soon discovered Zydeco, Caribbean and West African folk music, as well as rock, jazz and R&B.  He started to learn to play some musical instruments including guitar, piano and harmonica, and was soon playing regularly on the Boston folk circuit and at college events with his band, Taj Mahal and the Elektras.

After graduating from college in 1964, Mahal moved to Los Angeles, where he met Ry Cooder.  The two formed a band called the Rising Sons and recorded a number of songs, though only one single was released before the band dissolved.  He released his solo debut in 1968, a self-titled release on Columbia Records consisting of laid-back blues standards.  The following year, he released “Giant Step / De Old Folks At Home,” which featured his best known song, “Take a Giant Step.”  

Since those early days, Mahal has released over 20 albums, including several albums of children’s music.  His music embraces a wide range of styles, yet has a sound that is uniquely his own.  He has performed, recorded and toured with some of the world’s top artists including Eric Clapton, Miles Davis, B.B. King, Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt.  He has both acted in and composed musical scores for movies, and also wrote the Grammy-nominated score for the Broadway production “Mule Bone.”

Taj Mahal has been described as “a cyclone of energy and sound.”  A true renaissance man, in addition to his musical talents he is a student of philosophy, an organic gardener and cook, and is fluent in five languages.  Thursday’s concert is a great chance to see and hear a living legend up close.  The Taj Mahal Trio features Kester Smith on drums and Bill Rich on bass.

First published in “411”, The Salinas Californian, September 2, 2004

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