American Griot, Taj Mahal
Maverick American bluesman Taj Mahal has explored the music of the African
diaspora for almost four decades. Born in Harlem and raised in Springfield, MA,
Taj Mahal has had a lifelong love affair with blues roots, spicing his music
with influences from Caribbean, West African, and even Hawaiian music. He plays
more than 20 instruments and sings with a voice that ranges from gruff and
gravelly to smooth and sultry. Taj Mahal emerged professionally in the mid-1960s
as co-founder with guitarist Ry Cooder of the Rising Sons. Over the years, he's
shared the stage and recording studio with Eric Clapton, Dave Matthews Band,
Bonnie Raitt, BB King, John Lee Hooker, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan,
Sheryl Crow, Bob Marley, the Neville Brothers and the Rolling Stones.
Taj Mahal first met up with Gambian griots Alhaji Bai Konte, his son Dembo and
adopted son Malamini Jobarteh, during the 1970s, when Bai Konte first toured
North America introducing the kora to new audiences at music festivals.
Taj knew Alhaji Bai Konte's first recording, (Kora Melodies from the
Republic of the Gambia, West Africa), and with the help of Marc Pevar, Bai
Konte's manager in those days, Taj eventually found himself in Brikama, playing
music and enjoying traditional African family life at Konte Kunda (the Konte's
compound). Taj narrated a short film about the daily life of Gambian artisans
and musicians. Although Taj was enjoying his contact with the Gambian griots, he
knew there were deeper roots that would eventually trace their way back to the
ancient kingdoms of Mali. With the 1999 "Kulanjan" project, Taj was finally able
to make the Malian connection.
Kulanjan producers Joe Boyd and Lucy Duran assembled a cast of stellar Malian
musicians. The results were recorded in the Athens, Georgia studio where REM
made their early albums, and where they still record demos. The magic of
Kulanjan which blends Taj's bluesly National-Steel guitar and funky New Orleans
piano playing with Toumani Diabaté's delicate kora, Basekou Kouyate's bluesy
ngoni playing, Kasse Mady Dibaté's powerful griot vocals and other West African
elements earned the group a spot on the 1999 Africa Fête tour. I caught their
Boston set with Hauke Dorsch, a German friend, and a writer. I first met Hauke
'93 in Brikama, Gambia, while he was on a winter holiday visiting the Jobarteh
family. I was there studying kora and escaping the harsh Boston winter. Now Hauke
was visiting me in Boston, on a mission to interview Taj Mahal. What follows is
the conversation they had backstage on August 15, 1999.
Hauke Dorsch (HD):
Does the term griot have a meaning to
the African American community? Is it common?
Taj Mahal (TM):
Amongst the well-bred and the artistic community:
yes! And it gained some popularity through the Roots film and TV-series.
Poets, dancers and musicians who remain close to African art also
made this term well known.
HD: How exactly do people understand the
TM: Well, I don't know what people in general think
it to be, but as far as I am concerned I'd say it's mainly about people
who recount the past, who talk about history. Even if the people here
are not aware of that precise tradition they are aware of what such
a tradition might mean. I mean it's not a new thing. The griots exist
since the 13th century. It may eventually have more meaning for us.
But however I don't worry about what people think. I stopped worrying
about other people's opinions several years ago. You can only develop
yourself anyway. If you reached that goal, then you might give something
to others. However, today everything is judged on whether it makes
sense financially. When somebody can make money with it, it's got
HD: What led you to the kora? How did you
get to know Bai Konte (a famous Gambian griot)?
TM: I always had a positive connection to Africa, because my grandparents
and my parents were Garveyites. So there were no negative stereotypes
to overcome. And I was always interested in what I call Wild Music
and older forms of music, the door to hear something else. So what
led me to the kora: In the early fifties I heard a guitar being picked,
that interested me. I became interested in folk music. An early recording
of Reverend Gary Davis' Spike Divers Blues. (Lightning Hopkins?) That
opened my eyes. That was about 1961. Ten years later about 1970/71
there was an article in a folk-magazine Sing Out' about the kora.
And then here in Cambridge, Harvard Square at Briggs & Briggs (music
store - has since moved out of the square) I saw the cover of Bai Konte LP so I just walked in and bought
the LP, without even listening to it. It was such a great cover these
Alhaji Bai Konte,
HD: Did you know that it looked like that,
because they had some troubles with the film?
TM: No. Well, anyway like this it ended to something
good. Then I saw an LP by Ali Farka Toure, (the one with a guitar
on the cover, find out which one) again I was impressed. In 1972 or
73 I saw Ballets Africains the kora player blew me away. Then I got
to know Bai Konte thanks to Mark Pevar. Then I ran into Eric Bibb.
He was interested in black young musicians in those who who seriously
wanted to play music, not just funk (popular Black R&B ). I mean there
is nothing bad about funk or James Brown and so on but there were
so many kids who were only interested in funk and nothing else not
even jazz or blues. With Eric we talked a lot about the kora. He gave
me the LP Cordes Ancient (replace w/ french spelling) with Batrou
Sekou Kouyate and Sidike Diabate. The photo Batrou looked exactly
like my grandfather, my father and like my son. You know I was born
in Harlem, my mother came from Carolina, my fathers line from the
Caribbean there were so many different influences. Batrou was the
one that focused me. He has this long tone this slow African kind
of playing. You could find that African feeling with some Blues people
as well, like Skip James, the early Lightning' Hopkins he could have
such a long tone African mode, Alan Baker, I Elizabeth Cotton had
that certain long time, not that short ticky-tacky time. Life is not
like a clock always going tick/tack, you know (talking about musical
time). To come back to that Garveyite theme: my father and my mother
were very keen to go to Africa, they wanted us kids to go there too.
So once I hit Batrou it was like steppinmg over a big log. I wanna
make my pilgrimage to Bamako one day. I don't wanna play guitar for
the rest of my life. I want to learn kora! The connection with these
guys is wonderful Batrou, Bai. And also I'm interested in those Southern
hardino players. I mean, if I would play like James Brown, what can
I aspire to I mean he's a big thing but's just a part of it. I love
to play with these African guys, experience their traditions. It stays
forever. It's cultural. The kora means to me: Remembering - Using
your mind - Knowing what you are doing Being responsible!
HD: A German jazz-magazine once labelled
you an American Griot. Would you accept that?
TM: I don't know what people say about me. There were
many people saying these and those things. If only I was good enough to deserve that label. Of course I'm not unpleased, that's nice. I appreciate that.
HD: Did you experience other aspects of Jaliya
the art of griots?
Some of that when I was around with Bai. You got to get rid of ideas
from the US, like this is a musician and this is how he behaves. There
is much more to it, like counseling people and so on. It's interesting
to see that all these people interact, it's not just the Mandinka
in this area, but the Peul, Fula, there are people from Mali, Guinea.
I'd really be happy if I could sit in front of my house play a kora.
And then you know what's goin' on. Not all this stuff around you,
TV, computers, cinema goin' on instead of yourself.
HD: What did the musical exchange with the
griots mean to you?
TM: It means: I really belong where I'm connected. Can
you imagine Pamela Lee together with a real Djembe player. No, of
course not. Because these so-called celebrities they are assholes!
To me this other stuff is contemporary, it's the griots' tradition
that means something.
HD: Are you self-taught as a musician?
Yes. Except two weeks of piano lessons I got no formal training. My
teacher said "Go on, you don't need any lessons, your going to play
it your way"
HD: That's just like it is in Africa.
TM: That's the real thing. What I found out in this
country: Forget about the ethnomusicologists! The tradition is still
there, just drive down the street and you will still find people who
learned it from their grandmother. It's unfair that they chose some
people who should represent the whole community.
HD: Thank you very much for this wonderful interview.
TM: You're welcome.
|The Ensemble, Kulanjan
- Bassekou Kouyate
- Ballake Kouyate
- Taj Mahal (a.k.a. Dadi Kouyate)
- Kassemady Diabate
- Ramatou Diakite
- Lasana Diabate
- Toumani Diabate
- Dougouye Koulibaly
Photos courtesy and copyright © Banning Eyre all rights reserved
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