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February 7-14, 2007

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Taj Mahal

Long Majal: Finally after 40 years, Taj demonstrates the secret chord that has made him a legend.

Monumental Talent

Taj Mahal distances himself from the recording industry treadmill

By Paul Davis

Forty years into his career, folk blues titan Taj Mahal can deliver the type of electric fireworks that put musicians a quarter of his age to shame, even when performing with his stripped-down three-piece acoustic band. Take the case of his friend's 17-year-old son, who went to a Taj Mahal show reluctantly only to be floored by the elder's virtuosic fortitude. The blues master explains, "This kid, all night long his aura was 17 feet from him. He was blown away, he kept looking to see where all the other musicians were ,,, he said there were three musicians onstage, playing like 16!"

The rapt attention of his friend's son notwithstanding, Taj Mahal's categorically boundless fusion of blues, jazz, reggae and countless other genres generally plays to older crowds. The unflappable Mahal sees that sort of age stratification as indicative of deeper problems in the contemporary recording industry. "So many people try to alienate the parents from the kids, and use that as a wedge," he muses. "I put music out there that kids and parents can play and listen to ... the whole family agrees to what I put out, because I don't play down to them."

It's not just the kids who are getting pandered to by the music industry, in Mahal's eyes, but the adults as well. He adamantly opposes patronizing listeners, and considers his shows to be a symbiotic interplay between himself, his band and the audience. "There's so much in the industry where people are playing down to their audience ... you never play down to your audience, you never see yourself as being above them," he says. "We all know what this is, why we're here--we're going to make some great energy together, some great music together."

For four decades, Mahal has driven himself to succeed in a musical career that has run concurrent to the recording industry without falling prey to its machinations. Certainly, Mahal has released his share of seminal recordings, including the two-record 1969 classic Giant Step and 1974's Mo'Roots. But in recent years, he's steered clear of the typical record release cycle, dismissing the pervasive recording industry marketing wisdom that tours are merely vehicles to sell more plastic discs. He notes, "I'm not in any of that sequence. I can work 365 days a year, anywhere that I want, and it has nothing to do with record sales or the flavor of the month or any of that stuff."

Indeed, Taj Mahal keeps himself absurdly busy, constantly performing and working on projects such as a recent collaboration in Zanzibar with Eastern African musicians. "Music is happening with me all the time," he says. "I've got projects all over, projects in Europe, in Australia, New Zealand. I'm involved in music at a lot of different levels, but if you look at what I do like you look at what these other people do, you wouldn't find me on the radar. We work out of the country significantly, about three months out of the year, and could do more because that's where people are a lot more open to the music."

Taj Mahal and his acoustic three-piece are performing a handful of shows with Los Lobos, including their upcoming Santa Cruz Civic show. "It's been almost a year and a half that the possibility of doing some stuff has been in the air," he says. "It's a mutual admiration situation, we really like each other's work. These are guys I really like a lot and we don't get to play together that often. I really respect the music that they make and that they're about respecting and supporting their culture and the culture of the music here."

Mahal is cagey about upcoming plans, emphasizing that he and his band are "just having fun." He urges fans to pay attention to his website to keep track of his many projects, but refuses to lay out an over-arching strategy. "I'm always working," he says. "I've always gone alongside the music business. I've never been in the music business putting out records and having record companies put large amounts of money behind me. I've been about playing the music and that's all I've ever really done."

Taj Mahal appears with Los Lobos Saturday, Feb. 17, at 8pm at the Santa Cruz Civic, 305 Church St. Tickets range are $55-$65 reserved/ $35-$40 general. For more information, call 831.420.5260.

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