Taj Mahal – Hard Way
Henry Saint Clair Fredericks (born May 17, 1942), who uses the stage name Taj Mahal, is an American Grammy Award-winning blues musician. He often incorporates elements of world music into his works. A self-taught singer-songwriter and film composer who plays the guitar, piano, banjo and harmonica (among many other instruments), Mahal has done much to reshape the definition and scope of blues music over the course of his almost 50-year career by fusing it with nontraditional forms, including sounds from the Caribbean, Africa and the South Pacific.
Mahal leads with his thumb and middle finger when fingerpicking, rather than with his index finger as the majority of guitar players do. “I play with a flatpick,” he says, “when I do a lot of blues leads.” Early in his musical career Mahal studied the various styles of his favorite blues singers, including musicians like Jimmy Reed, Son House, Sleepy John Estes, Big Mama Thornton, Howlin’ Wolf, Mississippi John Hurt, and Sonny Terry. He describes his hanging out at clubs like Club 47 in Massachusetts and Ash Grove in Los Angeles as “basic building blocks in the development of his music.” Considered to be a scholar of blues music, his studies of ethnomusicology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst would come to introduce him further to the folk music of the Caribbean and West Africa. Over time he incorporated more and more African roots music into his musical palette, embracing elements of reggae, calypso, jazz, zydeco, rhythm and blues, gospel music, and the country blues—each of which having “served as the foundation of his unique sound.” According to The Rough Guide to Rock, “It has been said that Taj Mahal was one of the first major artists, if not the very first one, to pursue the possibilities of world music. Even the blues he was playing in the early 70s – Recycling The Blues & Other Related Stuff (1972), Mo’ Roots (1974) – showed an aptitude for spicing the mix with flavours that always kept him a yard or so distant from being an out-and-out blues performer.” Concerning his voice, author David Evans writes that Mahal has “an extraordinary voice that ranges from gruff and gritty to smooth and sultry
Throughout his career, Mahal has performed his brand of blues (an African American artform) for a predominantly white audience. This has been a disappointment at times for Mahal, who recognizes there is a general lack of interest in blues music among many African Americans today. He has drawn a parallel comparison between the blues and rap music in that they both were initially black forms of music that have come to be assimilated into the mainstream of society. He is quoted as saying, “Eighty-one percent of the kids listening to rap were not black kids. Once there was a tremendous amount of money involved in it . . . they totally moved it over to a material side. It just went off to a terrible direction.” Mahal also believes that some people may think the blues are about wallowing in negativity and despair, a position he disagrees with. According to him, “You can listen to my music from front to back, and you don’t ever hear me moaning and crying about how bad you done treated me. I think that style of blues and that type of tone was something that happened as a result of many white people feeling very, very guilty about what went down.
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