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Taj Mahal

When you’ve been around for as long as blues maestro Taj Mahal, not a lot fazes you. Taj Mahal has worked with a staggering list of musicians, including Ry Cooder, Otis Redding, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, and The Roots, to name just a few. He’ll soon be on his way to Australia for Bluesfest, and he’s making the trip on his lonesome.

“I’m used to setting up my own instruments,” he says. “Touring solo is nothing new. My son is 35 this year and he was one-year-old when I first started touring in 1978.”
 
Taj Mahal was born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks in Harlem, New York. He’s no stranger to Australian shores, last visiting in 2013. “It just means I travel 15 hours across the oceans to play.” You can detect a touch of frustration when Mahal talks about touring. “Getting from one place to another takes time,” he says, “but I make my living as a touring musician, and I have done for years. People don’t pay me to make my music; I do that anyway, travelling or not. I could be doing other things with my time. I’d like more time to write more songs than I do. People pay me to put up with the misery of travelling.” 
 
Mahal will perform four solo shows surrounding his visit to Bluesfest. Audiences can expect a fluid onstage approach. “Stuff happens on stage,” he says. “Every night when I go on stage I challenge myself. I always try to do something different. When you play music you always come up with something new. It magically appears on the horizon. No serious musician would play music if he didn’t feel like it; as soon he starts getting boring he should get off the stage. I’m not sitting here resting on my laurels. If I’m not doing something exciting on tour I may as well stay at home and phone it in.”
 
Mahal’s career dates back to the mid-‘60s. One wonders if there’s anything he still wants to try. “You think about it, modern music, it would take you a hundred lifetimes before you get to be able to achieve whatever it is you want to achieve,” he says. “I’m a fan of woodwinds and reeds, but I don’t play ‘em. That’s not my thing. But I know the guys that do. Strings are my next thing. Steel guitars are exciting, different types of ukulele, cuatros, mandolins, mandolas, fiddles – I yielded to the sound of a ukulele I really liked, with harmony strings. That’s the type of ukulele I want to play.”
 
We ask Mahal about his creative process – is he prompted to write by images? Dreams? A feeling? Sounds? “All of the above,” he says. “I want to be open. The hardest part is to come up with something new. I didn’t do a lot of reaching out when I was younger. It was a long time before I could collaborate with anybody. I didn’t go to somebody else with some music I’d written and say ‘Hey, what can you do with this?’ I’m more open now to songwriting collaboration That’s kind of what’s different now.”
 
Unlike many musicians who’ve been around since the ‘60s, Mahal isn’t dismissive of modern genres. “I like to listen to everybody. I’m a senior musician and I have no problem with rap. I have a problem with the content of some rap, and their thought processes, but in general I have an awful lot of respect for young people doing rap. They’re getting paid. These young people are brash and bold and they’re smart enough to get what’s due to them.
 
“You have some powerful singers down there in Australia. Sia is wonderful. She sang Many Rivers to Cross and it was so good. She can improvise with a song that’s very constrained in its musicality. There’s good stuff happening everywhere, on every continent. Stay open and aware, and do what turns you on.”
 
BY LIZA DEZFOULI

TAJ MAHAL is playing at Bluesfestwhich runs from Thursday March 24 – Monday March 28 at the Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm, NSW. He’s also playing at Melbourne Recital Centre on Wednesday March 30.