BASSETERRE, ST. KITTS – Taj Mahal, blues legend whose vibrant, worldly music encompassed African-rooted sounds of all kinds, will be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
According to several international media reports, Mahal, whose real name is Henry St. Clair Fredericks, has been selected along with New Orleans soul singer Irma Thomas, Chicago bluesman Son Seals and ragtime guitar player Rev. Gary Davis to join the Blues Hall in Memphis, Tenn.
Mahal, whose father is said to be from St. Kitts, will be inducted in a ceremony on May 6, which will be followed the day after by the Blues Foundation’s 30th annual Blues Music Awards.
“I’m very happy that a group of my peers think it’s something I deserve after the years I’ve put into the music,” said Mahal, 66, speaking by phone from the San Francisco Bay area.
California is one place Mahal has spent a lot of time, though the nearly nomadic singer-guitarist notes: “I pretty much move around wherever I like.”
The same could be said of Mahal’s music, which has for four decades dug deeply into sounds of many places, particularly Africa, the Caribbean and Hawaii. The breadth of Mahal’s influences came partly from his heritage and partly from a nurtured openness.
“He was into globalization long before the rest of us,” says Jay Sieleman, executive director of the Blues Foundation. “With Taj, it’s not just the music – although that’s of course the big thing. It’s the whole social history and musicology and awareness that come with listening to his music.”
Henry St. Claire Fredericks, known as Taj Mahal, performs on stage during his concert at the Blue Balls Festival in Lucerne, Switzerland. – July 23, 2005 file photo (AP Photo/Keystone, Sigi Tischler, file)
Mahal was raised in Springfield, Mass. His mother was a schoolteacher from South Carolina and his father, of Caribbean roots, was a jazz pianist. Later, his stepfather came from Jamaica.
“As a youngster, my parents made me aware that all that was from the African Diaspora belonged to me,” said Mahal. “So I came in with Caribbean music, African music, Latin music, gospel music and blues.”
Mahal, a two-time Grammy winner, in 1968 released his self-titled debut, which included contributions from Ry Cooder, an early collaborator. It included the great “Leaving Trunk” (in which he sings “I ain’t never seen no whiskey, but the blues made me sloppy drunk”). One of his most famous tunes is “She Caught the Katy (And Left Me a Mule to Ride),” which ended up in the 1980 film “The Blues Brothers.”
With a full-bodied voice and predilection for blues that made people dance, Mahal’s continuous output through the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s was always with an adventurous spirit. One of his most acclaimed albums came in 1999 on “Kulanjan,” collaboration with Malian kora legend Toumani Diabate.
The international influences, Mahal says, aren’t from his constant travels, but from always being fully invested in such music. He sees blues as running far beyond the Mississippi Delta and back through music.
“I was always taught that Latin, Caribbean people were cousins to me, as well as blues was a cousin to me, as well as Africans were direct relatives to me,” he said. “It was all a part of my language.”
Still, Mahal’s music was always blues at its foundation: “Sometimes the blues is like the whole meal. … Other times it’s like a spice that’s thrown in there.”
“The blues is played everywhere,” says Mahal. “There’s no place I’ve been where they don’t have blues or aren’t interested in blues.
Mahal, who last year released “Maestro” and is touring this spring, doesn’t know yet if he’ll perform at the Blues Hall of Fame induction. But if he does, he – as always – would hope to see people moving in the audience.
“Most people that play blues don’t dance do it! It’s a listening music and a music they have a lot of knowledge about it,” says Mahal. “They got country line-dancing down there in Nashville. Why can’t we do some blues dancing down there in Memphis?”