Taj Mahal: An enduring Indian mausoleum filled with treasures - built by a Mogul emperor in memory of his favorite wife.
Or Taj Mahal: An enduring keeper of musical Americana - self-taught master of "roots" music, spinner of children's songs and bona fide national treasure.The American Taj Mahal will bring his unique talents to Salt Lake City for the first Youth Arts Festival for Utahns and their children Thursday through Saturday, April 25-27, at the University of Utah. Presented by KRCL-91 FM, the events will help call attention to and raise money for the Irving Commons in Sugar House and its potential as a youth arts center.
Taj Mahal was actually born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks in 1942, the son of a noted West Indian pianist and jazz arranger who owned an extensive record collection of jazz, blues and big-band classics. (Young Taj helped deepen the grooves in all of them.)
His mother was a teacher and gospel singer who tried to get her son interested in classical piano. But that lasted only a few weeks, as boogie woogie strains started turning up in Beethoven sonatas. Taj's mother was truly disenchanted when her son discovered the guitar and started "howlin' the blues."
While attending the University of Massachusetts, Taj continued to hone his guitar techniques, becoming deeply involved in the Boston folk music scene. Playing music and studying the legacies of rural black musicians was his main interest, but he completed a degree in animal husbandry . . . "so I'd have something to fall back on in case I didn't make it as a professional musician."
He moved to Los Angeles in 1965, tired of what he perceived as the East Coast narrow-minded folk scene. By the time he joined guitarist Ry Cooder as co-founder of The Rising Sons, Taj Mahal had mastered numerous styles of reggae, funk and rock, bluegrass, folk/blues and R&B. His musical skill increased to add bass, dulcimer, mandolin, harmonica and vibes to his list of mastered instruments.
Mahal quickly rose to prominence as a versatile interpreter of blues, funky to sophisticated, drawing from the Caribbean and Africa as well as early American jazz and Southern folk songs, while infusing his pieces with passion and personality.
Blues, he says, "is a flexible art form, although a lot of singers don't seem to take advantage of all the possibilities. There's blues to cry by and blues to jump with joy by and blues to just sit around on the front porch with. Why anyone would confine themselves to just one style is something I can't understand. It's like only eating one type of food every day. That's not life, that's a rut."
This multitalented bluesman remains a significant figure now for more than just his entertainment value. As more and more of America's "elder statesmen of blues" pass away, his stature has increased.
"I do feel a responsibility for keeping this music alive, but it's not something one man can do by himself," Mahal says. "Keeping the traditions alive and expanding them is up to everybody. I'm just doing my part."
Along with performing "roots" music for 35 years and recording 14 albums, he has received acclaim for his portrayal of Ike opposite Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield in "Sounder" and its sequel and was featured in a television biography of Scott Joplin.
An accomplished writer and arranger, Mahal composed the score and was musical director for "Sounder" and also created original music for George Lukas' animated television series about the "Star Wars" Ewoks. He also wrote the music for "Br'er Rabbit," a children's album and video in collaboration with narrator Danny Glover.
Here's the schedule for the Youth Arts Festival, featuring Taj Mahal:
Thursday, April 25 - 3:30 p.m., "A Nurturing Role for Men," a panel discussion on parenting gender roles, Olpin Union Building, U. of U., with special guests Robert Lentz and Taj Mahal.
Friday, April 26 - 8 p.m., a blues concert for grownups in Kingsbury Hall at the U. Tickets available for $10 at Smith'sTix and the Kingsbury Hall box office.
Saturday, April 27 - 2 p.m., a special afternoon concert for children at Kingsbury Hall. Tickets are $5 each or $20 for a family package. Children under 3 admitted free. Taj Mahal's "Shake Sugaree" children's album will be featured.