By Rob Kay
American Epic, the upcoming PBS documentary on roots music which premiered on HIFF’s opening night, couldn’t have had a better advance man than blues legend Taj Mahal. The much beloved, former Hawaii resident and his New Hula Blues band, were the perfect opening act to tee off the first of a three part series “coming soon” to the network.
The 73 year old singer and guitarist was as sharp as ever, plucking away favorites on his Dobro such as “Good Morning Miss Brown” to a rapturous audience. The band, which included several local musicians, also waded into Hawaii territory. This included a steel guitar solo from Bobby Ingano and a stirring version of “Blue Hawaiian Moonlight” sung by the co-writer of the song, Carlos Andrade.
Having the New Hula Blues Band kick off the new documentary was a stroke of casting brilliance by HIFF. Incorporating music from many cultures is what Taj Mahal, born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks is all about. Few living musicians epitomize roots music more than Taj, whose own musical legacy clearly owed a great deal to Mississippi John Hurt.
Both Taj and his mentor, Mr. Hurt, were featured prominently in the documentary. The laying on of musical hands was in evidence in Kakaako on the performance stage and, on the screen.
Taj never had the fame, and I suspect the fortune, of some of other contemporary bluesmen. However, few people I’m aware of (perhaps with the exception of Paul Simon) have had the savoir faire to infuse the blues with music from the Caribbean, Africa and Hawaii and meld it into a coherent whole.
His capacity to incorporate other musical traditions no doubt came from his parents. His father, of Caribbean descent, was a jazz pianist, composer and arranger. Called “The Genius” by Ella Fitzgerald he often hosted musicians from the Caribbean, Africa and the U.S. His mother, a schoolteacher and gospel singer, was also an important influence.
The musical education of Henry Saint Clair Fredericks began with classical piano lessons and he soon enlarged his scope to include clarinet, trombone and harmonica. His talent for singing emerged and, by his early teens, he was also playing guitar, learning to emulate the styles of Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed and others.
Miles Mellough, who wrote the liner notes for The Complete Columbia Albums called Taj “an enigma — an alchemist and a contrarian. Through his music”, says Mellough, “he’s been a dirt farmer, a man of gentry, and a Mississippi riverboat gambler. He’s played the role of the pious country preacher of old South camp meetings to a chain gang prisoner breaking rocks in the hot, midday sun.”
On stage, Taj said as a young man he would listen to his father’s shortwave radio and hear music from around the world. He was captivated by the sounds of Hawaii and vowed, even before he ever made music for a living, that he would seek the place and the people out.
Taj resonated with me on a level that even my unconscious seemed to appreciate. As a teenager I bought his albums and as a college kid, attended his concerts. One of his songs even found a place in a dream. I forgot the dream but remember the song echoing in my mind.
A long-time Hawaii resident (he now lives in Los Angeles) Taj has gigged in Hawaii and in February recorded a live album in Kauai called Taj Mahal & the Hula Blues Band: Live from Kauai.
Seeking out the roots of American music is also what American Epic, created by British filmmakers Bernard MacMahon and Allison McGourty, is all about.
Inspired by a blues concert they shot in the with three septuagenarian American bluesmen in the UK, in American Epic MacMahon and McGourty follow the trail blazed by early record companies who scoured the highways and byways of rural America to discover the pioneers of blues, country, gospel, Hawaiian, Cajun and folk music.
MacMahon said the record companies primary motivation was profit rather than documenting American culture. The individuals who were recorded were more often than not family musicians who would have no doubt wanted to make money too but their main interest, more often than not, was getting their music recorded. As the documentary illustrates, the intersection of business and art proved to be a rich source of music spanning the traditions of Scots Irish hillbillies, black sharecroppers, Cajun fishermen, Mexican American farm hands and Hawaiian laborers.
This disparate mosaic of Americans would prove to be the progenitors of modern rock, pop, R&B and hip hop.
If you’re a listener of American Routes on NPR this is a series you will not want to miss.
Top photo courtesy of Pix Gremlin – Taj Mahal. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons
Bottom two photos courtesy of courtesy of ©2015 Lo-Max Films
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