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Blues, in Progess and Motion

Although Taj Mahal is not an artist who shows up on anybody's honor roll of '60s originators, maybe he oughta. That sure was how it looked when he visited Tramps with his young heirs Corey Harris and Alvin Youngblood Hart August 28. For decades he'd toiled and frolicked alone in a subgenre he invented himself, one that extended the idea of "blues-based music" to where no one else--with the significant exception of early bandmate Ry Cooder (Rising Sons, mid-'60s, album never finished)--could see it belonged. The African diaspora is a commonplace now, but it was a visionary glimmer in prereggae 1971, when the former Henry Saint Claire Fredericks started playing up the Caribbean shadings of his putative blues. A few years later, Cooder would commence his career in world trade by hiring Gabby Pahinui and Flaco Jimenez. But Mahal got there first, and with a difference. Where the white guy turned supertourist, thinking locally and acting globally from Hawaii to Havana, his agenda was narrower, and deeper.

First, Mahal took on the mission of making acoustic blues a locus of black pride at a time when they seemed corny, country, backwards, and even Tom to the vast majority of young black musicians and almost all young black listeners. But just as important, he conceived them as a way of comprehending his personal heritage. Part Southern, part West Indian, the Fredericks family included several musicians, including a father who did some jazz arranging, and although he grew up in the northern city of Springfield and attended U. Mass., he also worked on a farm and got his degree in animal husbandry. So he approached blues as a race man, but also as a West Indian with strong ties to rural life. Although he helped spark the thumb piano fad that culminated in Earth, Wind & Fire's "Kalimba Story," Africa per se was deep background for him--note that beyond "Kalimba," the only non-Caribbean tracks on the 1993 anthology Columbia/Legacy designated World Music have a Louisianan provenance.

With Mahal's Columbia and Warner Bros. catalogues in disrepair, In Progress & Motion (1965-1998), the cross-label three-disc box Sony will release next month, is overdue--and the prev. unreleased live tracks I've heard aren't bait or filler, either. But as an argument for Mahal's achievement, it won't supercede the '92 anthology Taj's Blues. Mahal has written him some songs--the high-stepping "Cakewalk Into Town" could be a century old, the ancestor-worshipping "Clara (St. Kitts Woman)" looks back at least that far. But it's as an interpreter-arranger that he shines. Finding a city beat for Sleepy John Estes's "Leaving Trunk," laughing through Henry Thomas's "Fishin' Blues," forever weaving a second-line skank into the good-time music of other black places, Mahal rescues songs he loves from an art-music preserve--from a subtlety that signified sharply in its time but now demands an aesthete's ear and a scholar's attention span. Kneading beauty from his National steel-bodied as he shouted, moaned, drawled, crooned, croaked, growled, and squeegeed classic word-modules through his big voracious voice, his blues were a history lesson--not the kind that enables specialists to ID Kokomo Arnold bottleneck and Bukka White slide, but the kind that demonstrates to anyone the absolute compatibility of bottomland guitar and the water-borne rhythms of a Latin-tinged "schwarze music," as he's called it, that embraces Trinidad pans as congenially as the tuba bass of New Orleans.

Which would be plenty enough to be proud of, you'd think. Yet Mahal's audience has remained as white as Newport '64, and for decades no black musician of consequence followed the trail he'd cut. Maybe Mahal didn't seem angry enough for a race man. Maybe the financial returns were too risky. Hell, maybe the music was still too corny. But in the '90s, Guy Davis, Keb' Mo', Corey Harris, and Alvin Youngblood Hart, all flowing out of the surge in cultural consciousness that ensued as the offspring of the civil rights generation came into their own, prove Taj Mahal a prophet. Keb' Mo' is way too eager to please, Davis a mite too eager to protest. Harris and Hart, however, are adepts as natural as Taj Mahal himself. Mahal guested on Hart's first album, and Harris owes the older man's shtick from his Wolfman buzz to his Howard Johnson-style tuba. Neither will ever command so much talent or appetite, but like Mahal, both expand the music beyond the range of anybody's guitar. At the same time, both work a substantial change on Mahal's concept. After debut CDs presented their acoustic blues bona fides (those Kokomo Arnold-Bukka White details are from the Blues & Rhythm review of Hart's Big Mama's Door), their sophomore albums explored the dark, politically charged substratum outsiders assume is the essence of blues, a notion Mahal has never cottoned to--his most painful song by far is a reggae, Bob Marley's "Slave Driver."

On Harris's 1997 Fish Ain't Bitin', his songwriting jostled timeworn themes like illness and drift toward present-day content (Abu Jamal Mumia, a catfish farm), invoking a continuum of oppression by its immersion in a historical form--always he's on his way somewhere, because always his skin color links him to a racist past that's supposedly as dead as country blues. And featuring two trombones plus that tuba added a jauntiness fatally absent from his Between Midnight and Day. At the time of Fish Ain't Bitin''s release, this was still art music live--an adept of dynamics and cross-rhythms counterposing fluent guitar figures against sung melody. But at Tramps Harris was wont to lay his National in his lap like a pedal steel and leave the fancy stuff to the even more fleet-fingered Jamal Milner. And after Milner retired, Harris romped out on Blind Blake's "Ditty Wa Ditty," first unearthed by none other than Ry Cooder. Word is his next album will blend in Caribbean flavors. I bet it's decisively playful as well.

Harris didn't let a TGIF crowd that wasn't there for a learning experience unnerve him: "We're just doin' the best we can," he grinned over their noise. Hart was less composed. On record, originals like "Joe Friday" and "That Kate Adams Jive" add life and edge to his straight blues statement, and the new, pointedly entitled Territory (Rykodisc) is an audacious turf grab in a year when Lucinda Williams is doing for the blues she loves what Billy Bragg and Wilco are doing for the Woody Guthrie they love--reconstituting them for a greater good it's pointless to distinguish from self-discovery or self-aggrandizement. Having asserted its intentions with a Western swing original perfectly suited to Hart's keen blues tenor, it goes on to mix chestnuts like "John Hardy" and "Mama Don't Allow" with a ska original, a Beefheart instrumental, Ruth Etting's (later X's) "Dancing With Tears in My Eyes," and the harrowing tale of "two mixed-blood brothers" who got lynched in 1886 pursuing an assault case they were right about--its guitar accompaniment blues-based, all right, but only because the Grateful Dead are too. If the album doesn't flow like Williams or Bragg & Wilco, well, there's nothing gracious or integrated about Hart's claim, which is that when you start with country blues all of American popular music is your territory. Conceptually, it's uncompromising, and musically, it can only hit home piece by piece.

Sadly, no one who encountered Hart at Tramps had any way of knowing this. A 35-year-old who looks younger, a fat brown giant with major beard and hair gotten up in white T-shirt and black Bermudas for the big show, he exuded about as much charisma as a very large mushroom. His drawl was so thick and faint that it was impossible to make out anything he said above the din, although I did hear him recommending "Dancing With Tears in My Eyes," the only selection that hinted at the scope of his ambitions, to the X fans in the audience.

Granted, I was tempted to underrate the crowd myself. Like a fool, I'd somehow envisioned an evening in which Mahal's minions--prompted perhaps by a few words or a duet from the master--honored the heritage the younger men were taking over. But Mahal wasn't passing any batons. The blues lesson I'd last witnessed a decade ago--cf. House of Blues's recent An Evening of Acoustic Music, which I prefer to his Grammy-winning product for the adult-rockers at Private Music--was transmuted into a soul show. Mahal stole his enthusiastic shtick from his contemporary Otis Redding, another big man with a big heart, and he brought it off without the nostalgia no one who performed that music in its present can avoid, washing his opening acts away long before he sagged into recent originals. Corny? Country? Not hardly. Just big fun, another treasure of a lived life brought out and shared. Like Ry Cooder, Mahal does Hawaiian stuff now too. Why shouldn't he? He moved to Maui 12 years ago.

Village Voice, Sept. 15, 1998