“I was like the phantom of the blues. I was influencing many, but a lot of people didn’t know it,” says Taj Mahal, the global blues multi-instrumentalist, singer and composer playing Thursday and Friday nights in the Allen Room with the Grammy-winning Phantom Blues Band.
“They’ve committed themselves to the language of this music and that’s what I like about them. Wherever we go musically, I get what I want to hear.”
An ensemble of studio musicians from the Midwest and England that became known as the Phantom Blues Band backed Mahal on his 1993 recording, “Dancing the Blues,” which for Mahal signaled a different direction in his music.
“I started noticing that at so many of these blues festivals people didn’t know what to do, regardless of their ethnic background. They were enjoying the music but didn’t know how to show response to it,” he says.
“Back when I was growing up, everybody went to each other’s houses and rolled back the furniture, and cut on the record player and got the place going!”
The blues, according to Harlem-based writer Albert Murray, is much more than the sad musings of a downtrodden people. His classic book on jazz and the blues idiom, “Stomping the Blues,” details the dance-hall tradition where the blues of everyday life was stomped on with style and elegance.
“That’s what the whole thing was about in the first place,” exclaims Mahal in agreement. “That’s another misinterpretation of the blues: That you just go somewhere and drink down the trouble and commiserate with all these people to be miserable together.
“That wasn’t it! The object was, the magic was, to play that collective thing and lift the blues off of everybody.”
The attitude toward life and music of this Harlem-born artist was formed by his parents, who named him Henry St. Claire Fredericks 70 years ago. (He adopted his musical alias after dreaming about Gandhi.) “I’m a blend. My mother’s side of the family is from South Carolina; my father’s side is from Nevis and St. Kitts in the Caribbean.
“So from the beginning, I had an open view, connected in a bigger picture. Over 100 years ago, my people from the Caribbean immigrated here to the United States. I’m the grandchild of that vision. My mother’s a college graduate of South Carolina State in 1938. And her family came to New York City, like a lot of other people, looking for ‘the warmth of other suns,’ ” he says, referring to the title of the 2010 best seller by historian Isabel Wilkerson.
“I came out of all that great music going on — swing, jazz, bebop, ragtime, gospel, you name it. People [were] studying classical music. It was in the heyday, just after the Harlem Renaissance. There was a lot going on in terms of what fed into me.”
He also drank in the lessons of activists such as Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey and Gandhi, and artists such as Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes, who Mahal says “was as deep into the blues as anyone I knew.”
In 1991 he composed music for an album, “Mule Bone,” based on a play by Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.
Through the course of his 50-year career, Mahal has been dedicated to synthesizing musical traditions that many consider separate.
“I saw that people were not aware of what was connected to what. Somebody would hear some music from the Caribbean and not see any connection to the blues. Or hear some music from South America, and hear no connection to the Caribbean — or to the blues or to Africa, for that matter.”
Making matters worse, “the music business intercepted the oral tradition, which was the way we passed stuff down, and created a whole kind of a commercial sideline, which completely got off the point of passing the information from one generation to the next.”
Working as if he were an ethnomusicologist, Mahal combines styles from West Africa, Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean and even Hawaii in his music. But “instead of it being totally academic, I wanted it to be something you could actually hear. The music is the light. That’s how you can find your way home.
“That’s what I’ve been doing: Making that circle linked up again.”