Taj Mahal & Kulanjan, Interview
American guitarist Ali Farka Toure
American Griot, Taj Mahal

Maverick American bluesman Taj Mahal has explored the music of the African diaspora for almost four decades. Born in Harlem and raised in Springfield, MA, Taj Mahal has had a lifelong love affair with blues roots, spicing his music with influences from Caribbean, West African, and even Hawaiian music. He plays more than 20 instruments and sings with a voice that ranges from gruff and gravelly to smooth and sultry. Taj Mahal emerged professionally in the mid-1960s as co-founder with guitarist Ry Cooder of the Rising Sons. Over the years, he's shared the stage and recording studio with Eric Clapton, Dave Matthews Band, Bonnie Raitt, BB King, John Lee Hooker, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow, Bob Marley, the Neville Brothers and the Rolling Stones.

Taj Mahal first met up with Gambian griots Alhaji Bai Konte, his son Dembo and adopted son Malamini Jobarteh, during the 1970s, when Bai Konte first toured North America introducing the kora to new audiences at music festivals. Taj knew Alhaji Bai Konte's first recording, (Kora Melodies from the Republic of the Gambia, West Africa), and with the help of Marc Pevar, Bai Konte's manager in those days, Taj eventually found himself in Brikama, playing music and enjoying traditional African family life at Konte Kunda (the Konte's compound). Taj narrated a short film about the daily life of Gambian artisans and musicians. Although Taj was enjoying his contact with the Gambian griots, he knew there were deeper roots that would eventually trace their way back to the ancient kingdoms of Mali. With the 1999 "Kulanjan" project, Taj was finally able to make the Malian connection.

Kulanjan producers Joe Boyd and Lucy Duran assembled a cast of stellar Malian musicians. The results were recorded in the Athens, Georgia studio where REM made their early albums, and where they still record demos. The magic of Kulanjan which blends Taj's bluesly National-Steel guitar and funky New Orleans piano playing with Toumani Diabaté's delicate kora, Basekou Kouyate's bluesy ngoni playing, Kasse Mady Dibaté's powerful griot vocals and other West African elements earned the group a spot on the 1999 Africa Fête tour. I caught their Boston set with Hauke Dorsch, a German friend, and a writer. I first met Hauke '93 in Brikama, Gambia, while he was on a winter holiday visiting the Jobarteh family. I was there studying kora and escaping the harsh Boston winter. Now Hauke was visiting me in Boston, on a mission to interview Taj Mahal. What follows is the conversation they had backstage on August 15, 1999.

Enjoy,
David Gilden

Hauke Dorsch (HD):
Does the term griot have a meaning to the African American community? Is it common?
Taj Mahal (TM):
Amongst the well-bred and the artistic community: yes! And it gained some popularity through the Roots film and TV-series. Poets, dancers and musicians who remain close to African art also made this term well known.
HD:
How exactly do people understand the term griot?
TM:
Well, I don't know what people in general think it to be, but as far as I am concerned I'd say it's mainly about people who recount the past, who talk about history. Even if the people here are not aware of that precise tradition they are aware of what such a tradition might mean. I mean it's not a new thing. The griots exist since the 13th century. It may eventually have more meaning for us. But however I don't worry about what people think. I stopped worrying about other people's opinions several years ago. You can only develop yourself anyway. If you reached that goal, then you might give something to others. However, today everything is judged on whether it makes sense financially. When somebody can make money with it, it's got a meaning.
HD:
What led you to the kora? How did you get to know Bai Konte (a famous Gambian griot)?
TM:
I always had a positive connection to Africa, because my grandparents and my parents were Garveyites. So there were no negative stereotypes to overcome. And I was always interested in what I call Wild Music and older forms of music, the door to hear something else. So what led me to the kora: In the early fifties I heard a guitar being picked, that interested me. I became interested in folk music. An early recording of Reverend Gary Davis' Spike Divers Blues. (Lightning Hopkins?) That opened my eyes. That was about 1961. Ten years later about 1970/71 there was an article in a folk-magazine Sing Out' about the kora. And then here in Cambridge, Harvard Square at Briggs & Briggs (music store - has since moved out of the square) I saw the cover of Bai Konte LP so I just walked in and bought the LP, without even listening to it. It was such a great cover these weird colors.
 CD Cover: Alhaji Bai Konte, Kora Melodies from the Republic of the Gambia, West Africa
Alhaji Bai Konte,
album cover
HD:
Did you know that it looked like that, because they had some troubles with the film?
TM:
No. Well, anyway like this it ended to something good. Then I saw an LP by Ali Farka Toure, (the one with a guitar on the cover, find out which one) again I was impressed. In 1972 or 73 I saw Ballets Africains the kora player blew me away. Then I got to know Bai Konte thanks to Mark Pevar. Then I ran into Eric Bibb. He was interested in black young musicians in those who who seriously wanted to play music, not just funk (popular Black R&B ). I mean there is nothing bad about funk or James Brown and so on but there were so many kids who were only interested in funk and nothing else not even jazz or blues. With Eric we talked a lot about the kora. He gave me the LP Cordes Ancient (replace w/ french spelling) with Batrou Sekou Kouyate and Sidike Diabate. The photo Batrou looked exactly like my grandfather, my father and like my son. You know I was born in Harlem, my mother came from Carolina, my fathers line from the Caribbean there were so many different influences. Batrou was the one that focused me. He has this long tone this slow African kind of playing. You could find that African feeling with some Blues people as well, like Skip James, the early Lightning' Hopkins he could have such a long tone African mode, Alan Baker, I Elizabeth Cotton had that certain long time, not that short ticky-tacky time. Life is not like a clock always going tick/tack, you know (talking about musical time). To come back to that Garveyite theme: my father and my mother were very keen to go to Africa, they wanted us kids to go there too. So once I hit Batrou it was like steppinmg over a big log. I wanna make my pilgrimage to Bamako one day. I don't wanna play guitar for the rest of my life. I want to learn kora! The connection with these guys is wonderful Batrou, Bai. And also I'm interested in those Southern hardino players. I mean, if I would play like James Brown, what can I aspire to I mean he's a big thing but's just a part of it. I love to play with these African guys, experience their traditions. It stays forever. It's cultural. The kora means to me: Remembering - Using your mind - Knowing what you are doing Being responsible!
HD:
A German jazz-magazine once labelled you an American Griot. Would you accept that?
TM:
I don't know what people say about me. There were many people saying these and those things. If only I was good enough to deserve that label. Of course I'm not unpleased, that's nice. I appreciate that.
HD:
Did you experience other aspects of Jaliya the art of griots?
TM:
Some of that when I was around with Bai. You got to get rid of ideas from the US, like this is a musician and this is how he behaves. There is much more to it, like counseling people and so on. It's interesting to see that all these people interact, it's not just the Mandinka in this area, but the Peul, Fula, there are people from Mali, Guinea. I'd really be happy if I could sit in front of my house play a kora. And then you know what's goin' on. Not all this stuff around you, TV, computers, cinema goin' on instead of yourself.
HD:
What did the musical exchange with the griots mean to you?
TM:
It means: I really belong where I'm connected. Can you imagine Pamela Lee together with a real Djembe player. No, of course not. Because these so-called celebrities they are assholes! To me this other stuff is contemporary, it's the griots' tradition that means something.
HD:
Are you self-taught as a musician?
TM:
Yes. Except two weeks of piano lessons I got no formal training. My teacher said "Go on, you don't need any lessons, your going to play it your way"
HD:
That's just like it is in Africa.
TM:
That's the real thing. What I found out in this country: Forget about the ethnomusicologists! The tradition is still there, just drive down the street and you will still find people who learned it from their grandmother. It's unfair that they chose some people who should represent the whole community.
HD:
Thank you very much for this wonderful interview.
TM:
You're welcome.
 The Ensemble, Kulanjan
 Kulanjan key
The Ensemble, Kulanjan
  1. Bassekou Kouyate
  2. Ballake Kouyate
  3. Taj Mahal (a.k.a. Dadi Kouyate)
  4. Kassemady Diabate
  1. Ramatou Diakite
  2. Lasana Diabate
  3. Toumani Diabate
  4. Dougouye Koulibaly

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