For almost four decades Taj Mahal has parlayed a mastery of African-American music into an internationally celebrated career.
An arsenal that includes banjo, bass, dulcimer, guitar, piano, kalimba, mandolin, vibes, fife and cello has enabled him to portray such styles as blues, ragtime, reggae and R&B much as an abstract painter might approach a still life.
Although the musician balks at the term "eclectic," his presentation of the panorama of black music has made him a unique presence on the concert stage -- years before it was made fashionable by such pop stars as Paul Simon.
" 'Eclectic'? Nah," he said during a recent interview from his present home on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. "I'm an adventurous musician. What we're talking about is cultural style . . . that was coming through the actual movement of the people. My mother [a gospel singer from South Carolina] was part of the Southern migration to the North; my father [a jazz musician, composer and arranger] was from the Caribbean -- from the West Indies. So that's why it's been difficult for people to categorize me.
"As a young man I developed a broad palette of understanding of music. . . . Music was something I grew up with. . . . I heard everything from swing to be-bop -- a lot of be-bop -- I'm a be-bop baby all the way. At their parties my parents played people like Louis Jordan, Slim and Slam, Wynonie Harris. And six days a week we kids could rule the record player! But on Sunday, don't get near it, cause Mom's playing nothing but gospel music all Sunday long: the Staple Singers, Swan Silvertones, Pilgrim Travelers. . . ."
Taj Mahal was born Henry Saint Claire Fredricks to a New York family on May 17, 1942. He and his family moved to Springfield, Mass., when he was in his teens.
"I got my nickname through dreams," he says. "I was a pretty eccentric kid, you know. I did a lot of different things. . . . I was in tune with other parts of the world -- I was just out there. I went to put that name together and I said, if I'm going to get involved with this music, I want to have a real good name . . . something that makes sense . . . that gives a full perspective of the high level of quality of what I want to put into the music."
Taj Mahal's career has been as varied as his musical styles. While earning a degree in animal husbandry from the University of Massachusetts, he played the Boston coffeehouse circuit, and a subsequent move to Los Angeles provided connections to musicians such as Ry Cooder and Canned Heat.
It's worth noting that in 1967 he won a banjo competition at the Topanga Canyon Fiddlers' Convention. That same year Taj Mahal inaugurated his successful recording career with a self-titled album on Columbia Records.
He has lighted up clubs, festivals and concert halls throughout the United States, Canada, Australia, Europe and Africa. He has appeared frequently on network television ("Saturday Night Live," "The David Letterman Show"). He created soundtracks for films, including "Sounder" (I and II). Many will recall his original music for "Mulebone," the Broadway production of the play by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. His new CD, "Dancin' the Blues," produced by John Porter, was awarded a Handy for Traditional Blues Album of the Year by the Blues Foundation in Memphis, Tenn.
Taj Mahal takes pride in not losing himself in his own achievements. "The most important thing to me," he said, "is to pick up a guitar and be able to connect. OK, I pick up the guitar, I plug in, and play -- and I'm there. That's the most important thing to me in the whole world. That was always where it was."
To hear excerpts of "Dancin' the Blues," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6123 after you hear the greeting.
Who: Taj Mahal
Where: Columbia Festival of the Arts, Howard Community College, Columbia
When: Tonight at 8.
Tickets: Sold out. To be put on a waiting list for returned tickets, be at the box office one hour before show. Tickets are $15.
Call: (410) 715-3055