Deep African roots help shape Taj Mahal's blues

Over four decades, U.S. folk and blues veteran Taj Mahal has translated his deep African roots into such great world-music-and-blues crossover albums as the Grammy-winning Kulanjan, a collaboration with West African kora-master Toumani Diabate, and Mkutano, a meeting with Zanzibar's best-known orchestra, the Culture Musical Club.

"My parents grew up during the Harlem renaissance," says Mahal, speaking from Berkeley, California. "I was connected with my African ancestry through their stories. My grandparents on my father's side came to this country from the Caribbean with a strong connection to Africa and no shame about it. As I got more involved in music one of the things that made me excited-from the time I was a child-was that clear link between our ancestors and the sounds we hear today. My interest in music has always been deeply personal-I was never all that interested in the performing and travelling."

If Mahal has one regret, it's that he didn't visit the great Malian musician Ali Farka Toure-who died last month-in his village of Niafunke, nor make an entire album with him. "We played together and recorded a few songs, but I always wanted to connect with him at his home. I'm upset a lot more people here didn't really get to share what he had to offer. His presence was so powerful. I could see him across the continent and across the water."

When Taj Mahal comes to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre this Friday (April 14), on a double bill with the great gospel and funk singer Mavis Staples, he'll be playing old and new songs from his 40-year career as a recording artist. And he wants his audience to know that he and his long-time cohorts-drummer Kester Smith and electric bassist Bill Rich-like to see dancing happen. It helps in every way.

"The music was designed for people to move, and it's a bit difficult after a while to have people sitting like they're watching television," he says. "That's why I like to play outdoor festivals-because people will just dance. Theatre audiences need to ask themselves: 'What the hell is going on? We're asking these musicians to come and perform and then we sit there and draw all the energy out of the air.' That's why after a while I need a rest. It's too much of a drain. Often I don't allow that. I just play to the goddess of music-and I know she's dancing."