"Taj Mahal & The Hula Blues" - 2013
“In terms of showing how the boundaries of blues and world music, roots music, country, rock’n’roll – all of those disparate forms of music could come together and organically be molded into something fresh and new… my first experience with that was Taj. He has been revolutionary and so steady in his authenticity, his love and curiosity, his appreciation, respect and understanding of the musical roots that he comes from and loves. His ability to melt them all effortlessly has been a huge inspiration to me.”
It’s been a long and busy road for America’s foremost practitioner of blues/world/roots fusion musics. And the road has taken Taj Mahal places he might not have thought of when first starting out back in the Sixties. Or did he envision it all from early on? So much of what the man has done has been informed by roots and inspirations that go way back to places we might not know anything about. Talk about spirit, ancestry, mo’ roots - and talk about Hawaii: Soul-nourishing haven of great musicianship, kingdom of ancient cultural riches. From this vantage point, the Polynesian cultural sphere might have been there all along in the Mahal universe of soulful sounds – but it took the ever-curious maestro a while to get there in person and capture some of the magic on recordings of his own. This glorious album is where it all began and where things got real – got “pono”. Welcome to the Aloha state of mind...
There’s one term that signifies the good stuff better than any other – that’s “pono”. Hawaiian for “righteous” and other related stuff. It’s complex and easy at the same time, but the general attitude seems to be: just relax, bring something positive to the party, be a real person. That’s what it’s about, Taj says. You don’t think about it so much, you feel it – and this album is the perfect place to start your education.
The musical brotherhood that was – and still is – the Hula Blues Band stands as a great example of the “ohana” spirit – a musical family with a big heart and a people connection that goes beyond words. Here’s how Taj remembers recording the album: “Recording engineer John Gilleran set up the studio in his house that was being renovated at the time and used the living room for the band set up in a semi-circle with the reeds, woodwinds, flutes, vocal and any other overdubs set up in a makeshift closet and a bathroom that allowed for isolation! The session was a lot like the band - we were friends, we were all different, we loved playing sweet music together! The only thing is that they (the band) had absolutely no idea what I was going to ask us to play and record. I would demonstrate a song on guitar, we would make sure of keys, chords, breaks, tempo changes, verses, choruses, intro and ending. We would play a mini-rehearsal and as soon as the magic would appear I would tell the engineer to record and that's how we did it! I kept only the takes we all loved as I made all final decisions and we had fun recording.”
That’s mighty “pono” for a start - and luckily we can all share in the magic by re-listening to the magnificent recorded outcome of the sessions. Taj may not live on the islands anymore, but the connection is a deep one still. He makes sure to check in with his friends a couple of times a year, to hang out and re-connect without stress: “Playing gently together is a natural trait of Hawaiian music. It is what you are trying to accomplish as a Pacific Island musician. The social contact and connectivity of Hawaiian music to the people is solid and very much unchanged since the resurgence of the music in the 60s. There’s room for all styles of music but Hawaiians are now making sure it gets passed from generation to generation and that it's Hawaiian music first above all.”
“Kanikapila” - another term we should be aware of. Be kind – and treat your musical brothers like a family. As a musician, you try to connect (Kani = sound, pila = stringed instrument) and you do it with a purpose – to celebrate life …and there’s always room for one more ukulele.
And as the peoples of the Western World are trying to stay sane in this hyped-up and over-informed present that is the 21st century, some of the most powerful sounds seem to come from traditions that have stood the test of time against all odds and much cultural imperialism. Taj Mahal knows about all of this but regarding Hawaiian culture he has a message of optimism: “You have an island culture that evolved itself into the modern world by borrowing and absorbing many things from many other cultures to create a culture uniquely its own - all the while struggling to maintain its ancient culture. In my opinion they have succeeded, are on the right track and have a bright future with more to go.
The music on this uniq ue album stands as a significant contribution to this meaningful and profound cultural effort. It’s solid and soft, easygoing and deep, strong and beautiful, part of the eternal flow. Something to be cherished by the world as a gift from a great bluesman who’s thankful in return: “I look at this album as a return favor to Hawaiian music for being one of the musics that touched me so deeply in my childhood. I felt the need to express this gratitude by playing, recording and touring with Hawaiian musicians who I knew and who were my friends. Hawaiian music and blues have many sensitive points of contact.
And so it goes. Taj Mahal & The Hula Blues Band – still 100 % pono.