Taj Mahal, still rocking, "feels" the blues

Thu Jul 12, 2012 6:53am EDT
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By Jeremy Gaunt

LONDON (Reuters) - Maybe it's the panama hat. Or the diamond earring. Or perhaps it is the eight-stringed ukulele on which he does constant little runs. Taj Mahal looks every bit the part of the U.S. music legend he is.

Chatting over a beer the day before a recent concert at the Africa Utopia Festival at London's Southbank Centre, the Grammy award-winning bluesman is also remarkably laid back. He has no idea what he is going to play.

"I never have a set list," Mahal told Reuters in the deep, gravelly baritone that, along with superb musicianship, has been his trademark for around 50 years in the business. "It's all by feel".

The feel must have been good. The concert a day later was a rollicking affair of wailing classic- and twangy country-blues and a smattering of world-inspired music including a banjo romp Mahal called, tongue-in-cheek, Afro-Celtic.

Seeming at times to be almost pulling the strings off the guitar rather than picking them, Mahal bashed out old standards through "Natch'l Blues" and a sashaying "John Henry" to a "Corrina, Corrina" encore that left the audience hollering for even more.

"There's a couple of things that people can't do without," he said. "Food and music."

His presence in a festival dedicated to all things Africa (it includes a lecture on adoption entitled "Quick Hide Madonna's coming") may seem strange to those who know Mahal mainly from his U.S. blues.

But Mahal has spent many years investigating and enjoying the links between African, Caribbean and American music, an interest he partially puts down to a West Indian heritage on his father's side.   Continued...