Rubies are the traditional gift for couples celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary, the gemstone symbolizing the eternal flame that binds them together. When Taj Mahal celebrated the 40th anniversary of his self-titled 1967 debut, he wasn't fixated on precious stones, but he wanted to speak to the fire that has burned inside him since his first gigs fronting frat band the Electras in 1961. "I never did anything for the 10th, 20th, or the 30th anniversary, and here we are at the 40th anniversary of my first record," the 66-year-old blues and roots music legend says. "I thought it was time to look back on what we've done and bring some friends along for the ride."
The ride is Maestro, a diverse 12-track set of soul, blues, reggae, rock, and funk released last month that reflects the East Bay resident's insatiable appetite for musical discovery. Born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks to a jazz pianist father of Caribbean heritage and a schoolteacher mother from the Deep South, Mahal was introduced early to the popular music of the '50s as well as a healthy dose of artists from the Mississippi Delta, Latin America, Hawaii, Africa, and the Caribbean. "My father and his parents were proud of their roots and wanted me to be aware of my connection to Africa," he remembers.
In the same way that the music on Maestro speaks to Mahal's history, its guests were familiar names from his nearly half-century in music. The Phantom Blues Band, the group he fronted for his two Grammy-winning records (Señor Blues in 1997 and Shoutin' in Key in 2000) return for four tracks, while long-time friends Los Lobos and daughter Deva Mahal back him on reggae duet "Never Let You Go" and Lou Willie Turner's "TV Mama." Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers guest on "Black Man, Brown Man," marking the third generation of Marleys Mahal has worked with, dating back to Bob Marley's appearance on 1974's Mo' Roots. "Everybody on this record — people who played, people handling production, everyone — at one time or another has talked to me about doing something together," Mahal says.
Maestro kicks off with "Scratch My Back," a tribute of sorts to Otis Redding, one of Mahal's earliest influences. After graduating from college in 1964, Mahal headed west for California, forming the Rising Sons with guitarist Ry Cooder and opening for Redding at the Whiskey A-Go-Go in Los Angeles. "Otis had these great big ballads like 'Pain in My Heart' and 'Chained and Bound,'" Mahal recalls. "Nobody did ballads like Otis did 'em. I just hope I can interpret [his music] in a way that adds a little bit of me to the song."
Although Maestro features Mahal's takes on tunes by Redding, Fats Domino, Willie Dixon, and Lou Willie Turner (wife of Big Joe), it doesn't come off as some decrepit covers record. "Strong Man Holler" and "Slow Drag" are quintessential Taj Mahal classics, while "Dust Me Down" is a dirty, chugging rocker written by Ben Harper, whom Mahal first met in the '80s through Harper's grandparents, who own the Folk Music Center and Museum in Claremont. "When [Harper] first came on the scene, folks assumed because he was a black guy that played guitar that he had to be into the blues," Mahal says. "But Ben branched out and done his own thing. It's not that he doesn't love the blues, but he's curious about other music too. He reminds me a lot of myself when I was his age."