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Giant steps

Taj Mahal cakewalks into town



In 1968, a young man named Taj Mahal released an album of the same name. He didn’t waste any time, leaping from the gate into a shouted-in-key dirty blues anthem called “Leaving Trunk.” It was clear to all who listened that this man could sing the blues.

His next album, Giant Step/De Old Folks At Home, revealed the depth of his comprehension and virtuosity. Singing, whistling, playing harmonica, Taj also displayed numbing chops on the banjo as well as the guitar. With a mix of originals, covers, and public domain, he played city blues, country blues, delta blues, love blues, work blues, happy blues, blue blues. Blues.

It’s like that old expression: All roads lead to Rome. Taj Mahal comes from the blues, and he is always going home. But at the same time, he is also from somewhere else, and going somewhere else altogether.

Born in Springfield, Mass., Taj grew up in NYC. Perhaps this explains the richly informed and worldly—indeed, otherworldly—sense of his tunes. Taj’s feel is so authentic, he could teach Mississippi John Hurt how to play like Mississippi John Hurt, but his lyrics and sentiments reflect more than just someone trapped in a particular life, in a particular place, at a particular time. In the song “Giant Step,” he sings:

Remember the feeling as a child / When you woke up, and morning smiled / It’s time you felt like that again / Come with me, I’ll take you where the taste of life is green / And every day has got to be seen / Come with me, leave your yesterday behind. And take a giant step outside your mind.

Taj first visited Africa in 1979 and became convinced that his ancestors were Kouyates—the main clan of the Mande griots, a musical caste in Mali. During the recording of Kulanjan, Taj was rechristened Dadi Kouyate by his new friends along the way. Not surprisingly, this album is mesmerizing.

So, with all of this musical diversity behind him, the question remains of what the beautiful blues chameleon is going to play when he arrives in Missoula this time. Will he bust out the djembes or the ukuleles. Or both?

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