Guitar Player|September 2021
Chapter Two: From North America to Hawaii

FORGET THE GUY from the old Dos Equis commercials — Taj Mahal is the most interesting man in the world. When he holds court on his front porch, spinning yarns into a tapestry connecting nearly eight decades of a singular experience, there’s no way all that goodness is going to fit into one short feature. Last month we set the stage with the international treasure at his home in Berkeley, California, where he reflected on his remarkable career, trusty Regal resonator in hand.

Mahal can circumnavigate the globe in one lick, from its African origins to Caribbean adaptations, through the American filter and all the way to the Hawaiian Islands, where he amalgamates it all with the Hula Blues Band. He can explain each element, including subtle variations in phrasing, timing and articulation, and tell how a turnaround can vary from one locale to another. He embellishes anecdotes with affable and often hysterical imitations of everyone from a West African griot to Rastafarians, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, all with a generous helping of Hawaiian slang or pidgin. Mahal provides cultural context for the instruments, the music, and his story.

Along the way he’s developed the ability to play “nearly 20” acoustic instruments. His current ambition is to learn lap slide. At 79 years into the journey of a lifetime, he still has the zeal of a kid that just got his first guitar. Says the maestro, “I could seriously spend 10 consecutive lifetimes playing acoustic music, and still never garner all of it on this planet.”

What got you going on the 12-string, which first appears along with the slide on “Stagger Lee” and “Country Blues #1” from 1969’s De Ole Folks at Home?

That was because of Blind Willie McTell. Now, I didn’t know that Lead Belly had written “Goodnight, Irene.” In fact, I’d only heard the name Lead Belly; I didn’t know about his connection with Pete Seeger or anything about the Weavers. [Seeger was a Weaver when their version of “Irene” hit in 1955.] I just liked the song. I didn’t know that he played the 12-string guitar or anything about that instrument. I started hearing about the 12-string when I was 19 or 20, working on a dairy farm. A guy who came to test the cow’s milk played a Lead Belly record for me, and the sound of the 12-string stuck in my head. When I finally found one in a guitar store, I realized, “This is some serious shit!” Pardon my French. Then I ran up on Blind Willie McTell — whew! — and Charley Lincoln and Barbecue Bob.

When Leo Kottke chronicled his 12-string roots in the Holiday 2020 Frets feature, he mentioned Barbeque Bob as well as the 12-string’s mysterious origin.

Right, so then there’s figuring out how Lead Belly got it. The story goes that he left Louisiana for Texas and became the lead man for Blind Lemon Jefferson. He and Jefferson went across the Mexican border and wound up in Nogales. Hello [Tejano musician] Lydia Mendoza and guitarra de doce cuerdas, which translates to “guitar with 12 strings.”

When Kottke searched his memory, he recalled that his first instrument with coursed strings was actually a bajo sexto.

Yeah, there’s bajo sexto [a Mexican instrument with six coursed strings tuned an octave below standard, incorporating octave strings on the lower three and unisons on the upper, like a bass 12-string], bajo quinto [five coursed strings], and then guitarra de doce cuerdas. And it’s tuned down with the lowest string being B, E or A. [Kottke replies: “The only thing I know of Lead Belly is that the octave on his Stella’s low string was actually two octaves up. I had a chance to buy his guitar, but it scared me, so I didn’t.”]

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