The music Taj Mahal has been making recently with his band the Hula Blues has its origins in the folk bluesman's move to Hawaii several years ago. It's both very low-key and unlike anything you've ever heard before, a combination that has put off even some longtime fans. Others have offered extravagant praise, hearing a mysteriously powerful distillate of the influences that inform American music in general. One thing's for sure: Taj Mahal isn't coasting along on the considerable laurels he's earned since the 1960s as an explorer of African American traditional music. This music is wholly unlike the concert of hard Chicago blues that Taj played the last time he was in town, at the 2003 Ann Arbor Folk Festival.
Taj's Hula Blues builds on two basic elements, Hawaiian music and Caribbean music. The eight-piece Hula Blues band is flexible enough to incorporate sounds from distinct subgenres of these: steel guitar music and slack key guitar on the Hawaiian side, reggae and especially Trinidadian calypso on the Caribbean. The rhythmic glue throughout is provided by drums and a trio of ukuleles, not something you hear often these days in a serious context, and the sound is rounded out by instruments that economically link the music to Africa and to African America — a kalimba (the instrument sometimes known as a "thumb piano") and a complement of jazz winds. The ensemble has a relaxed, subtle quality, and while some numbers are clearly Hawaiian or Caribbean in flavor, there isn't a marked shift between the two.
The result is more than just a pleasant pantropical musical fantasy. Hawaiian and Caribbean musics are distinct from African American music but are also tied to it; Hawaiian music, the top-selling genre in the United States around the time of World War I, influenced the blues deeply. By linking Hawaii and the Caribbean and grafting the amalgam onto African American traditional music, Taj is building a structure that magnifies black American music's miraculous capacity for absorbing the traditions amid which it lives. In his late middle age, he is searching for an African American music with global resonances. One stage of what has been a long process was Kulanjan, his groundbreaking collaboration with Malian musician Toumani Diabate, which seemed to illuminate the missing links between West African music and the blues. The Hula Blues are the next stage.
Consider the seamless weave of diverse material on the group's current Hanapepe Dream album. Taj resurrects "Love, love, love alone," an old calypso refrain about English King Edward VIII's notorious abdication. He sings ballads from British ("Blackjack Davey") and African American ("Stagger Lee") traditions. He unearths a great slack key piece with a rather calypso-like lyric called "Living on Easy" ("She has a personality / To suit my genealogy"), gives Mississippi John Hurt's "My Creole Belle" an alluring exotic flavor, and turns Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" into a globally ominous thing. His own compositions are strokes that complete the masterly composition of the whole.
It's all done in a very quiet way, but before long it'll work its way into your pores. Taj Mahal and the Hula Blues play two nights at the Ark Monday and Tuesday, July 5 and 6.