Taj Mahal, who plays an indescribable mixture of rock, blues, sou& B, world beat and whatever else you can think of, has been around for more than 20 albums and 30 years, which makes him a living musical legend (certainly better than being a dead musical legend or even a ritzy palace in India).
He still does about 200 gigs a year, one of which will be Tuesday evening at the Lobero Theatre, where he'll doubtlessly showcase tunes from his new album, "Like Never Before." And he has lots of fans--unfortunately, few of them are program radio stations or MTV. But without hits does not mean without fans.
"The people have remained seriously loyal to me throughout these years," Mahal said in a recent airport-suitcase-in-hand telephone interview. "If it wasn't for them, I'd probably be doing something else. I've had some of these fans for 30 years. My only regret is the amount of time it's taken me to get this thing in gear."
Mahal's bio package, which probably weighs more than Graham Parker and Elvis Costello, is a veritable rainbow of glowing, yet contradictory, testimonials. Someone is going to have to invent some new adjective to describe this guy.
"My music is really fun music, with some pan-African and pan-American influences," he said. "I've only been on MTV once as one of their 'Closet Classics,' with some bootleg footage of a 1970 tour I did in Holland. They didn't know what to make of my music, but they finally invented a name for it--world beat music."
Mahal, born in New York in 1942, was exposed to a variety of music by his parents. His mother was from the South and his father was from the West Indies, so he absorbed two different cultures.
"I was always interested in music, even as a kid. I wondered how all these guys died so young after playing all this music that people loved," he said. "When I was 5 or 6, I was messing around with the piano, and I listened to everything from Chopin to boogie-woogie. I liked the music that came from the people--African music, Caribbean music, South American music. It sounded good, felt good and smelled good when it walked. I just worked my own personal thoughts into my music, and just kept at it until I found a way in."
Mahal recently played a gig at the Roxy Theatre in Hollywood; the last time he played there was 21 years ago. He has played with the Byrds, Sonny & Cher and just about everyone who is or was anyone during those silly, psychedelic '60s. He's the old pro who has seen it all and done it all.
"The music business once wanted to develop music but now wants to exploit music. The industry is into marketing--all they want to see is numbers," he said. "It's really hard now for a local band to make it because now it's 10% talent and 90% business. And if you don't look like Ratt or Poison with all that hair, you're in trouble."
Of course, Taj Mahal is not his real name (it's Henry Saint Clair Fredericks). "I got that name from a series of dreams about 40 years ago."
* WHERE AND WHEN
Taj Mahal, Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido, Santa Barbara, 963-0761; Tuesday, 8 p.m.; $17 or $19.