Painting My Mailbox Blue (Taj Mahal)

There’s been a Taj Mahal revival round at our house. Recently a young woman showed up on my doorstep with a couple of bags & nowhere to go after her parents had asked her to leave. I don’t think that I have a heart of gold but Mollie is a friend, she was skint, screwed & homeless so what can a poor boy do except sleep on the undersized sofa for a couple of weeks while helping her to find somewhere to live. She’s 19 & reckons that my musical taste ranges from absolutely archaic to downright weird. That’s the way the youth should feel about old people’s music. A concordance was reached one evening when she returned to a flat filled with Taj’s unique, calming rhythms. It’s harmonious in however many meanings that word has.

 

 

Related imageOh yes! “Sweeter than a honey bee”. Taj, his Regal RC-56 Tricone Resophonic guitar & a couple of friends on a Sunday morning ride around New Orleans in a horse-drawn carriage playing “Queen Bee”, a track from his 1977 LP “Evolution (the Most Recent)”. What could be better?…not much. In 1968 Taj released 2 LPs of soulful electric Blues, respectful to the tradition, modern without resorting to psychedelic gimmickry. The eponymous debut contained songs by Sleepy John Estes, Blind Willie McTell & Robert Johnson while “The Nach’l Blues” dipped into the Stax catalogue with tunes from William Bell & Homer Banks. I liked this new talent, I liked his range, it reflected my own listening preferences when it came to African-American music.

 

Throughout the next decade Taj Mahal continued to make quality music. With support from guitarist Jesse Ed Davis the first 3 albums featured a great rocking band. Subsequent records, it’s a fine list, provided a tasty, diverse menu. The ingredients already included Blues, Soul, Folk Gospel & Jazz, Taj added a strong seasoning of Caribbean rhythms. As he told us on “Mo Roots” (1974) his grandfather married “one fine St Kitts Woman”. This was though no musicologist’s pick & mix of World Music. Whether Taj was picking his guitar or banjo or banging a couple of sticks together his own unique, soothing inner rhythm into whatever the origin of the songs he chose to interpret.

 

 

Image result for taj mahal singer“Take a Giant Step”, written by Gerry Goffin & Carole King & originally recorded by the Monkees was the B-side of “Last Train to Clarksville in 1966. Three years later it became the title track of the electric half of Taj’s 3rd album. This version, my preferred one, is taken from the LP “Live & Direct” (1979) credited to Taj Mahal & the International Rhythm Band. A couple of years earlier he added Trinidadian steelpan virtuoso Robert Greenidge to his group. The pan is not my favourite instrument but maybe I’d not heard it played right until I heard Greenidge. “L&D” is such a bright, entertaining record, the band, including long-time contributor Rudy Costa on sax, flute & pan pipe, hit a groove that you want to go on & on. Ditching my cassette collection didn’t seem too drastic at the time but I would have this one back in a heartbeat. Now I have a set the group performed at Berkeley Community Theatre in September 1977, taped for my listening pleasure by KSAN.

 

 

The contracts with Columbia & Warner Bros ended & there were less records released in the 1980’s. His reputation meant that he could still draw a crowd & I saw Taj play 3 times in that decade. His 1987 Glastonbury set, closing the festival on the Sunday night left me so satisfied & tickled too that 7 days later I was down the front at the Town & Country Club in London for more of that good stuff. “Like Never Before” (1991) had a bigger budget, a polished production, a guest list of heavy friends (Hall & Oates, Dr John, David Lindley). The record attracted a little more attention & “Take All the Time You Need”, a song written by Jerry Williams, the great Swamp Dogg, joined that long playlist of essential Taj Mahal tracks. It sounded like the kind of Rock & Roll that I wanted to hear back then & it surely still does now.

 

 

Image result for taj mahal singerSo that was going to be my triple whammy choice of Taj tracks for today. I’ll mention his show in London on a Summer evening in 1998 when he & the Phantom Blues Band performed a fine Soul-Blues review show. There has been a fine, wide mix of collaborations & solo releases since but it’s the charm of those early records that keep me listening to him. Then I stumbled upon this clip from 2014 which shows where Taj is now so much better than I can. Here he shares a stage with an all star band including Ryland P Cooder who, as a 17 year old had been a fellow member of the Rising Sons, a Blues Band from Los Angeles. “Statesboro Blues” is that Blind Willie McTell song they played in 1966. Taj fills the stage with his presence, his personality & his ability. When Taj plays you can’t help but smile.

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Out On The Street (Notting Hill Carnival)

The August Bank Holiday means that it’s Carnival time in London. The rest of the world organise their “carne vale” or Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) around the religious fast of Lent. The Notting Hill Carnival, Europe’s biggest street party, waits until later in the year & gives the unpredictable British weather at least a chance to make a positive contribution to the 2 days of celebration. The first Caribbean carnival cultural cabaret was an indoor event, organized in 1959 as a reaction to race relation problems & riots in West London. In 1966 a children’s street party became a procession when the steel band went walkabout. Such a spontaneous idea was too good a time to remain as a one-off & by 1975 the word was out about the best thing happening in London on a Bank Holiday weekend.

 

 

My first time at Carnival was in 1976. We joined a stream of people walking down the Portobello Rd from Notting Hill Gate to Ladbroke Grove & encountered an exhilarating blur of colourful costumes, steel pan music, dancing & people having a good time. Under the Westway flyover dub rhythms ricocheted off the concrete walls. Every street corner sound system was spinning the reggae hit of the summer, Junior Murvin’s seductive, ominous “Police & Thieves”, an instant classic produced by the master Lee Perry. After a great & different day out, in the fading light, we made our way up Ladbroke Grove. The streets were being left to the (predominantly) black youth & an increased police presence. Back then we were regulars at football matches, we knew when things were about to go off. Sure enough the next day’s banner headlines told of riots & attacks on police. 150,000 people enjoying themselves at a street festival is not news. 66 arrests (with 2 eventual convictions for carnival-related offences), that’s enough to cause a moral panic.

 

My wife shot a bunch of photographs of the day & developed them as colour slides (ask your grandparents). She taught in a Birmingham school with the highest proportion of Anglo-Caribbean pupils in the city & when the kids saw these photos they wanted to know just where they had been taken. After 20 years of residency their own community was still largely invisible in the mainstream media, these young Black Britons were unaccustomed to seeing their own culture celebrated. The racist shibboleth “Send them home !” was meaningless when “home” was a 50p bus ride away. “Inglan is a bitch” wrote Linton Kwesi Johnson, a multicultural one & people had better get used to it. The Notting Hill Carnival was more important than just a good day out.

 

 

In the 1980’s I was living in London & Carnival became a fixture of my (ahem !) social calendar. Attendance numbers continued to rise & every year I went with different people & had a fine time. Like “Police & Thieves” there was always a big tune that the sound boys adopted as the event’s anthem & in 1983 Arrow’s “Hot,Hot,Hot”, an irresistible soca hit, reflected Carnival’s wider Caribbean roots. It was that year we, Jackie, Mitchell & myself, made our way through the packed crowds in All Saints Rd to Meanwhile Gardens over Westbourne Park way to see Aswad play. When we arrived at the small community space there was just enough room left for the 3 of us. We were in the right place.

 

Aswad, Brinsley, Drummie & Gad, were a Notting Hill band. I have seen them play great sets at festivals, a Sunsplash, even the Royal Albert Hall. This was their manor, their crowd & their songs often reflected life in “a concrete situation”. Man, didn’t the hometown boys make good ! Reinforced by a veteran brass section Aswad were confident & assertive & so were the audience. I’ve never known such a connection between performers & their public. Jackie & I danced madly to the fine, fine music  with new friends (Mitchell didn’t…he don’t dance !). We left Meanwhile Gardens on a night lit up by smiling faces. The following year I saw a repeat performance in the same venue but this gig, documented on the “Live & Direct” LP, was just the greatest thing.

 

 

Through the 1990’s things had changed. Notting Hill, more than any other area in London, was super-gentrified. The eponymous movie made the place an unlikely tourist attraction. There are not too many black faces hanging out with Hugh Grant (maybe Divine Brown ?) & Julia Roberts. Carnival organisers & police, having to deal with up to a million visitors over the 2 days & concerned with an enduring reputation for disorder, introduced crowd control barriers, invited sponsorship, even considered a move into Hyde Park. The music was changing too. Under the Westway first Rap then House, Garage & Jungle was replacing the Reggae rhythms but, of course, you could still find the sounds you wanted just around the corner.

 

In 1997 I attended with Sue (we had first shared the experience back in 1984) & the rammed crowds on the parade route seemed more like spectators than “revellers”. We chose to spend the afternoon round & about DJ Norman Jay’s sound system, a fixture at Carnival. Norman (my favourite MBE) had been on the radar since his Shake ‘n’ Fingerpop parties, then a fine show on pirate radio Kiss FM before, in 97, joining Greater London Radio. His sets always included prime grooves, rare or otherwise, spanning all labels & decades of Black dance music. That year’s feelgood hit was the “NuYorican Soul” LP by production team Masters at Work, “Little” Louie Vega & Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez. A mix of revamped classics & new material, “It’s Alright I Feel It” by Jocelyn Brown, a great singer from back in the day, was just one of the stand out tracks. We knew that Norman would play this new anthem & so, it turned out, did half of his crowd. The place was joyous, dancing in the street, waving our hands in the air, waving like we just don’t care. Sue & I had a great day, ate some good food, saw Soul II Soul & had this Carnival moment that we had come for.

 

While writing this memoir I haven’t ignored the incidents of crime & disorder which prove to be so newsworthy. I lived in South London so I guess I was a tourist in Notting Hill too. I was aware of the problems between Black youth & the police, had friends who were victimised because of their colour. Plenty of times I’ve wanted a riot of my own. In 1984 the event passed off peacefully while the police were otherwise engaged with striking miners…just saying. I only bought weed at Carnival once (going unprepared), it was cool & it did the trick. There were times when I or my companions felt that we were probably in the wrong place but these were a few minutes in the many hours we were there. I would rather remember hundreds of thousands of people getting along, organising themselves & enjoying themselves, celebrating the culture of a community that has contributed so much to London’s & Britain’s life. I now live 150 miles from London & my old bones ache if I dance for too long. When August Bank Holiday comes around I wouldn’t mind getting down there & getting down one more time.

 

 

Homegrown Vibrations (British Reggae)

In 1976 we went up to the Notting Hill Carnival, the Bank Holiday celebration of Caribbean culture, for the first time.  West London was rammed, a riot of colour & noise, people dancing in the street to the tune of the Summer, Junior Murvin’s “Police & Thieves”. There was tension bubbling between the youth & the police as we left & the headlines the next day were of riot & trouble. The Clash left that day wanting a riot of their own. We had a fine day out & knew we would return for more of this good stuff.

At this time my wife was teaching in a Birmingham school in which the pupils were predominantly of Afro-Caribbean origin. She took her photos into school to show the kids. There were two reactions. The girls wanted the phone number of a friend of ours who they thought was cute. They also wanted to know where the photos were taken. They did not make the connection between the sight of so many people who were the same colour as they were and the country in which they lived. These children were the first generation of Black Britons & just down the road, in Handsworth, a young group of musicians were adroitly expressing this experience in their tunes.

Steel Pulse were Birmingham’s boys, formed by friends from the Handsworth Wood school. I worked with their sound guy, Horace, & would see him sleep-walk through the mornings after late-night returns from gigs. He brought me the “Nyah Love” single on Anchor Records & the 1977  “Live at the Hope & Anchor” LP on which the band had a track among the pub-rockers & the punks. A contract with Island Records followed & Horace left our office with a contract in his back pocket…the school band done good. The first LP, “Handsworth Revolution” (1978), was just the ticket. There was anger , conviction & some seriously good tunes. “Tribute To The Martyrs” followed, it was so great that a young British reggae band were this good. Punk & Reggae were a good fit, the band found a wide audience.

Steel Pulse went international, the sound got bigger, the songs, while still roots reggae, a little less specific, more universal. This clip of the first single “Ku Klux Klan”, a warning about the dangers on British streets for young black men, shows that Pulse had got it going on right from the beginning. I always loved to hear them dub it up in concert & they do ir here so smooth & sweet. Last year I bought their  “Reggae Greats” compilation on Island & reminded myself of just how good they were.

Fast forward to Carnival 1983. We are in a packed park, Meanwhile Gardens. An afternoon of people watching, eating  dancing and  osmosing the vibes was geared towards arriving at the park in time to see Aswad. Another group of school friends who played reggae about the British experience. Aswad took a little longer than Pulse to make their mark but Notting Hill was their manor, their crowd. As dusk became night Aswad played to their people. The group had added a horn section (including veteran players Vin Gordon and “Tan Tan Thornton) which reinforced the confidence, the assertiveness of the music. These attributes were shared by the audience. There was delight and celebration that the local boys were this good. Every tune was a winner. Extra percussion arrived onstage for a soca tune, it was received with such abandon that the band played it twice. The Rockers  Medley of hits inna Aswad style added to the feeling that this night was unique. As we danced and cheered together I have never known such a connection, a unity of audience and musicians. When it was over we said our goodbyes to people we had danced with and would never meet again. It was more than smiles that lit the August night it was the glow from a tiny patch of West London.

An LP “Live & Direct” was released of the gig, a fine memento. I have seen Aswad play at festivals, on the night of my 30th birthday, at a Sunsplash & one superb night when the roots rockers went uptown to the Royal Albert Hall. They never disappointed but that August night was unforgettable.

We were spoiled in London in the 1980s. We came away from Aswad shows convinced that we had seen the best of British reggae & then we would see Misty In Roots. Their 1979 “Live at Counter Eurovision” LP had a lot of airplay on John Peel’s radio show & deservedly so. Misty, from North West London were a wonderful live band. This clip is too short but it was pretty much this gentle, uplifting chug all the way. It was truly a spiritual thing, no show just a heartfelt exposition of their truth. Man, you could not get a Rizla paper between them & Aswad when they were at their best. One night I saw Misty steal a big show at the Brixton Academy from Johnny Osbourne with a great set. On a summer Sunday afternoon, after a free concert in a Brixton park, I would have floated all the way home if I could only remember where I lived.

I saw many of the great Jamaican artists, listened to more of them. These homegrown acts all made some equally fine music (a mention here for Dennis Bovell & Matumbi),  we were able to see them more often. Seeing Steel Pulse in Birmingham & Aswad in West London were absolutely exhilarating times as their crowds celebrated the local boys made good.