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Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal is a modern bluesman, a griot, comfortable shouting his hallelujahs in his trademark Hawaiian shirt or just sitting down musing about the past under the hood of a FUBU sweatshirt. This seeming contradiction is exactly what enables Taj Mahal to seamlessly connect us in the present to the back-porch days of the past. Far from the painful times of singing about sorrow and cotton fields, his music has always been about getting off your ass, lifting those feet and moving.

As he does every year, Taj Mahal is touring like a madman, letting everyone know the blues are alive and thriving as always. It's not uncommon to hear Taj Mahal on stage talking trash about record companies or breaking into a short history lesson on an obscure bluesman.

Creative Loafing: What's important for us to know about record companies?

Taj Mahal: That they're ripping off the musicians. Because you go and put your $11.95 up there and you think you're buying Pearl Jam or Nirvana, and you are. But what's really [happening] is Nirvana's getting like 9-10 percent and the record company's getting 90 percent.

That's why they got all upset when Napster came in. Because Napster figured it out and went right around the record companies and said, "Hey, the music belongs to us."

It's like when I grew up, I felt that the music belonged to me. We didn't have records 'cause the music was in the air. People played it. Then all of a sudden, by the '50s, came record companies. Up until then I didn't hear bad music from nobody. Then you started hearing bad music, and they would just beat it on you. That's why I went in the direction I went. I was like, if this keeps up, nobody will know what real music is.

You know a record company by itself don't make no sound, you've got to have an artist. So, at least, an artist is worth 50 percent. Even with all the money they do have, and all the popularity that they have, they still aren't getting paid the way they should.

Can commercial music help social change once the music gets commercialized?

Once it gets to a certain level of commercialization what it really is doing is taking the edge out of it, taking the shards of glass off the top of the fence. It's just not ugly and threatening enough. Ten years ago rap was scaring everyone. Fifteen years ago people didn't even want to know it was there. Now it's in Burger King commercials.

What about commercial music and commercial culture?

Well, you got to decide what you're here for. All these great singers who spend all this time working and developing this great instrument, their voice, do you realize that not one of them owns a record company except one of the younger ones who came along and saw the game after three records? And that was Madonna. It didn't take her but three records to figure out what the game was. That you wasn't gonna do no good just being a singer and being great. You really need to own your own your stuff and she managed to do that.

What prompted you to start your own record company?

The real deal was years ago. I was at Fantasy record studio. I was in a parking lot, and Jerry Garcia was there. Garcia looked at me, he was putting his instruments in his car, and he said, "I don't usually talk to other musicians about stuff like this, but they'll never understand you. They never get what it is you're doing." He said that, "You really should have your own record company." And I was like, "Oh God." My thought is like, "This is wonderful. You're giving me this information, but that just sounds like a headache." Well, you know what's more of a headache? Knowing that they're taking you. That's a real headache. It's like I can kick myself in my own butt. I can handle that, but I don't like someone else kicking me — worst of all taking money out of my hands and my kids and my grandkids or great-grandkids.

Can you tell the younger generation about the spirit of the '60s?

The '60s young people were galvanized. That was the first time there was that big a generation all raised around the same kinds of thing. And there were a lot of people living lies, and as people came closer together and more truth came out, a great generation of youngsters just couldn't believe their government wasn't [honest], their parents wasn't [honest], the books wasn't [honest]. The experiences on the streets just did not fit in to the way they were told it was supposed to be. To some degree it's happening now. But I don't think that young people are as up in arms directly about the same kind of things.

Taj Mahal plays Fri., Jan. 30, at the Variety Playhouse, 1099 Euclid Ave. 8 p.m. $25. 404-524-7354. www.variety-playhouse.com.