Taj Mahal has spent more than 40 years exploring the roots and branches of the blues. Grounded in the acoustic pre-war blues sound but drawn to the eclectic sounds of world music, he revitalized a dying tradition and prepared the way for a new generation of blues men and women. While many African Americans shunned older musical styles during the 1960s, Mahal immersed himself in the roots of his past. "I was interested in the music because I felt something [got] lost in that transition of blacks trying to assimilate into society," he told Art Tipaldi in Blues Review. He had no intention of repeating what had come before, however, and drew deeply from the wells of the ethnic music of Africa, South America, and the Caribbean. "Mahal began as a blues interpreter," noted Ira Mayer in the New Rolling Stone Record Guide, "but his music has since encompassed rock, traditional Appalachian sounds, jazz, calypso, reggae, and a general tendency toward experimentation."
After remaining relatively silent through much of the 1980s, Mahal recorded the well-received Tajin 1987. He then released Shake Sugaree, the first of several children's albums, and recorded a musical score for Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston's lost play, Mule Bone, for which he received a Grammy nomination. He signed with Private Music and released Dancing the Blues in 1993 and Phantom Blues in 1996. "Mahal is a fine interpreter," declared Roberta Penn in theSeattle Post-Intelligencer, "breezy and light on love tunes, righteous and randy on cheatin' songs, and soulful and shouting on the dance numbers." Phantom Blues also included high-profile guest appearances by guitarist Eric Clapton and singer Bonnie Raitt. Mahal told Jim McGuinness in the Bergen County, New Jersey, Record, "The album is designed to go down some familiar trails, but to look at new things." In 1997 he won a Grammy for SeÃ±or Blues.
If the mixing of genres such as blues, Zydeco, gospel, and Latin music seems natural today, it is because of pioneers like Mahal. He opened up myriad possibilities for young artists who wanted to expand their musical palette beyond traditional blues. Robert Christgau wrote in the Village Voice,"In the '90s, Guy Davis, Keb' Mo', Corey Harris, and Alvin Youngblood Hart, all flowing out of the surge in cultural consciousness that ensued as the offspring of the civil rights generation came into their own, prove Taj Mahal a prophet." While proud of his accomplishments, Mahal has remained more interested in pursuing current projects. He has recorded more than 25 albums and traveled throughout the world, continuing to explore new musical veins, playing as many as 200 dates a year, and releasing a steady stream of albums.