Sunday, December 21, 2008

Taj Mahal Trio/Sistas Wit Style

Today, as I said earlier was too full, but the evening was well spent. I arrived at the dinner portion of the evening at the "Sistas Wit Style Holiday Party," and had a chance to catch up with a remarkable woman, Elyne Jones, timpanist, the first black woman to play in the San Francisco Symphony. I think the first black person. She lives here now, after ten years in New York. Her other home is Barbados.

So I was talking to her about her past gigs, one with India Cooke and Angela Wellman, her recent visit to Anna's Jazz Island, and her enjoyment of her , Hyacinth, and great-grand sons, and then dinner closed and we all moved to the auditorium for the show which began with certificates of appreciation from Mayor Dellumns presented to the girls by the chair of Carnival San Francisco, who shared stories about the girls who started "Sistas wit Style" when they were in the 5th Grade, 6-7 years ago now. Melissa was the first Princess of Carnival. I know I'd always enjoy the Mask Makers float, music and dancers. I never knew until this weekend that the principal performers are these young entrepreneurs.

Tacuma's young drummers opened the show, followed by a dance for freedom performed by the Sistas. Danced to music which told the story of bondage, the choreography was passionate and dramatic. Children held lanterns on the stage. Children danced next from schools where the Sistas teach classes while company drummers kept the spirits high as Val Serrant called on the orishas to open the way and we responded.

I left all too soon, but the Taj Mahal Trio were performing an early show, and if I were to catch them, I'd have to leave which I did, reluctantly. When I got to the club I caught about 40 minutes of the show, but it was backstage where I was so happy to be a fly on the wall and listen to Taj and Chris Strachwitz,, chop it up about the early music Chris produced and the artists he and Taj knew. It was like a history lesson as Taj and Chris talked about Hawaiian music and the first state-side musicians to bring it here.

Also in the dressing room was Buford Powers, a wonderful baritone vocalist whose latest CD, "Eclectic" is mighty hot. His is one of those smooth Barry White kind of voices. He shared the story of how Taj encouraged him when they met many years ago. He said Taj spent two hours with him talking about the music business. The owner of a trucking business, Powers said he has the soul of an artist, but the mind of a businessman. He wasn't ready to give up a decent livelihood for the fickleness of show biz, but he's ready to take the leap of faith now. Visit him at

As the evening wore on Chris asked Taj how he and Kester Smith, Taj's drummer met. "Smitty and I met on a television show." Taj recalled. "We'd just finished shooting and recording the music for "Sounder," and there were these guys who were so musical, everyone played everything and there was no bass." Smitty said he'd never heard of Taj either, but 38-39 years ago they teamed up. Taj said anyone that musical he wanted to play with.

Kester spoke earlier of how he loved the steel pans, but they were played by hooligans and if his mother caught him anywhere near the pan players he was in trouble, so though he loved them he couldn't play them. Born in Grenada, Kester spoke of how no one ever claims Grenada as home, because it's such a small island, but Grenada is the birthplace of Calypso. He said his dad moved the family to Trinidad when he was five or so, to work for Shell.

So anyway, the club is crowded, aisles full people standing when I arrive. Seat of no seat, I'm just happy to be in the house with my favorite men. It's not everyday that your top group is headliner for your birthday, but SFJAZZ must have booked the Taj Mahal Trio and Keb'Mo Band with me in mind, 'cause I was in heaven and remain there six months later when the men check-in once again, this time at Yoshi's in Oakland. Talk about convenient.

So I walk in on "Corrina," and the good news that since it's their last show of the year, they are going to play a bit more for us. Taj shifts into "Gone Fishin'," followed by "Um Hum Blues"...the Um Hum is supplied by the audience on cue. Taj says, "Yall need to swing it," and then demonstrates and we follow as he conjures BB King. This tune which was remarkable because anything Taj touches musically is remarkable, was even more outstanding because Bill Rich soloed...and it was magnificent! I learned later that Bill used to play guitar which is one of the reasons why he can get such a melodic tone from the electric bass, what one hears from the acoustic bass.

Taj pulled out the banjo next as he spoke about the Broadway show "River Dance" and the tune which he proceeded to play in multiple time signatures, one at a time, of course. We clapped along leisurely and then had to race to keep up when he played it double time.

The next song was a blues...on the banjo, something about 99 years, doin' time.

The encore which I couldn't name, spoke of a man promising to make his woman happy, "wrap rainbows around her shoulders...." Sounded like Howlin' Wolf was in the house, on stage next to Taj singing along. It was what the musician called, "His raw and uncut version--as he switched guitars and moods into the softer and smoother, Taj classic, "I see love in my baby's eyes."

Taj Mahal is such a uplift to one's spirit...his music tells stories as old as the human race, stories of love and hardship, triumph and making do with what one has until she can get or do better. He is the consummate artist; attune to his audience and appreciative of his band members on stage. The Trio is a unit. Another thing about Taj is his sound, with a resident engineer who travels with them, his sound is good whether that is the horrible Masonic Auditorium or the more intimate Yoshi's in Oakland.

He has a 40th Anniversary CD out. I haven't heard it yet, but some of the songs performed Sunday night are on it.


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