“I love you, daddy,” says Taj Mahal’s daughter, Deva Mahal. “I love you, baby,” he says back. They were on a recently completed 34-stop tour billed as World Blues. Deva opens the show with her partner Stephanie Brown in a duo called Fredericks Brown. South Africa’s Vusi Mahlasela, known simply as “The Voice” in his native country, handles the second spot on the bill. And the Taj Mahal Trio headlines with classic songs taken mainly from early in his career like “Checkin’ Up On My Baby,” “Creole Belle,” “Goin’ Fishin,” “Mean Old World” and “Wild About My Lovin.'” Deva comes out at the end, and father and daughter sing “Lovin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.” Her arm then sweeps toward daddy and she announces proudly, “One more round of applause for the legendary Taj Mahal.”
Her name is spelled d-e-v-a, but its pronounced like diva and, like her dad Deva commands the stage with a bigger than life presence that envelopes her audience in a cozy blanket and delivers her vocals in a voice that seems to physically overcome the limitations of the sound system. “I can make you love me,” she sings, and she does.
She says she’s influenced by Billy Holiday and Nina Simone, but her sound is much more sonic and contemporary sweeping majestically with dramatic stops and starts. Deva overpowers keyboardist Stephanie Brown on stage who is reduced to an accompanist. Deva’s delivery reflects her classical and theatrical background as much as it does a bluesy blue feel. Fredericks Brown’s latest EP, “Glass House Mountains,” was released in October.
“Everything is related. Like we try to make sure that every aspect of the song has a close relationship with every piece,” she says. “So the arrangement of the strings is balanced off what the piano is doing, (balanced out) with what the bass is doing. We’d never write for just one aspect of the song. So lyrically it has to definitely convey the tone of whatever the object’s matter is, but it also has to integrate into the arrangement of the music. We’re very particular about that. We don’t write music. We write a melody with lyrics and then put together a backing band and follow your basic cord structure, everything has a really beautiful relationship.
Deva is proud of the privileges she’s had as Taj Mahal’s daughter including having met Rosanne Cash, another performing artist who has worked through a long career to overcome her father Johnny Cash’s long shadow. Like Rosanne, Rick Nelson’s sons Gunnar and Matthew, Hank Williams Jr, and Hank III, Deva has seen more of her father through his work than his presence in the family. She grew up with her mom in New Zealand while he toured the world.
Don Wilcock for American Blues Scene: What’s the upside and downside of being the daughter of somebody as iconic as your dad?
Deva Mahal: I mean that’s a big question, and I don’t know if I can answer it in just short stanzas.
I’ve got time.
Well, the upside to that is I’ve been exposed to things a lot of people won’t get the opportunity to experience.
Did you appreciate that from a young age, or did it take you a while to figure out just how lucky you were?
It took me until I was in my late teens to understand. I think when I was little, I was always proud that he was just my dad, and when I was in my late teens, I went to all of his shows like a young adult. It was right when he came out with the Phantom Blues Band and the first album they did that he won a Grammy for, and I would like, “Whoa, this is heavy,” and went to see them play live, and I was like, “Oh, my God, this is amazing,” and also there’s the wealth of knowledge my dad has.” He’s actually an American legend, and that’s my dad. And to have that as a resource.
Talking to him is like an encyclopedia.
He’s like a walking, talking encyclopedia in music and other things like agriculture and cultural anthropology especially like Afro-Cuban and West African history. So, it’s an amazing thing. The downside is I didn’t see my dad very much. The downside is that when your dad is a performing musician at that kind of caliber, you end up belonging to everyone else, and you don’t get to have the kind of relationship you imagine you would have with a father.
Yeah, it must be difficult to find a balance.
Well, I don’t think we ever did. Luckily, in my older years, my adult years, being that we both have music as our priority, that would bring us together. His family is his priority, but in order for him to do that, he has to work, and he also loves to work. That’s who he is. He couldn’t help it if he tried. So it’s like getting to do music that he respects.
I helped him write one of the songs on his last album, “Maestro,” that was nominated for a Grammy, and that was the first time we worked together. I wrote the melody and the lyrics, and both of us did the music, and that was like the first time he was like “Alright, I’m gonna (trust music with her) and it turned out – obviously we didn’t win, but to have a song on an album that was nominated was incredible
The first time he really started taking me seriously as a musician was when he saw me perform in New Zealand because I pretty much managed to come to a country I was not natural to and create a huge following for myself and started working with the best musicians in the country and touring around the world, and stuff like that. He came to see me play, and he was like, “Whoa!” That was the first time he really realized I was serious about it, and that I was actually really good at it.
How important was it to you that he really get it?
You know, I didn’t really know how important it was to me until he saw (my) audience. He never really makes a big deal about it. He’ll just start doing things. He’s not the type to make a big hullabaloo to your face, and when you find out he’s telling all his mates he thinks it’s the shit, he’ll never tell you, but now our relationship is different.
Do you ever feel you have a responsibility because of who you are? Is that ever an albatross?
You know, that’s not a constant. It’s not. I only feel that way sometimes when I really look at his legacy, and then I feel like because of what it’s been, I want to continue it in a way that I will and the way that I can and the way that I’m an artist and stuff like that, but I try not to let that get over in my head because I’m not and I never will be, and my career will be different because we’re in a different place, and talent is being (carried) differently. So I don’t know. I don’t really hold myself up to that standard ’cause it would stifle you as an artist.
Did you get to spend any time with your dad when you were a child, or was he pretty much on the road all the time?
He’s one of the busiest blues musicians that I know. He’s always on the road. When we were little to a certain age, we would tour with him and our mom. When we got too old to be on the road and needed to be in school, it became too much of an upheaval for us. We ended up staying at home, and then we didn’t see that much of him.
Did he encourage you to become eclectic and more worldly because what I hear of your music, you’re almost as eclectic as he is in terms of your influences.
You know I think that’s in part from my father, but also from my mother and then also from my upbringing ’cause I grew up in Hawaii and having that soundscape from my youth and then having my parents inculcate those influences.
There’s a quote in the press release on this tour that says this is the first time that the three bands (Taj Mahal Trio, Vusi Mahlaselo and Fredericks Brow) have played together, but you’ve played with your dad before on tour, right?
Yes, that would be correct.
How many times have you played with him on tour? How many years?
I’ve been on tour with him for years. I think the longest I ever went out with him was two weeks, and that might be two different times in two different years. Then every once in a while, we’d do like a duo together, like we played Carnegie Hall together.
Whoa! What was that like?
It was great. We played for the Rolling Stones, the night of the Rolling Stones. We also played for Philip Glass’s benefit concert together.
Ah, you’ve been up where the air is rare, girl. That’s great.
You get nervous when you’re playing a gig that’s that important?
You know I was a little nervous, but I was actually more excited than anything.