Taj Mahal and the Hula Blues Band
Sacred Island
Private 01005-82165-2

On the heels of his Grammy-winning release Señor Blues, Taj Mahal moves in another musical direction without straying too far from his earlier explorations with world music and Caribbean sounds. And after living on Kauai for 12 years, it is only natural that Mahal would incorporate some Hawaiian music into his island mix. The result is a breezy collection that is more like the kind of project Bob Dylan did with the Traveling Wilburys ó a fun little aside to his more serious work.

The title cut is a dreamy, wind-blown instrumental that has the feel of a warm summer afternoon. But Mahal doesnít just settle with Hawaii. "Coconut Man" sounds like something we should hear at a Jamaican barbecue, although it has references to Hawaii and Fiji. Even "The Calypsonians" has a Caribbean flavor, and Mahalís vocals sound like Tom Waits, adding a little extra rasp to the mix.

The truly Hawaiian-sounding songs happen when Mahal lets his collaborators get out front a bit more. Carlos Andradeís "No Ma Mamo," which he composed and sings, sounds as traditional as one can get with Hawaiian music, mixing slack-key guitar, ukulele and a Hawaiian lyric. Likewise, "Betty and Dupree" is transformed from a blues song into a fusion daydream with ukulele support from Andrade and Wayne Jacintho. The feel-good sense of Mahalís humor shines through on "The New Hula Blues," a tune with a lyric that mixes cell phones and island love. More traditional in sound, "Mailbox Blues" has a country blues flavor, but Rudy Costaís flute work transcend that boundary.

What is amazing, considering that Mahal has two slack-key guitar players on the album, is that we donít get more connection to that open tuning and individual picking style which so resembles the early blues greats. Since slack-key has the potential for bridging the worlds of blues and Hawaiian music in ways that many listeners are unaware of, Mahal misses a great opportunity to create that bridge. Still, Sacred Island is like sipping a piña colada in a hammock on a warm day; it feels good.

ó John Koetzner


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Boulder, CO, USA.