San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Flying Fish, Smokin’ Blues in Zancudo

Even if you could get the Indian edifice onto an airplane and fly it to Costa Rica, you couldn’t make it fish. So of the two Taj Mahals in the world, the bluesplayin’, cigar-smokin’ musical legend is a much better sponsor for the Taj Mahal Fishin’ Blues Tournament, about to kick off its fourth year in Playa Zancudo, on the southern Pacific coast.

“It’s not one of these big-time, bucks-upin-your-face tournaments,” Taj Mahal told The Tico Times in a telephone interview last week. “It’s all about guys hanging out, and exchanging ideas with people in a wonderful setting. And the fishing is fantastic.”

Not to mention that proceeds from the tournament, which runs Jan. 29 to Feb. 4, go toward keeping traditional music, and musicians, alive. Organized by Taj Mahal and the Music Maker Relief Foundation (MMRF), the tournament raises money to support approximately 200 musicians, all more than 55 years old and with yearly incomes of less than $18,000, who play traditional music from the southern United States.

“Gospel, blues, Appalachian string music, jazz… we work with indigenous artists, any musical tradition that stems from the American south,” MMRF co-founder Denise Duffy told The Tico Times.

The foundation helps these musicians with basic needs, such as rent, food, clothing and medications, as well as professional needs, including expenses involved in buying instruments and amplifiers, booking shows and recording CDs.

“We’ll fix their van or provide gas money so they can get to their gig,” Duffy said, adding that the foundation will even provide escorts when taking artists on tour around the world, as many of the artists with whom the MMRF works have never left their communities.

“Our interest is really in preserving traditional music,” Duffy said. “The older artists are preserving the longest-lived traditions among us. When you get the oldest that learned from the oldest, you’re going to get the music in its purest form.

“Most of our artists are in their 60s or 70s. Their time isn’t long. If we don’t support them and document their music, they’re not going to be here in 20 years.”

“There’s a payoff where somebody looks out for them, when it’s ‘will it be ibuprofen or the potatoes and beans that I need to eat?’

They get up in their age and they need a little assistance,” said Taj Mahal, who has been working with the foundation since 2001.

The blues musician first heard about the organization in the 1990s when some sample CDs of MMRF musicians arrived at the studio where Taj Mahal was recording.

“I thought this was an important part of

the musical heritage that was being underserved,”

he said. “I went and visited (MMRF), and it sounded too good to be true.”

Not long after, Taj Mahal was in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, fishing with Tim Duffy, Denise’s husband and founder of MMRF.

“We talked about how someday I’d like to have a tournament,” Taj Mahal said. “We talked it back and forth and thought it would be a good way to draw attention to the foundation.”

And so the Taj Mahal Fishin’ Blues Tournament was born. With Roy’s Zancudo Lodge serving as a base, the tournament lasts for three days, during which anglers cast for marlin, sailfish, dorado, tuna and others. Last year, 23 participants caught and released 163 sailfish, including a 300-pound marlin.


After the three-day tournament, Taj Mahal plays a free concert on the beach; this year, he will be joined by MMRF participants Adolphus Bell (“the world’s greatest one-man band from Birmingham”) and Lee Gates (“first cousin to blues legend Albert Collins, and plays screamin’ blues on his guitar”). Last year’s tournament raised $40,000 for the foundation, and Duffy says she expects to generate about the same this year.

For more information on the foundation or the tournament, see the MMRF Web site at


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