TAJ WEEKES & ADOWA: Radically Roots
For Rastafari-inspired roots reggae, Taj Weekes is among the very best we have. The St. Lucian-born artist’s three albums in the last seven years brim with distinctive lyrics and musicianship, and like all great art, one gets deeper into life through the music rather than escape.
He and his band Adowa perform at 2720 on Wednesday, July 18. And for an all-killer/no filler show, St. Louis’ Mario Pascal plays the opening set. It’s a contender for roots reggae concert of the year.
Born and raised in St. Lucia, now a resident of New York City, the singer/guitarist has a small but impressive body of work. From Hope and Doubt (2005) to Deidem (2008) and A Waterlogged Soul Kitchen (2010), Weekes has set his sights on the most pressing issues of the day through keening vocals, disarming lyrics and potent one drop riddims.
Weekes is a walking, singing and ideologically seamless blend of music, spirituality, activism and 501©3-certified progressive works.
To say that Weekes takes on dread topics like terrorism, environmental destruction and genocide makes him sound like an ambulance chaser, only worse. But as a Caribbean folk artist and as socially conscious Rastafarian, Weekes is following in a long and honorable tradition of making society the focus of art.
“People are really moved by what it is we are saying,” Weekes told me in a phone call in early July. “The thing of it is, I say as an artist, our sole job is to be a town crier, to bring to light things that people may not think about as much or things that people may not have heard about.
“Whether it be what happened in New Orleans or the earthquake in Chile or the earthquake in Haiti or what happened in Japan, we need to bring it out. I mean, with commercial radio and corporate media, all they tell us about is who killed Frankie’s girl on the corner or everything that doesn’t concern us. So it is my responsibility to let the people know what is happening, and maybe we can respond accordingly.
The artist’s response to the subjects of his life and music is systematic and ongoing. Four years ago, he founded They Often Cry Outreach (TOCO), a humanitarian organization whose mission is to improve the lives of Caribbean children through health, sport and enrichment programs. TOCO’s activities are many: a campaign which sent shoes to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake; an exhibition of T-shirts with personal messages written on them to call attention to domestic violence in St. Lucia; a Christmastime toy drive in his home country that will, beginning this year, become a pan-Caribbean effort later.
In early 2012, TOCO went to Trinidad & Tobago to deliver soccer gear and to conduct workshops for the youth. Weekes says that what took place in T&T went beyond the material goods. TOCO is partnering with other organizations (e.g. Rise St. Lucia) to expand the collective power and outreach.
“We kind of brought two rural communities together that had not been together for 15, 20 years. It’s amazing the power of sport can actually bring people together. We are working on trying to get children in the ghetto to US colleges, so we brought coaches down with us and spoke to the kids about the importance of academics and sport.”
Weekes brings a holistic vision to his life and art.
“The funny thing is, some people tend to kind of fragment it and say, well, ‘you’re the artist who is a humanitarian.’ But I just see it as one. We all just need to look deep inside and realize that we are our brother’s keeper,” he said.
Weekes looked to faraway, remote Darfur in Sudan for one of his finest songs, “Janjaweed,” one of the few in reggae about that region of Africa. The song refers to the paramilitary forces who have been widely documented as responsible for the systematic genocide – pillaging villages, killing civilians, poisoning wells – in the large remote western Sudan region of Darfur. There was much grassroots activism worldwide over Darfur, but the institutions of power were weak in response.
Weekes learned anew the power of music, his music, when he toured in France in 2011.
“The funny thing is, we were in France last summer and we were on a radio station called Africa 1. The brother called us over because he wanted to do an interview. He had played this song a week before we came, and he said he must have gotten over a thousand calls just about ‘Janjaweed,’” Weekes said.
“We’re actually calling the janjaweed out by name. On Deidem we have a tune called ‘Orphans Cry,’ ‘the devil who rides on horseback.’ This is the literal translation of janjaweed, the devils who ride on horseback, and there we were calling them to their face. The response was incredible, especially on the African stations in France.”
The band name Adowa refers to the legendary battle site where Ethiopia repelled the Italian invaders in 1896. The musicians Weekes has brought to St. Louis in past performances are worthy of the moniker. Tighter than a chapped skin, the band includes drummer Cornel Marshal, an early member of Third World; guitarist Adonai Xavier, who has played with Eek a Mouse and Dennis Brown; John Hewitt on keys; among others.
I asked if Weekes is a stern disciplinarian as a bandleader. How does a group get that cohesive?
“We rehearse the show without the people. If you rehearse jokingly, then you’ll
play jokingly. You have to rehearse seriously. The thing is too, the people. You don’t know how far people have traveled to come see you. You don’t know the level of respect that people may have for you. So you need to give them a good show and they deserve one.
“Above and beyond that, my aim is to be as true to the art form as I possibly can, not even for anybody else but for myself; if I choose to do something, I figure I need to do it and take it seriously and do it properly.”
Aside from contributing the mesmeric “Against the Machine” to the Occupy This Album anthology, Weekes has written a full album of new material. Before that, though, he has a live album titled Pariahs in Transit set for release in August; it contains sparkling performances from the Austin Reggae Festival and St. Lucia Jazz Festival in 2011.
“We still feel like outsiders in the music. Pariahs in transit. This is just us passing through and this is our contribution for the time we’re here.”
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For more on Taj Weekes, see his home site.
Also, see him delivering soccer balls to a correctional facility in St. Lucia and jamming a long, fervent version of “Jagged” at the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival in 2011. United Reggae did an interview well worth checking out, too.