Taj Weekes – PARIAH IN TRANSIT in review
by Michael Kuelker
From the Caribbean island of St. Lucia comes a package marked “reggae music 501(c)3.” It looks deceptively like a compact disc but it’s really a set of boxes one inside the other inside the other, each opening up to a facet of reggae culture.
Pariah in Transit is the new live album by singer/guitarist/bandleader Taj Weekes, who is directing the proceeds from the project to a registered humanitarian organization, They Often Cry Outreach, which he founded in 2007. TOCO promotes health and sports among disadvantaged youth among its many projects in a wide range of community building efforts.
I’ve listened closely to the artist’s three studio albums and to his band on three occasions (@La Onda and 2720). As a songwriter he is, I think, among reggae’s finest, a penetrating poet who is averse to easy rhyme, platitude and simple didacticism. And his band – remarkably cohesive, tight like a sunburned forehead.
Still, I am not automatically turned on by live albums. Even when it’s artists who are really good live, Marley, the Clash or Howlin’ Wolf, whomever, my go-to selections wind up being an artist’s studio recordings (and usually early or mid-career). Live albums are souvenirs, documents of a time, faithful to a sound (usually), wonderful to behold (sometimes), but in my collection only occasionally at the ‘igher ights. This disc by Weekes definitely skews to the high end of the live album spectrum.
Concise and compelling intro to the artist, Pariah in Transit is crisply recorded sans overdub, a lesson in band dynamics and tasteful restraint, the music coming like good reggae should, light like a feather and heavy as lead.
Adowa are Weekes (lead vocals, guitar), Xavier Adoni (guitar), Burt “Radss” Desiree (bass), John Hewitt (keyboards) and Cornel Marshall (drums). Backing vocals on the album vary between Valerie Kelley, Angela Weekes, Paulette Kerr and J’anaee Wilkerson. The recordings were made in Columbia, MO; Chicago, IL; St. Lucia and BC Canada. It is a classy package and all for a good cause.
We expect live albums to extend the studio versions of an artist’s songs and we get them here – though not in excess and, best of all, not because Weekes & company run things long by crowd-stoking call-and-response or instrumental noodling. This is an album of songs, very good ones woven tightly and wordically wise. Everyone plays well; I have to send out special thanks to Adoni for staying the reggae course and not harshing my mellow by soloing rock and roll style.
Weekes is a Rasta musician very much of the 21st century whose songs are firmly within the roots tradition but stay free of emulating any particular influence. Lyrically, he is his own man; for instance, in “Life” Weekes repeats the line “Bow abide in strength relieve me,” nestling in little koan, “arches sorely grieve me” and “archers everywhere.” You need a little time with this music.
Weekes explained to me in an interview last summer that he sees the function of the artist in society as that of a town crier On “Rain Rain” he refers to Hurricane Katrina without citing it by name. He’s even tackled genocide in Sudan with “Janjaweed,” though it is not on the live album, a subject virtually everybody in reggae took a pass on. A lot of the cuts on Pariah in Transit are Rasta in orientation and rendered in a universal tongue, such as “Seek the spaces in my thought / to unlearn what I’ve been taught” (“Angry Language”), which is really a description of realizing an alternative consciousness, familiar to Rastas realizing their inborn conception or anyone re-orienting their lives.
At other moments the artist gets Rasta-specific, such as the passage in “Scream Out Mellow” in which he proclaims “King Selassie is God Almighty.” That’s the central tenet. In the coda of “Jordan,” which is previously unreleased, he iterates and reiterates, “the laws against marijuana and the force against marijuana / has done more harm than marijuana has ever done to anyone.” In this we have a secular message regarding a Rasta sacrament and an idea on which respondents in American polls are split 50/50.
Pariah in Transit will have a long shelf life, though I highly recommend that you take it off the shelf and get it in regular rotation in home and automobile. For those counting nickels or keeping score, six of the album’s ten tracks come from 2008’s Deidem, with two from Hope and Doubt (2005) and one from his most recent album, A Waterlogged Soul Kitchen (2010). The song selection is faultless, although I’d have also welcomed the inclusion of “Against the Machine,” a non-album track he contributed to the Occupy movement (Occupy This Album) which is well worth seeking out. See tajweekes.com.