‘Whenever it comes to song writing, my second line is always the most important’: An Interview with Taj Weekes
by Michael Kuelker
St. Lucian reggae artist Taj Weekes and his band Adowa return to St. Louis with a performance on Saturday, June 15 at 2720. KDHX’s Mr Roots will be spinning tunes that evening, too. Mr Weekes is one of the most compelling and original artists in roots reggae today, and I spoke to him by telephone on May 28, 2013.
KUELKER: Your new live album, Pariah in Transit [Jatta Records 2013], is a remarkable piece of work [reviewed here]. And it feels like a capstone on this first phase of your career, encompassing seven or eight years and three studio albums. One wonders, then, what comes next?
WEEKES: You said exactly what it is, the live album captured the last three. So we have moved on past that. What I am thinking of doing for [the next] album is a different studio. I produced everything on the last four albums so I would like to let somebody else come in and let them direct a little bit. Just a different vibe. I’ve done the last four albums, I have produced every one, it’s been my point of view. I would like to alternate points of view on the next album, so we can move into a different phase – not too different, still me and the band. And the idea is to bring other guest musicians in. It will still be roots but we’re gonna tweak it a little bit.
One of the strongest tracks on Pariah is a brand new composition, “Jordan,” and I wanted to ask you about the inspiration behind it.
‘Jordan’ is a song I made up on the spot. We had played some venue someplace and they had some issues with the equipment, so by the time the equipment came, the show was 45 minutes late and it wasn’t our fault. I pride myself on always being early, and we were as usual. When the show was done – when I thought the show was done – the promoter asked if we could play for an additional 45 minutes. But I had played for over two and a half hours and I had run through all the songs that I wanted to play that I thought were appropriate for the setting. So I just said to the guys, ‘hold two chords and follow me and we’ll do something with it.’ So I held two chords, the brothers followed me and ‘Jordan’ came out.
After it came out and I sang it a few times as I liked it. I recorded the song on my phone, and it’s become a staple ever since.
What other new songs are you writing?
I’ve written the next album. I wrote 18 songs, and I’m breaking it down to the 12 which capture the theme of what it is I am doing. It’s kind of more introspective but yet as usual I am looking out on the world. There’s a song that I think will start the album called “Let Your Voice Be as Loud as Your Silence.” That’s the kind of vibe.
On this album, I decided to put three love song – real love songs, not heartbreak songs but love songs because I’ve been told by a couple of people as much as they love the one that I have written here, I have not written a real love song as yet. So we wrote three real love songs, what at least I would consider love songs.
The album title is not yet decided, but there are songs like “Giant Beast” and “In Full Sight.” I think the songs are solid. To me, so far it’s probably my best work. We’ll see what happens when it comes out.
I’ve read from your website that you’ve published a book of poetry. What do you aim for with poetry which makes it distinct from what you are doing musically?
Yeah, the thing is, a lot of the poetry that I write tends to be songs. I think I might be my greatest critic and biggest judge, so a lot of the things that I write sit around. They’re written as poems not as songs. Because I think a song takes on a particular format.
I try not to dictate the direction of a song. To me whenever it comes to song writing, my second line is always the most important line to me. Because it dictates the direction of the song. Cause if I say, ‘the rain is falling’ I could say for the second line, ‘I can jump in and have fun’ or ‘I can take an umbrella.’ Whichever line I use next dictates the direction of the song.
I’m always most careful about what the second line is in a song. Some of the second lines have gone into places that I couldn’t continue with, so they have become poems. Lots of little observations along the way when I am writing. I will make poems about when I am in the van, when I am sitting backstage.
I have put in the book the songs in their raw form, in their poem form, without the repetition of a chorus, without the rhyming lines. We have traveled with this book for a while and I just haven’t had enough time to do it exactly as I want to do it. So right now we actually have it laid out; I have a hard copy in my hand, and the intention is to have it out in November once and for all.
One of the things about the band you bring is that everybody’s playing so tastefully and in the pocket. And you’ve documented that extremely well on Pariah in Transit.
It’s great to do studio work. You can play a guitar solo over 25 times till you get it right. But what’s really impressive is to get on stage and get people – because at the end of the day I have these songs, I may sing about the environment, but it’s still entertainment. People come to shake a leg and to move along. They want to be moved, and they want to see you do it right.
I would not want to go to a basketball game where at the end the score is 2-4, you know what I mean? Because that means everybody missed their shot. I want to see things in the pocket.
Great way to put it. Now let me shift a bit and ask you about your background in Rastafari. When did you come to the consciousness?
To my understanding of it, we’re all born in righteousness and not in sin. If Rastafari is righteousness, then we all are. So it’s just that you just need to realize that you are. My brother MPLA, I remember sitting with him and Rasses used to come around because he had a little set up where everybody would come over and have reasonings of the I-n-I philosophy, of the physical and spiritual as one.
The day that I realized that I was moving with both the spirit and the physical was the day the realization came.
I may have been about 16 years old, and I have been living that life since then. I was in Canada at that time. I left St. Lucia at 15.
My brother MPLA was such an influence on me because he taught me how to play guitar. He was the brother who in my family had us start the whole band together. We sang to our parents in our living room. He was the one who took it out of the living room into the stage shows.
[Interviewer’s note: As many listeners know, “MPLA” is a reggae reference point with a lot of context. MPLA was a liberation movement in Angola in the 1970s (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola), and for our subject of reggae-Rasta two things were happening. One, Jamaica in the seventies under democratic socialist Michael Manley was making links with Castro’s Cuba, which was lending support to the MPLA in Angola. Two, the continuum extended to reggae. There are many songs we could cite here, but my personal favorite is Sugar Minott’s “Nah Go to South Africa,” wherein Sugar sings about when he wouldgo to Africa: “if anywhere it’s Angola / to fight with the freedom fighters.” That’s the 70s golden era roots reggae-Rasta vibe emanating from Taj Weekes’ brother nicknamed MPLA. Check out the links --"MPLA," an instrumental classic by The Revolutionaries at Channel One studio; there is also a latter day Subsonic Legacy remix of "MPLA" produced by Tappa Zukie. A video with clips from the 1970s of the Cuban/Angolan partnership can be seen here; the video is crudely made but the song is absolutely riveting.]
KUELKER: “MPLA” is a very personal song for you, then. The lyric in that song – “clouds of uncertainty waiver over my head / contemplating whether to grow my dread” – gets to the catch-a-fire moment for you as a Rastafarian.
WEEKES: Yeah, my brother MPLA was poisoned, you know? Somebody killed him. The song “MPLA” was my tribute to him. Because he was such an influence.
If I were to tell you one story about my brother MPLA … He was the best pool board [billiards] player in all of St. Lucia. He was so good that he didn’t play forward, he played with his cue behind his back. It was such an easy game for him to beat everybody. I remember one Christmas he went down to the south of the island with one Guinness. He played for Guinness… And he came back with three cases. Because what you would do is put your Guinness down on the board and a next man [the challenger] would put his Guinness, and if you won you took his, you know? So he put his Guinness on the board, played about 72 games and won every one.
Oh man, that’s gold. What a great story…
You’ve just returned from another trip to Europe. What was the best experience about it for you?
The vibe of Europe, the old world and the new world, is always something to me. It is above and beyond; sometimes it’s above and beyond the people. Just the vibe of being in Europe. I love the architecture. And I know that sounds so much unlike a musician might sound. But yeah, man, that’s the vibe of Europe to me. The fact that it is an old world yet everybody is new world living within its borders. And I like the fact that you can move between one country to the other without going through barriers and borders. That’s how the entire world should be, the freedom to move, free from one place to the other. That’s what I really love about Europe.
Most of the tour was basically a promotional tour to let the people know that Pariah was out, to get into the newspapers and magazines and radio and TV, you know, just to let the people know that we are there and we are coming back in the fall for a full European tour. So we got a good sense of the people and people got a sense of us, we got some really good vibes and we enjoyed ourselves.
I’m sure you gain an insight about your own music in a new way from the reactions of people from different parts of the world.
We had done France two years before. There was a particular meeting at the radio station and when I walked in … They knew I was coming in by myself with my acoustic guitar, and when I walked in the spread they had set up for me. I thought there was a party after. But that was how they sought to welcome us. It was overwhelming. So yeah, the reaction of the people surely show the appreciation they have for what you do. Amsterdam and Belgium and Germany were just the same.
You have had some soccer-related health issues come up recently. How are you feeling?
I’m good, I’m good. I had laser surgery in both my legs. I wasn’t walking for about four weeks. And the funny thing is, as soon as I was able to walk, I got hit by a truck. My car got hit by a truck. And I was back again a day in the hospital for a day or so. But with therapy, and I’m healthy, being vegetarian for 25 years and I job a mile and a half every other day – I was able to bounce back quickly. So I’m up and about, I am moving around. I have a herniated disc in my neck, but these things will heal henceforth. Because JAH is great. So we’re good.
You know from our previous chats that I love tour stories. Since you have to go on the road so much to bring your music to the people, I’m sure a lot of life happens on the tour bus or van. Could you share a story before we wrap up?
Tour van story, lemme see, lemme see … I don’t know if anybody knows this but we cook while we travel. We have a rice cooker so nobody ever gets hungry. Rice cooker in there with rice & peas plugged into the outlet that cooks all the time. The guys [in the band] are vegetarian. Road food is like road kill, is like the worst thing you can ever have. So it’s soup cooking in the rice cooker, you know, or rice & peas with whatever we put in.
Yeah, a road story: We cook food, we travel, we eat so that everybody stays nourished. That’s probably not as exciting as you want…
Oh no, man, that’s reality. You gotta eat consciously. You can’t bring your message and your music to the people fortified by Stuckey’s and Denny’s. Respect.