Taken from United Reggae
Many current roots reggae artists claim to make music that harks back to the days of old. But not many can claim to have done this in a way so in harmony with modern times as St Lucian born, New York resident Taj Weekes. In just three albums he has carved out a niche for lyrical and musical prowess that invites even the dreaded comparisons with Bob. In 2010 he and his band Adowa released one of the year’s best albums in third effort ‘A Waterlogged Soul Kitchen’, whose unusual title is a reference to the floods in New Orleans. But what is most surprising about Taj is that music is only a small part of his spectrum of activity: he is a published poet, runs a charity, They Often Cry Outreach, and is a mentor to young people in public schools. And, as Angus Taylor found out during a rigorous and open ended discussion in June, there’s a lot more to respect and admire about this soft spoken yet quietly confident man than the incredible records he makes…
Tell me about your latest album A Waterlogged Soul Kitchen. How do you think that that album progressed from your previous album Deidem?
After the last album we already knew we could play roots reggae music and what I wanted to do was stretch the music a little bit by including some instruments that are not regularly found in reggae, like cello and violin. So I brought these things in and I tried to switch the subject matter a little further.
One of the lyrical themes that occurs on this album is violation: violation of people, of countries, of nature.
When I sat down to write the album there was no clear definition lyrically, the definition was more musically. But I think life, in and of itself, kind of just throws the stories at you and it just kind of came out that way. For the most part reggae is putting a rhythm to a poor man’s cry but I think for some reason we’ve kind of focussed a little too much on the suffering of a particular set of people. I wanted to bring the entire thing into focus. I wanted to bring the story of soldiers after the war. I wanted to bring the story of African children because right now, rape is now used as a weapon of war. So I wanted to bring all of these things into focus. I wanted to bring child abuse into focus. So these are not regular reggae themes and I think that is what was the main difference between Deidem and Waterlogged Soul Kitchen.
Tell me about your daily process, how you work.
I try to do a little writing every day. Whether it be just a straight up old poem or the mood that I’m in. Then I always try humming something and try to connect it somehow. But what my song writing process is, whatever mood that I’m in or whatever the weather is like outside, I write that down. Because I find sometimes that if I come to a song in a different mood then I can change the chorus around and the vibe of the chorus or the vibe of the verse, depending on what came first. So that’s what the process is like for me. When I write a song though the melody and the lyrics, for the most part, come together at the same time – it’s not one or the other. My acoustic guitar is always with me so as soon as I start thinking of something I get to the guitar and automatically I play the chord and I would sing [sings] “See I was born of rape” and it would come together at the same time.
I try to do a little writing every day
That song illustrates my next question. Melodically it’s a very pleasant song but the lyrics are extremely biting. Would you say that musically this album is a lot more pleasant than the last and a lot of the harshness and bleakness has retreated into the lyrics?
Yeah, I think I agree with you musically. Definitely so musically. But it depends on vantage point. For some people this album was more biting than the other one. I know a lot of the reviews said that, but I don’t know if I’d necessarily agree with it because I don’t see it as any less biting than the last album. I mean from a story point of view it is probably a more personal story, but then a more worldly story as opposed to dark clouds don’t always bring rain, you know? And propaganda war which is more universal. The stories here I think are more personal stories.
On both albums you end by focussing on environmental disasters. There have been so many disasters, both man-made and potentially man-made disasters happening recently. Are all these things that have happened linked in some way?
Yeah, I think all of them for the most part are man-made. I think if people realised how close we are, on the brink, there’d probably be a lot more people singing what I sing. But I guess the propaganda machine works very well and we have people watching the commercial radio and TV stations and nobody really realises what’s going on. When things happen in the world, whether they be from a terrorist attack or some tsunami or whatever, everybody always kind of seems surprised that it happened, when all it takes is a couple of hours of reflection about what’s really going on in the world and you realise that these things will happen. I think they’re all related. I think that we as a people have to realise that we only have this one world and it’s not a rented world, it’s ours. There’s no place to go to after we’ve destroyed this one. I think if we don’t change our plan our children will inherit a wasteland.
Do you think that Western people are more frightened by disasters in affluent countries, such as Japan, because it reminds them that it could happen to them?
Definitely. For the most part we’re a people who get so caught up with headlines but they tend not to last very long. We like the sensationalism of things happening, wherever. But I think when it happens maybe in the more affluent [countries] because there’s some kind of trade or some kind of equal lifestyle going on with us, that that’s when we get a little more frightened. Maybe we need a little more happening in a lot more affluent countries and maybe people will take stock of what’s happening, because I mean, really and truthfully, we’ve forgotten about Haiti, we’ve kind of forgotten about Chile too. There was a hurricane in St Lucia and for the most part no-one knew about it. But should something happen in England or France or Germany or even the United States then people would definitely pay a lot more attention to it.
What are your views on fossil fuels and their alternatives?
It’s a funny thing that yesterday was 100 degrees and we were all caught up with our ACs trying to stay cool and I don’t think we’ve realised that what’s happening with the world is because of how we use up everything and do the craziness that we’re doing with everything across the world. You don’t have to be a scientist to realise that we have to get back to the natural ways of doing things because if not, what we’re using to have us move along, in the forms of fossil fuels, will kill us off in the end.
This is something I’ve asked artists before. Do you think for Africa to get on an equal footing financially with the rest of the world it’s going to have to industrialise, and what potential problems will that bring?
Well, industrialise like the ants, not like the rest of the world has done it. Somebody mentioned to me a while ago, the ants are very industrial yet they’re not destroying anything. We need to be industrial in that kind of way, not in the way that we destroy everything and kill it off for the next generation. Industrial and industrialisation has a connotation, to me, of not doing things in a holistic way; if we can in a holistic manner, then great. What’s sad about it is, we’ve destroyed a world, I mean the Western countries, in a particular way. For these countries to catch up, the African countries and the Asian countries, we’re asking them not to do what we’ve done, we the Western world has done. So how are they going to catch up if they don’t end up destroying the world? There has to be some middle ground where this can happen.
Ants are very industrial yet they’re not destroying anything
You have various charity projects and initiatives such as They Often Cry Outreach that you’ve spoken of in previous interviews. How are these things going and what new initiatives are you involved in?
Well, right now we want to go to Ethiopia to help out with some soccer programmes out there. A very good friend of mine just came back from Ethiopia having adopted two little boys, and we’re moving in that direction to help out. We’re heading back to the Caribbean to bring back schoolbooks and supplies for the kids because what’s happening with the poorer children is that when they get to school and they don’t have the supplies they’re penalised twice by being sent home again. So we’re trying to get schools enough supplies so that when a child shows up without supplies somebody can go in a closet and give him an exercise book and a pencil and eraser, so that he can stay in class and get whatever is being dished out for the day. We’ll be in Trinidad in October to give out some balls in Trinidad and Tobago and to talk to some musicians out there about trying to make it happen from an independent standpoint. There are lots of things in the pipe and we’re trying to make things happen so we can help out some people somewhere.
You’ve also given lectures in school on social responsibility. What does social responsibility mean to you?
That is the debate: whether social responsibility is an in-born thing or is it a responsibility of corporations? I think the Bible said it clearly: we have to help out each other. So I think charity is something that we should have always done all along had we been brought up with our in-born concept that would not have been a question at this stage.
How does one reach young people without sounding too didactic or authoritarian given that they aren’t being brought up with these concepts?
By being one of them. I think that if you show people that you are among the least of them, then it’s easier to reach them. But if you’re coming to them from an elitist point of view or looking down on them in some way then nobody wants to connect with you. People have to see it in your lifestyle and how you move, that you are like one of them. That’s when people are most open to listen to what it is you have to offer.
People who suffer can be quite cynical. Do you ever feel cynical about things?
I’m sure I must have at some point but what I try to do is seek my higher self from my lower self and come back the following day and hopefully I can overcome that feeling.
Can you tell me which St Lucian musicians, you admire? Are you familiar with the singer Nereus Joseph in the UK?
Yeah, the funny thing is that somebody gave me some music about 2 weeks ago and I’ve been digging it, yeah. I love it. I don’t know too many St Lucian musicians who have done other things out of the island. But I tell you the St Lucians I admire – Derek Walcott, for sure. [Darren] Sammy, the captain of the West Indies cricket team. A lot of people probably don’t realise that St Lucia has the most Nobel prize winners per capita in the world, so we have some inspirational people, not necessarily musicians, but very inspirational people to look to.
St Lucia has the most Nobel prize winners per capita in the world
You gave away a copy of your song Drill for free to mark the occasion of the BP oil spill. You’ve said in the past that you’re not driven by profit. A lot of people nowadays seem to think that music should be given away for free. Have you ever considered giving all your songs away for free? Would that act as a way of giving publicity to your message or is the music a source of funding for your various projects?
We have considered giving everything away for free, but at the same time we work. The funny thing about it is that people talk about giving away music for free but I don’t see anybody else trying to give away any other services for free. I told somebody this story the other day. I went to a little get together and there was a guitar in the corner and a guy asked me if I would play a song. He happened to be a carpenter, I said to him “There’s a hammer in the corner, why don’t you fix the cupboard?” It’s a funny thing that people don’t take into consideration the fact that you have to write these songs, rehearse them, go to the studio, play them a million times, and then most people ask you to give it to them for free. It’s not something that we have not considered but the music does finance most of the charity work that I do, so giving it for free would be a little difficult for us.
Is there a significance to the name of your band given your own Ethiopian heritage?
Yeah, definitely. Everybody knows 1896, the Battle of Adwa. You know, it’s a victorious battle, so the band to me signifies victory for a couple of things. For one I think, and that might be touchy to some people, we’re struggling in obscurity simply because we’re probably not from the right geographical location. The name of the band, in and of itself, signifies the victory we feel for what we’re doing and where we’re coming from, and also for my Ethiopian connection.
When you say you’re not in the right geographical location, could you elaborate a bit on that for me?
Well, we’re struggling in obscurity but I’ve not read a single bad review of any album we’ve done. We’ve been doing great work, we’ve been walking the walk and talking the talk, but I’ve come across a level of mediocrity in the genre, probably music in general and this reggae music suffers the same fate. What I realise is that people don’t know who we are, and I’m hearing music from the source that is mediocre but yet is everywhere.
You’re talking about what’s coming out of Jamaica?
Yes, definitely. I’m not talking about everything coming out of Jamaica but I figure that the general public and a lot of disc jockeys have this perception that if it comes out of Jamaica it’s great. What happened to David Kirton, Rocky Dawuni and Nasio Fontaine and the St Lucian brother you mentioned? We don’t get the props that the other people get. Jamaica is the source and you’ll always get props to the source. Music has to grow and you cannot keep it locked. We are the fruit from that original tree, yet for some reason we’re not being recognised as the fruit. Reggae has grown, it’s an international music now, so we’re just looking for people to support it. I heard a DJ say “Oh, you didn’t send me the music” but you need to do some homework too. If you want to know what’s happening in the world you don’t look in your kitchen and your living room, you look outside to see what’s happening in the world. I did an interview with a brother about 2 weeks ago and he said to me “How come I don’t know who you are?” It’s funny the way people blame you for their ignorance. I mean, there might be some blame on both sides, but I don’t think I should take it completely.
I did an interview with a brother and he said “How come I don’t know who you are?” It’s funny the way people blame you for their ignorance
Tell me about your next music project. What have you got in mind?
We’re going to Jamaica to record the next album. I’ve become friends with this brother, Alrick Thompson, he’s Sticky Thompson’s son. He engineered our show in St Lucia, the St Lucia Jazz. The songs are already written, I wrote all 12 songs, Giant Beast, Desperation, Choked, and there’s a tune called Marijuana – my take on how the laws against marijuana have done more harm than marijuana has ever done to anyone. I think it will probably be the most roots album I’ve done. Though we’re still working on Waterlogged. Janjaweed is the next single, which has a really beautiful video which was done by a brother who works for Disney. It’s an animated video because we wanted to bring out the story of the Janjaweed but we wanted children and everybody to like it. There’s also a project called Betrayed In Reaction, with songs I’ve written that are not going to be on any album, but we’ll just have different artists coming in to add their vibe to it. It’s going to be an internet-only release.
On your website you’re described as musician, humanitarian, poet. Could you name me a musician, a humanitarian and a poet who you really admire?
A poet that I love… I love Derek Walcott, but I also love Dylan Thomas. I love his vibe, I love how he writes, I love what he says. There are lots of great poets, I mean Nikki Giovanni, tons of people, but sometimes you lock into somebody because of their delivery or the connection you make with them or how you were brought up. That’s what I love about Dylan Thomas. I love the way the says what he says. A musician that I love…do they have to be alive or dead?
There are no rules.
No rules! I don’t know if there’s one particular person that I admire. I’m a child who grew up in St Lucia with unformatted radio stations, where I listened to Mahler, to Jimi Hendrix, and to Shakespeare. You know who I really love? I love Lord Kitchener. I love Lord Kitchener because of his delivery and his storytelling. He and calypso had the oral storytelling tradition, which reggae took on in the 70s with Bob and Peter and Bunny and Spear and Eric Donaldson and these brothers. I think that’s what I have kind of followed up on.
I’m a child who grew up in St Lucia with unformatted radio stations, where I listened to Mahler, to Jimi Hendrix, and to Shakespeare
And finally, a humanitarian?
A humanitarian… Maybe my stories have really taught me about Jesus. Jesus is my humanitarian. Jesus because he loved his brother as himself.