St. Lucian singer-songwriter Taj Weekes makes music that grooves like waves on a beach: seemingly gentle yet insistently powerful. On stage and on albums like the recent A Waterlogged Soul Kitchen (Jatta Records), Weekes and his band Adowa unite a vibrant diversity of sounds with thoughtful, lush arrangements and a long-honed penchant for telling tales of hardship and hope.
This spring and summer (2011) will take Taj Weekes & Adowa on tour across the U.S., including performances at the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival (June 17), the Blissfest Folk & Roots Festival (July 8-9), and the River City Music Festival (August 28).
“I don’t sit down and write socially conscious songs. I write songs about where I place my focus,” Weekes explains. “I grew up listening to the power of the music, the lyrical content. That’s what matters.”
Weekes harnesses this power, using his gritty tenor as counterpoint to the lilting pulse of his guitar. He has reflected on the impact of Hurricane Katrina (“Rain Rain”), on the twisted tragedy of Darfur (“Janjaweed”), on the careless destruction of the Gulf oil spill (“Drill”). He knows how to sing with great tenderness (the subdued, poignant “Before the War”) or with wry firmness (“Anthems of Hope”), balancing elegant melodies with rich strings, purring percussion, bluesy harmonica licks, and funky, funky keys. He hints simultaneously at José González, Merle Haggard, Jimmy Scott, Tracy Chapman, Peter Tosh.
Though long hailed by reggae fans, Weekes defies simple genre formulas. His intuitive, intense songwriting ties together the many threads of his Caribbean heritage and honors his unflagging engagement with the world as a musician, philanthropist, and lecturer.
Weekes grew up tossing country tunes and jazz standards around the family kitchen with his father and siblings, learning how to speak truth to power from local calypso musicians, and watching his Rastafarian brothers take on a violently critical society. The young Weekes was also a DJ at a local radio station, absorbing and playing everything: classical music, hard rock, reggae.
Classic country and calypso were also big on St. Lucia, and both are about telling stories, a vital part of Weekes’ work. “We’re a storytelling people,” muses Weekes. Early calypso singers, as well as reggae performers, were the town criers of their communities, taking stands on local issues and calling out corrupt politicians. At the same time, country songs poured from the radio, and boot-sporting, cowboy hat-wearing music fans on St. Lucia couldn’t get enough of their real-life tales of heartbreak and faith.
Though deeply connected to the musical life of his island home, Weekes came into his artistic own while spending time in New York City, where he eventually gathered a group of musicians from across the Caribbean diaspora to form Adowa (named for the 19th-century battle when Ethiopians beat back an invading Italian army). Adowa has both serious reggae cred and rock-solid musicianship. Weekes and Adowa have played major jazz, rock, and global music festivals, like a recent headliner gig in front of nearly 30,000 fans at the Austin Reggae Festival, as well as garner critical acclaim from reggae writers and lovers.
Though well loved in reggae circles, Weekes has evolved his own approach to making music that combines genres and vibes, incorporating sounds from vintage Ethiopian funk jazz to roots rock, from Deep South blues to West African percussion. These diverse elements interweave in Weekes’ intuitive, reflective songwriting, often spurred by a single word or story.
As Weekes & Adowa were finishing up A Waterlogged Soul Kitchen, Weekes was reading a newspaper story about the BP oil spill. “’I stopped the session and told the guys I had a new song,” Weekes recalls. “And I starting laying down the guitar for ‘Drill’ on the spot.” Weekes’ inspiration also struck guitarist Mike Pinera, who’s played with Iron Butterfly and Alice Cooper, who had dropped by the studio. Pinera was so enthused when he heard Weekes’ song that he dashed out of the studio to grab his guitar and upon his return blasted out a heartfelt solo for “Drill.”
Weekes also inspires live. An engaging performer, he learned early from his father that playing music was about talking to listeners one on one. “Since he taught me that,” Weekes notes with a smile, “I have always focused on reaching people, not just playing music.” And moving people extends beyond the stage, to the lectern, college classroom (where Weekes often shares his experience nurturing social responsibility through his art), and the streets of poor neighborhoods across the Caribbean.
Weekes founded his own non-profit, They Often Cry Outreach (TOCO), to provide everything from post-hurricane humanitarian aid to shoes and soccer balls to children in need across his native region. It’s a way of walking the talk of his songs’ messages. “I still play soccer when we’re on the road touring, at rest stops,” Weekes says. “It’s great stress relief, especially for children who face all sorts of problems. Their responsibility is just to play, and we help them do that.”
Named a Goodwill Ambassador by the International Consortium of Caribbean Professionals and recognized by a division of the United Nations, Weekes sees no boundary between his work as a singer-songwriter and as a benefactor and consciousness-raiser. “If the people suffer, no matter where they are—on St. Lucia, in Darfur, in China—we have to say it, ” states Weekes. “We all have to hold each other’s hand and walk the path together.”