Album Review: Taj Weekes - Pause
by Gardy Stein
For many years, we've heard ever growing complaints about a loss of spirituality in our music, about a drop in the morality of youths, about a decline of the roots of Reggae. While, certainly, the situation today is different from that of the "golden era" of the 70s and 80s, I invite you to take a look beyond the Jamaican rim. Truth is, in virtually every country around the globe there are Reggae enthusiasts, and a generalization of limited local perceptions doesn't do their efforts justice. There are thousands of people worldwide who play conscious tunes, organize events, build communities and create that Roots vibe which, given time to grow, will inevitably produce wonderful artists who keep the message alive.
One of these guardians is Taj Weekes, a singer, musician and humanitarian activist hailing from the little Caribbean island of St. Lucia. It's there that he took his first steps in music, but his life's journey led him to New York where he formed the group Adowa, fulfilling his mission and releasing celebrated albums such as Hope & Doubt (2005), Deidem (2008), Pariah in Transit (2013), Love, Herb & Reggae (2016) and To All My Relations (2018). Just read the track lists of those to get an idea of the manifold important and pressing issues the artist addresses in his songs!
With Pause, Taj Weekes now releases a solo oeuvre that is at least as magnificent has his prior works with Adowa. Produced by Ziggy Coltrane (with arrangements by Kwame Heshimu), the ten pieces are a reflection of those past months that were spent in isolation and threw our world in turmoil - and much more.
The armament race, for instance. "Everything is weaponized" is the introductory phrase of opening track Bang Bang, starting out as semi-acoustic ballad and featuring Quino of Big Mountain. The drumming bassline lends a pulsating intensity to the verses, an intensity that will firmly engrave words like "no missile or microbe can tear us apart, we all come together, one aim and one heart" into your memory.
This amazing mental capacity to store lyrics, faces, emotions and moments is the subject of Memoir. Juxtaposed to the hypnotic simplicity of the riddim are the complexity of the backing vocals as well as surprise elements such as harmonica and mandolin in instrumentation or a sudden shift in chords. And, oh, the harmonies! Taj has this gift to weave notes together in timeless beauty, delivering them with his unique, on-point, effortless voice that lulls you into a cloud of confidence: "Slowly but surely, truth will come to light. The truth cannot die, it's been said already, he'll spread its wings and learn to fly."
Another remarkable feature of the album is the creation of three sets of what I'll call, for lack of a better word, "sibling songs" (2-7, 3-8, 5-9). They are not really Dub versions but pick up the basic theme of the original song and present it in a whole other mood, just like your brother or sister lends a different face to the same genetic pool. It's an exciting discovery ride, starting with Rainstorm and Shelter In Place. Accompanied by the Dub Sonic Orchestra, Rainstorm combines the power of bass-lines such as Marley's Natural Mystic with a melody that reminds me strongly of The Doors' Riders On The Storm. Next to the bitterly honest lyrics describing the situation of low-income families during forced lockdown, here we also find the connection to the album's title: "I cannot take a pause simply just because there's so much left to do". Decelerated still, Shelter In Place echoes these words, inviting Ghanaian singer Duke D2 to add his haunting vocals.
Stepping up the pace, Easter Sunday contributes some organically played Ska vibes (chapeau to all instrumentalists involved!) while the sibling track False Choice comes on a Roots beat. Listen for yourself to see how Taj easily makes the connection between biblical betrayal and capitalist mindset, political regulations and personal choices!
Crisis now… probably the most evocative piece of the album, it's the only one out on video so far. Held in black and white, it recapitulates what we've all been through, questioning at once ourselves, the governments' responses and the big corporations' interests. In the Fine Young Mix, the drums move to the foreground in an almost military manner, underlining its most prominent message: "A siren is a sign of crisis."
While Sister Mary sits on an old-school Reggae beat with an almost Gospel feel (breathtaking: the full stop at 2:15!), the final entry March Of The Silent incorporates most recent sounds and developments. Livicated to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, we hear snippets of protestors chanting "no justice no peace", police sirens and, of course, Weekes' distinctive songwriting. "The march of the silent is louder than ever, the march of the silent it grows. From a whisper to a thunder it’s louder than ever where it stops, nobody knows.”
Pause is an essential album the importance of which will unfold over the coming months, and I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to Taj Weekes and the team for its creation. Yes, Jamaican artists continually develop good old Roots, crossing into other genres, often producing innovative tracks off the beaten path. Yes, with Bunny Wailer, Toots, U-Roy, Sam Clayton Jr., Apple Gabriel, Bob Andy, Bunny Lee, Bobby Digital, Vaughn Benjamin and others we have tragically lost some of the biggest names in Reggae since Bob Marley, but their spirit lives on. Roots Reggae music is an international force not to be denied, and as long as incredibly talented and devoted artists such as Taj Weekes (and Xana Romeo and Micah Shemaiah and EarthKry and David Cairol… the list is long) are around to keep pushing, we need not fear losing it. The material is there, it's now up to US to expose our fellow humans - friends and family, sisters and brothers, parents and children - to this consciousness, so press play on these gems, share and spread the word!
Taj Weekes - Pause
DIGITAL RELEASE [Jatta Records]
Release date: 08/09/2021
01. Bang Bang feat. Big Mountain
04. Sister Mary
05. Easter Sunday
07. Shelter In Place feat. Duke D2
08. Crisis (Fine Young Mix)
09. False Choice
10. March Of The Silent