Katie James

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Mu­si­cian (32)

Katie James has fond mem­o­ries of grow­ing up in ru­ral Colom­bia in the 1980s and 90s. “It was re­ally a mag­i­cal up­bring­ing,” she re­calls. “We were home schooled, and it was a lot of art re­ally — mu­sic, dance, the­atre, paint­ing — from a very young age.”

The 32-year-old singer, who orig­i­nally hails from the is­land of Inish­free off the coast of Done­gal, doesn’t have many mem­o­ries of her life in Ire­land, hav­ing moved to Colom­bia with her fam­ily be­fore the age of two.

Those old enough to have been read­ing news­pa­pers in the 1970s may, how­ever, re­mem­ber ‘At­lantis’; the al­ter­na­tive com­mu­nity founded by Katie’s mother Jenny James back in 1974 which was dubbed ‘The Scream­ers’ by Ir­ish me­dia in ref­er­ence to their em­brace of pri­mal ther­apy.

Al­most three decades have passed since Jenny and her Ir­ish part­ner Fredrick Moloney de­cided to re­lo­cate At­lantis to the Colom­bian coun­try­side, and in the years since, their daugh­ter has es­tab­lished her­self as one of Colom­bia’s most ac­claimed singer­song­writ­ers. Now pro­mot­ing her sec­ond al­bum Re­s­pi­rar (Breathe), Katie lives in the cap­i­tal Bo­gotá and trav­els reg­u­larly to give con­certs in the coun­try’s other ma­jor cities.

Speak­ing with a gen­tle Bri­tish lilt, no doubt in­her­ited from her English-born mother, she paints an idyl­lic pic­ture of her child­hood. “We learnt to grow food or­gan­i­cally, ev­ery­thing was or­ganic, and we were all veg­e­tar­ian. When we were kids, we used to work, but just in the morn­ings, like pick­ing cof­fee, pick­ing black­ber­ries and plant­ing stuff in the gar­den, and then in the af­ter­noons we were free to do what­ever we wanted; climb­ing trees, swim­ming in the rivers and ex­plor­ing for­est and all sorts of things.”

In time the James fam­ily would also taste the bit­ter re­al­ity of Colom­bia’s armed con­flict, how­ever. De­spite hav­ing lived peace­fully in FARC-con­trolled ter­ri­tory for over a decade, the ar­rival of a new com­man­der to the area would spell the end of the At­lantis com­mu­nity’s wel­come there.

“One day a new FARC com­man­der came along, and he just didn’t agree with ‘grin­gos’ liv­ing in the area,” she re­mem­bers. “He said ‘you have a month to leave’, so we had to leave our beau­ti­ful farm, which I still miss, and I have never been back there since.”

And the cru­ellest blow was yet to come. In 2000, Katie’s nephew Tris­tan, hav­ing turned 18, de­cided to re­turn to Ire­land for a gap year, but be­fore mak­ing the jour­ney he wanted to pay one last visit to the Tolima hills where he grew up. Trav­el­ling with his friend Javier Nova, also 18, he made the fate­ful de­ci­sion to stop for a drink in the vil­lage of Hoya Grande near their for­mer home. It was there that four FARC mem­bers, said by eye­wit­nesses to be vis­i­bly drunk at the time, hap­pened upon them and car­ried out a sum­mary ex­e­cu­tion.

While some mem­bers of the com­mu­nity de­cided to re­turn to Europe, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing both the magic and cru­elty of Colom­bian life seems to have fu­elled the James fam­ily’s com­mit­ment to their adopted home­land. In­deed, her in­de­fati­ga­ble mum still lives on an or­ganic farm in the re­mote hills of Huila. And although Katie is keen to bring her unique blend of Ir­ish and Colom­bian folk mu­sic to the coun­try of her birth, she is sure Colom­bia will re­main her home.

“Colom­bia is a whole rain­bow of chaos and won­der­ful things too,” she says. “It would be re­ally hard to leave.”

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