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.”