Singer-song­writer finds echoes of pain, in­jus­tice in her fa­ther’s story

Calgary Herald - - YOU - ERIC VOLMERS

Last week, singer-song­writer Kaia Kater was on her way back from an anti-racism protest in her adopted home of Brook­lyn when she came across a pow­er­ful piece of pub­lic art.

Out­side a park, an artist had built the sen­tence “The song that I sing is part of an echo” onto a fence in big colour­ful let­ters. It struck a chord for Kater, a Cana­dian-born singer-song­writer who has been do­nat­ing pro­ceeds from mer­chan­dise sales to or­ga­ni­za­tions that sup­port Black com­mu­ni­ties in the past few weeks as she joins thou­sands in marches.

“This protest is an echo of the protests in 1964,” says Kater, on the line with Post­media from her home. “It’s an echo of the L.A. ri­ots and protests in 1992 af­ter Rod­ney King was beaten. It echoes through­out his­tory, this kind of pain.”

So while her most re­cent al­bum, 2018’s Grenades, may cen­tre on a spe­cific story in­volv­ing Kater’s im­mi­grant fa­ther, it could also be seen as an echo that lives as part of a larger con­tin­uum of pain, sor­row, dis­place­ment and in­jus­tice.

Kater’s sopho­more re­lease is a con­cept al­bum that tells the story of her fa­ther Deno, who was a child dur­ing the failed so­cial­ist rev­o­lu­tion in Gre­nada in the late 1970s and fled to Canada in 1986 a few years af­ter his coun­try was in­vaded by U.S. forces un­der Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan. Grow­ing up in Mon­treal, Kater’s fa­ther rarely spoke of his ex­pe­ri­ences in his home coun­try. Nor did he talk much about his early years as a teenage im­mi­grant in Canada.

So over the Christ­mas hol­i­days in 2017, Kater sat down with him and recorded a se­ries of con­ver­sa­tions.

“He never re­ally talked to me about his story of Gre­nada’s rev­o­lu­tion and fear­ing for his life af­ter­wards and need­ing to get out of there,” says Kater, who has been paired with Cal­gary singer-song­writer Tom Phillips for an on­line con­cert on Satur­day as part of the Cal­gary Folk Mu­sic Fes­ti­val’s Vir­tu­ally Live se­ries. “Be­cause I think it was re­ally a painful part of his child­hood when Gre­nada was so close to a Black rev­o­lu­tion and it was yanked away in a re­ally im­me­di­ate and painful way. So he never re­ally talked about it. What he would say was that we as Black peo­ple need to be more ex­cel­lent, we need to be bet­ter and we need to be more per­fect. He would give me these talks and I don’t think I re­ally un­der­stood what he meant be­cause I was lit­tle. I think that af­fected me in that it was a con­stant lit­tle hum in my life. I think mak­ing mu­sic was a way for me to ex­press all this his­tory of pain and also joy and laugh­ter and cul­ture.”

Through­out Grenades, there are spo­ken-word pas­sages pro­vided by Deno. They may have been cap­tured dur­ing im­promptu con­ver­sa­tions be­tween a fa­ther and daugh­ter, but they of­ten come across as pas­sion­ate and oc­ca­sion­ally har­row­ing per­for­mance pieces as he reaches back for both painful and proud mem­o­ries. On Power! Power! Power! he tells the story of watch­ing his grand­mother, arm

raised and chant­ing, rid­ing in the back of a truck dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion. In Death of a Dream, he talks about the fear and de­spair dur­ing the U.S. in­va­sion.

They are in­trigu­ing in­ter­ludes be­tween Kater’s pow­er­ful songs, which re­veal traces of old-time mu­sic, coun­try, a cap­pella and, on the pow­er­ful La Mis­ere, chanted Gre­na­dian folk.

Partly writ­ten dur­ing a 2017 trip to Gre­nada to visit fam­ily, the al­bum rep­re­sents both a per­sonal and mu­si­cal evo­lu­tion for the artist. Kater first rose to promi­nence as a banjo-wield­ing tra­di­tion­al­ist af­ter study­ing Ap­palachian mu­sic in West Vir­ginia. Along the way, she earned ku­dos from Rolling Stone, NPR, The Guardian and No De­pres­sion for her de­vo­tion to tra­di­tion. But her most re­cent al­bum greatly ex­pands her pal­ette. Pro­duced by Hal­i­fax singer-song­writer Erin Costello, Grenades of­fers a fuller sound than the stripped­back folk of 2016’s Nine Pin.

“I re­ally value tra­di­tional mu­sic and it is the foun­da­tion for a lot of my song­writ­ing,” Kater says. “But I just re­ally like cut­ting things up and see­ing how dif­fer­ently they can sound. That’s al­ways been my in­ter­est. I don’t think I would have been able to ex­plore that if I hadn’t started in tra­di­tional mu­sic.”

As for the po­lit­i­cal lean­ings of her ma­te­rial, Kater has spent much of her pro­fes­sional ca­reer writ­ing about the is­sues that are now front and cen­tre in protests around the world. In Brook­lyn, as with other U.S. cities, the streets are filled with anger and in­ten­sity, but Kater says she is also see­ing a sense of com­mu­nity across gen­er­a­tions and races. On the fi­nal track of Grenades, the haunt­ing and spare Po­ets Be Buried, Kater takes on the voice of her fa­ther: “I had a daugh­ter and I taught her all I knew. Fight in the gut­ter and love the work you do. But how can I warn her of ha­tred hid­ing in the blue?”

Grow­ing up in Canada, Kater says she was of­ten told the sort of racism that flour­ishes south of the border didn’t ex­ist in her coun­try, even as her own ex­pe­ri­ences sug­gested oth­er­wise. She sees the marches and protests on both sides of the border of­fer­ing an op­por­tu­nity for both coun­tries to ex­am­ine their re­spec­tive his­to­ries.

“I think Canada of­ten tries to hide be­hind the shadow of the big, bad United States and tries to ab­solve it­self by say­ing we are not them,” she says. “But the re­al­ity is we are them and they are us. White supremacy, not nec­es­sar­ily in the KKK white-hooded way, but in this idea that white­ness reigns supreme eco­nom­i­cally and po­lit­i­cally and so­cially. I think that’s an ill­ness that lives within ev­ery­body in Canada and the U.S. I think I am more in­ter­ested in peo­ple start­ing to read the his­to­ries of their own coun­tries and the myths that we’re taught in his­tory classes and try to open their eyes and ears and start to lis­ten.”


Protest themes are wo­ven through Kaia Kater’s work.

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