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