Kaia Kater: “I Was Shy About My Love For That Instrument.”
The music of roots artist Kaia Kater boasts numerous layers that glue it together. There’s the integral part that folk music played on the young Kater as she grew up. There was the music her father would send, helping to forge her tastes and her interests. The music camps and gatherings, and then there were the years in West Virginia studying Appalachian music.
In September 2016 Kater brought out Nine Pin. A searingly honest album examining life, its anguish and its joy. The spare instrumentation provides a framework for her seemingly effortless banjo; her voice is low, rooted, heavy, yet young in its weight. You can also hear guitar, and keys, and even the soft slap of dance steps in the background of the a cappella in “Harlem’s Little Blackbird.” I saw her play Belfast just this afternoon. She was accompanied by bass player Andrew Ryan, “an extremely virtuosic and sensitive player,” Kater told me. It was a fact that became more apparent as the show progressed. For today’s live version of “Harlem’s Little Blackbird” Ryan settled down on a chair and hamboned the rhythm of the song, slapping his body, his thighs, and his chest to keep time; the measured swats and pats of his hands replacing the soft dance steps of the recorded version. Kater’s unadorned, soulworn voice rolling over the tables right to the back of the filled, hushed room.
However, before the albums, and the tours, and even before the banjo, it all started with the rich and varied landscape of Canada’s own music scene and its array of talent. The young Kaia Kater soaked it up. “The clearest influence for me was the music of Canadian songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Daniel Lanois and Leonard Cohen,” she recalled. “I remember hearing their words almost as extensions of myself. Joni Mitchell’s ‘Circle Game’ was a favourite around the house. These were the traditions that I noticed mostly. Looking back, I wish I’d learned more about indigenous traditional music at that time; I felt like those spheres were very separated.”
“I definitely became aware of the traditions of cultures outside of Canada very early on,” Kater recounted as she explained the role of music festivals in her early years. When she was about 12 years old her mother started running Ottawa Folk Festival at which the young Kaia volunteered and indeed managed to blag banjo lessons from artists including Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons. “Many different people came to the festival; I remember seeing Arrested Development and Odetta at one festival. It was nice for me; it felt like I was accessing live music in a way that was sacred and meaningful. It was in essence, an education.”
However, her musical education wasn’t always as hands-on as those regular festival line-ups. The music her Grenada born father used to send her was also a regular introduction to various musicians and managed to speak to the teenager in a very specific way. “Talib Kweli and Mos Def’s Black Star album was an important one; this was the first time I learned about Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, as they quote it in one of their songs “Thieves in the Night,” she recalled. “The Roots were also a huge influence as was De La Soul, Outkast, Jay Z, KRS-One, Angie Stone, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and Lauryn Hill. I got a glimpse into the world of Neo-Soul and Hip Hop and it felt like a missing link. They were articulating what I was feeling and going through every day as a black teenager. I felt heard. It was like learning a third language.”
A teacher of Kater’s was a fiddle player who played in a bluegrass band. It was the banjo player in that band who gifted Kaia her first banjo. “I remember this banjo player’s name was Brian,” she informed me. “I passed on that banjo to someone else who was learning, and asked them to pass it on to another person when they were done with it. I don’t really know what happened to that banjo, but I’d like to think it’s somewhere fulfilling its destiny and enabling people to learn how to play.”
No matter how effortless Kaia Kater’s banjo playing may come across now, it was not an easy voyage when she started. Her early connection with the instrument was a well of mixed feelings. The banjo is a West African instrument, brought to the U. S. by slaves. Over the years white musicians started to play it, and as the white audience grew, its African origins gradually fell out of sight. To many listeners today the banjo is associated with white, southern America, and as a child, when Kater first started playing, she had yet to learn of the instrument’s heritage. “I just love the sound. It’s such a truthful and plaintive sound … but I was keenly aware that the projected ‘whiteness’ of the instrument meant that it was not for me to play publicly. That it would be perceived as being strange. In that self-aware and self-critical time of my life, I was shy about my love for that instrument.”
“I learned about the banjo’s history in stages, so my emotions moved in stages. It was really when Béla Fleck’s documentary ‘Throw Down Your Heart’ came out that I really began to understand what the ancestors of the instruments are. When you see an akonting or a kora, it’s really undeniable to then say that the banjo is not a West African instrument. After seeing those images and hearing those sounds, I began the long journey of processing my own racial history and background. That was back in 2009, so ten years later I’m still continuing down that path.”
On leaving high school, Kater went on to Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia to study Appalachian music. “It has a kind of truth to it (similar to Hip Hop) that I find to be magnetic,” she explained of her decision to study this particular music, and why she was prepared to travel so far from home to do so. “I loved West Virginia. It’s a beautiful state. It’s one of the most stunning places I have ever lived, and I would love to return. I suppose from the outside it can be perceived as a large step, but I was looking for something like that. I was looking to get out of Montreal and begin to live my own narrative and my own life. D&E was a way through to a new and different path. The folks I met there truly changed my life.”
All of this led up to 2016’s album Nine Pin, looking at issues such as Black Lives Matter and living in the States as a person of colour. “I wouldn’t necessarily say that Nine Pin is about people of colour in its entirety,” she explained. “It’s about me, and about people I know — both white and black. This album was written far before Trump was a prominent figure, so it’s not about him. I’d say it’s about whatever the listener hears. It’s about being human and the world of suffering and joy that being human brings along. It was also an album where I challenged myself to write great songs. Lyrically it was a hurdle.
“Rising Down” for example is a haunting track that was written for Black Lives Matter, and it is a double punch once you become aware of the song’s connection with the police shooting of Tamir Rice, a child. I wondered does song writing help Kater to process events and history like this? “Absolutely” was the simple answer. “Music is healing. The songs are redemptive and cathartic. It’s the small piece of myself that I can give. Art is essential to culture because art is a mirror, asking us to stare back at ourselves. My shows have reflective elements to them.”
However, these shows can take their toll. “It’s difficult at times. I have to make sure to care for myself. I don’t drink very much, nor do I smoke. I take baths on the road. Sometimes on nights off I’ll stay in rather than going out. I’ll try to eat healthy. Things like that psychologically and spiritually help me to remain healthy.
Kaia Kater is presently touring Europe. For shows visit her website.
A version of this article first appeared in CultureHub.