This is a longer version of an article that appeared in print and online under the title “Tense Strings.”
Kaia Kater never wanted to mix her racial identity with her music. She grew up in a mixed-race Canadian family where folk jams were the norm every Thanksgiving and Boxing Day, with a luthier grandfather who made her a guitar—a twin of her grandmother’s instrument—when she had barely started elementary school and her bluegrass-playing fourth-grade teacher gifted her with a bandmate’s banjo soon after. In her early teens, Kater saw an ascending Carolina Chocolate Drops perform at the Ottawa Folk Festival—for which her mother served as executive director—and learned clawhammer technique from festival consultant Mitch Podolak.
“I never looked back,” Kater remembers, enrolling after high school in Davis & Elkins College’s newly formed Appalachian Ensemble program, where she encountered more race-related hostility in West Virginia than she had north of the border. Midway through her studies of folklore and old-time tradition, the Black Lives Matter movement inspired Kater to write her first protest song. Appearing on her second album, Nine Pin—which uses the roots of bluegrass music as a launching point for elegantly arranged, modernized folk tunes—“Rising Down” is also performed as an emotional multi-modal collaborative piece with dancer and Davis & Elkins classmate Katharine Manor, with whom Kater shares one of her strongest memories of feeling alienated because of the color of her skin.
INDY:What is it like performing as a young female African-Canadian banjo player in a genre where none of those demographics tend to make up the majority of the audience or the performers?
KAIA KATER: I’m actually mixed race, and my parents always encouraged me to look at it as a blessing, to be able to connect with two races and two sides of your family, where skin color doesn’t matter as much. I was raised to be proud of who I was but not make it the entirety of who I am—I’m mixed but I also like to row and I like to play the guitar.
When I was eleven, I started playing the banjo and I felt like I was in a really secure and protected environment because people were just like “do your thing” and no one was ever like “you’re a girl doing this.” I actually met Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons because my mom was the executive director of the Ottawa Folk Festival when the Carolina Chocolate Drops came in 2007. I was really fascinated by the music. I knew that the banjo was starting to be connected to its West African roots, but I didn’t have as much interest in that as I did just wanting them to show me how to play. So that was on my radar, but I don’t think I had enough intellectual capacity at that point to really understand what was going on.
When I was eighteen, I got a scholarship to study at Davis & Elkins College, which is a little private school in the mountains of central West Virginia. They wanted to start this pilot Appalachian Ensemble program to bring in young, up-and-coming players to form a string band and a percussive dance team and we would represent regional traditions and also be an exportable product for the school. We played festivals and we played every type of venue—even a women’s prison in Ohio. The emphasis of our program was really to focus more on the folkloric aspects of West Virginian and old-time traditions, so I was really psyched about that because I felt like that was a lot of what I was missing.
To me, this brought about a real change in understanding the tensions in race relations in America and the banjo being a symbolic aspect in this sort of fight between white and black. I experienced racism on a different scale than I had when I was in Canada, because I saw more aggression and more hostility.
We played a gig at this beautiful venue, the Pocahontas County Opera House, and the only two black people were myself and Katharine Manor, who’s a wonderful tap dancer from D.C. We played our hearts out and had a really great night of music. We stepped off the stage after our first set and it was really subtle, but no one would speak to myself or Katharine. We stood there and looked, and everyone was talking with our white friends. I remember feeling really low at that moment and being like “Wow, at this point, the color of my skin is affecting the way people relate to me.”
It was really empowering for me to discover Béla Fleck’s documentary Throw Down Your Heart and getting more into what the Carolina Chocolate Drops were really talking about with Joe Thompson and the black fiddling tradition. It made me have a lot more pride in what I was doing. At the same time, I distinctly remember in the summer of 2014 when the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and Black Lives Matter movements came to be. I said “OK, I need to say something about this. I can’t just watch it happen and feel helpless.”
A lot of these movements were happening in major cities and not in West Virginia because there’s not enough critical mass. Katharine and I were like, “We need to figure out another way to respond,” so I wrote “Rising Down,” which is on my new record and which she dances to in live performances. I can’t say that I’ve had the experiences that I know some of my African-American friends have growing up from birth in America, but I felt like I had to say something about always feeling different and not quite being good enough, no matter what you do. At the opera house, I think it hurt more because we put a lot of soul, energy, and emotion into what we were doing. To not feel that reciprocated was so hard. This helped with my sort of latent pride in who I am, what instrument I play, and the way I perform. Not to say I went to West Virginia and my life sucked and everything was racist; there were some really beautiful experiences, but they’re experiences laced with the hyperawareness that you’re different and you’re never going to be the same.
What initially sparked your interest in folk music and the banjo?
Folk music has been in my life as far back as I remember. My grandfather, Wolfgang Kater, is a luthier and he built guitars for everyone in my family. At family gatherings, we would have family friends come over and jam. I was studying classical music as a child and into my teens, but there was always that outlet when I went to my grandparents’ house for holidays.
My fourth-grade teacher Jan Purcell was a bluegrass fiddle player. She would always sneak music into her classroom and there was a really great music venue in town where her band, Jan Purcell & Pine Road, would play every Friday afternoon after school, so I’d go see them play and would just sit and stare.
I was particularly fascinated by the banjo and their banjo player, Brian, had an extra banjo laying around and gave it to me. I went to bluegrass festivals a lot when I was a kid so I took a few bluegrass lessons and thought “I don’t know if this is for me,” but then clawhammer came along when there was a consultant hired for the Ottawa Folk Festival, Mitch Podolak. He saw that I was playing bluegrass but not really enjoying it and getting frustrated, so he sat me down and gave me a clawhammer lesson and that was it for me. I never looked back.
How does your study of Appalachian folklore fit with what you’ve done on Nine Pin that breaks away from some elements of that musical tradition, for instance in terms of the instrumentation?
I really have a deep respect for traditional forms of music and the traditional fiddle-banjo-guitar-bass old-time instrumentation. When it’s played well, it’s just so good to listen to and when someone gets up that’s a really good singer and performer, those songs feel timeless.
Emily Miller, our string band director at Elkins, always let us voice our ideas. Whether or not they worked out, we would always try them, so a lot of our arrangements were as organic without feeling restricted. It was through her that I started understanding there’s a way to build on traditions that isn’t just “look at me, I’m doing something different,” but thinking about how it fits sonically and whether it’ll help the story that you’re trying to tell.
When I did my second album, Nine Pin, I went back to Toronto and I was developing very concrete ideas about what part of the tradition we were going to keep and what part of the tradition we were going to set aside. There’s no acoustic rhythm guitar on this record; there’s a lot of baritone electric guitar, but it’s not wanking all over the songs. The foundation, whether I’d written the song or it was a traditional, became less about that and more about how we can best lift up the music sonically so that the listener can experience it in a new way, but not in a way in which they’re alienated or the story is alienated.
When you compare some of your political songs like “Rising Down” and “Paradise Fell,” is there a reason why you chose to take a somewhat subtle approach with one but use more overt lyricism that’s much harder to ignore in the other?
I’ve always been pretty against writing prescriptive songs. I think I was very against sitting down and saying, “I’m going to write a protest song about this issue,” because when I write, I usually start with an idea that can go a million different ways. I never sit down with a fully-formed idea but with just a couple emotions or a couple thoughts. So when I wrote “Rising Down,” I wanted to make sure that I was honest about how I felt, but that I wasn’t telling other people how to feel.
When I wrote those lines, I wanted them to be very strong and very hard-hitting: “My God is heavy-handed” is almost like a threat because we’ve incurred this much suffering and we haven’t forgotten it. “Your cross is a symbol of my lynching”—you know, I’m singing that in rural West Virginia. I just really wanted to marry these images of the beautiful and the divine with horrible, traumatizing images of the past and present. It was thinking about these beautiful aspects of human beings but racism and prejudice cause them to be overshadowed by such a darkness. How do you translate that darkness to a page? How do you translate a lifetime of experiences to a page?
What has the response been like when you perform “Rising Down”?
It’s a collaborative piece and Katharine dances it with me. It’s ten minutes long and there are three movements. We try to remain as stoic as possible on stage, but there hasn’t been a single time where we haven’t cried at the end of performing it because there’s just so much emotion.
I haven’t done the song itself that much with my audiences because I think it requires a lot of trust. For a long time, I never wanted to talk about race because I didn’t feel like it was anybody’s business. I just didn’t feel like the questions I would get about race should be part of my music and I felt like people should be seeing me for my songs rather than my race. A lot of the audiences are white and don’t like to be reminded of white guilt or don’t know how to respond, so when I started singing about race, I had to think about how I interact with these people. That’s something I’m still navigating, how I include them in this experience without saying it’s all your fault, which isn’t what I mean.
When I introduce it, I’ll say either you are a person of color or you know and love someone who is a person of color, so even though it’s not your pain, it’s your pain by association. That’s seemed to open people up a little bit more to the concept of the song. We’ve performed it for many audiences in West Virginia and the response has always been one of shock and people just trying to process what they heard, so the reactions are pretty delayed.
We went to a dance conference in Atlanta and we didn’t anticipate this, but the majority of our audience was black college students. After the show ended, there were people saying “This is what I experience and what I feel every day.” Even while we were performing, I would sing some of the lines and people would snap quietly to support what we were trying to do, so it was an environment where it felt like we weren’t so isolated in a bubble in the mountains. I’m hoping to bring it to more diverse audiences than just folk music or bluegrass.
This is a longer version of an article that appeared in print and online under the title “Tense Strings.”