Kaia Kater never wanted to mix her racial identity with her music. The twenty-two-year-old banjo player grew up in a mixed-race Canadian family where folk jams were the norm every Thanksgiving and Boxing Day. Her luthier grandfather made her a guitar when she had barely started elementary school, and her bluegrass-playing fourth-grade teacher gave her a banjo soon after. In her early teens, Kater saw an ascending Carolina Chocolate Drops perform at the Ottawa Folk Festival and learned clawhammer technique from festival consultant Mitch Podolak.
After high school, she enrolled in Davis & Elkins College's Appalachian Ensemble program, where, to her surprise, she encountered more race-related hostility than she had experienced north of the border. Midway through her study of folklore and old-time tradition, Kater was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement to write her first protest song, "Rising Down." The song appears on her new album, this year's Nine Pin, which uses the roots of bluegrass music as a launching point for elegantly arranged, modernized folk tunes.
Kater caught up with the INDY about Nine Pin and her ever-growing relationship with her personal and musical roots.
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.
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 Appalachian Ensemble program to bring in young, up-and-coming players to form a string band and a percussive dance team. 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.
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."
How does your study of Appalachian folklore fit with what you've done on Nine Pin, where you break away from some elements of that musical tradition?
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.
When I did 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 became 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.
With some of your more 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. 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. 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 darkness. How do you translate that darkness to a page?
What has the response been like when you perform "Rising Down"?
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 didn't feel like the questions I would get about race should be part of my music. 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. I'm hoping to bring it to more diverse audiences than just folk music or bluegrass.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Tense Strings"