Some young artists lately are quietly impressing me with their interpretative powers, their sharpened talent and meticulous creativity. Of course, the majority of the Top 50 music we hear today be it country, pop, rock, hop-hop or rap is music produced by young people who are in tune only with the commercial advantages of what they believe passes as good music. But, there will always be popular music no matter what the rest of the music buying public thinks, whether it has merits or not.
I am not specifically speaking about commercial music or supermarket products. (Did I tip my hand in what I believe their music really represents? Well, it is supermarket music when you can find their music at Wal-Mart but not at Barnes and Noble.)
I am focusing more on those young people who gamble with their beliefs. Have turned their backs on the fast track, the fast buck and the hopes of lots of luck. They don’t follow the trends; they’re not going to be another cookie-cutter sugar-coated flavor of the month on a short little stick.
The eclectic banjo playing Quebec-born Kaia Kater is one of these musicians who has taken up – traditional music, splashes on her personality and then plants it into the soil of her spirit. What comes up is colorful, unique, enchanting, and in itself – possesses lots of character. Something most modern day music lacks.
Twenty-one-year-old Kaia sings a little subdued but her tone has style, her vocal inflection is true blue, and she plays banjos (that’s plural). There’s a little darkness in Ms. Kater’s music but there’s jubilance too. While some tunes are aged, traditional and may never hit the Top 25, the work here is important. It has history, it has meat on the bones, and it’s potent. Kaia is obviously heavily influenced by the Canadian-Americana tradition. It’s slightly different from the American-South cousin but even their Canadian music is a distant relative of European musical treasures. Not all music needs to hit a listener squarely in the head. Music has to reach into the heart and with some time can also stir the spirit. Today’s music may get you humming, tapping your toe, dance with your favorite beau, and be so repetitious that it stays with you like a good sweet tooth or a deep rooted cavity. Very little commercial music – today – has that mojo to become so personal that it doesn’t have to be a “hit” record to be important to you. This music has a little vulnerability to it. The richness and soft fabric moments may be a result of Kaia’s heritage. Here she is weaving a tapestry of tight Canadian-Americana with lots of room for absorbing her own musical pedigree. Kaia, despite being born in Quebec is of Afro-Caribbean ancestry and that can subliminally flesh out a fresh take on West Virginia traditional music. You want some authenticity in your folk music or bluegrass – I give you Kaia Kater.
Though Kaia has a much silkier voice than the late Karen Dalton – I would like to think these two ladies would have been easy friends. Kaia’s ancestry and how she mixes her musical sensibilities together define her clearly as someone who has found a refreshing musical recipe. The album opens with the original “When Sorrow Encompasses Me,” -- a dark banjo tune with haunting atmospheric vocals with instrumental pathos threaded throughout the song both when it’s sparse and when it’s trembling with drama. “Southern Girl,” is slightly more up-beat. Nice vocal drawl offers authenticity to the voice and the intertwining fiddle, guitars, deep bass lines and the over-all tone is gripping.
Kaia sings with an aloofness that is charming because she sings with confidence. This is deep fried Appalachian food for the soul and Kaia can cook it in the dark. The third track continues with a swampy, deep ghostly delta approach. Kaia plays fretless banjo and her voice is in the tradition of a sung-narrated style as exemplified by musicians of this type of music in the 1920’s - 1930’s. The instruments are spare but the grip of Kaia’s spooky interpretation of the traditional “Sun To Sun,” is impressive.
West Virginian Emily Miller taught Kaia “Moonshiner,” – a familiar tune in those parts and considered a Currance Hammons (Hammonds) song. Currence lived in West Virginia (1898-1987) and was a descendent of a famed WV fiddler Edden Hammons (spelled with no “d”). Edden was considered the undisputed champion fiddler of that time in that region. Currence became his sidekick in Elkins, WV. Melanie Brulee and Jadea Kelly provide the back-up vocals.
The instrumental “Rose on the Mountain,” is another traditional tune and is the perfect bridge between the songs on this collection. The musicians play with great feeling and with a sense of history running through their fingers. The entire pulse of this collection beats with respect for an age-old music that isn’t going to make any of these musician’s millionaires but it is a wonder that there ARE young people who are really burning up the strings of their banjos and fiddles to insure that a vintage, antiquated music remains fresh front and center. That’s to be respected.
“Valley Forge,” was another tune taught to Kaia by people who learned it in a hand-me-down manner – typical of many Appalachian songs dating back to the turn of the century. Who had money for sheet music in those days, and how many radios do you think they had in the mountains? This one could be traced to the wife of Grandpa Jones (“Hee Haw”) who learned it from Johnny Driftwood. Ramona Jones, Grandpa’s widow, gave it to Hilarie Burkans who gave it to Kaia and here it is today – bristling with new vigor. Folklorist Gerry Milnes of West Virginia taught “West Virginia Boys,” to Kaia who sings this with enthusiasm and renewed flavor. Lots of old fashioned picking framed in a smoky fireplace atmosphere with gun oil and candles.
This album works because instead of just playing notes and reviving old tunes Kaia Kater manages to magically instill the spirit of the music into her performance. While it’s clean and fresh and excellently recorded (by producer Chris Bartos in Canada – and who also plays guitars and fiddles) the music has its depth, it retains the dust and scents of a bygone era. It exemplifies the talent of the people who wrote and performed these songs equally – so long ago. And that’s no mean feat on a new album with young people at the driving wheel.
The final tune is a banjo workout with more well-defined character in the performance. Julia Kater’s backup vocal adds even more intensity to the singing. It’s like a little opus with deep effective piano chords and fervor – in the overall presentation. This was an endearing collection, created with lots of respect for whilst it all derived and originated so long ago.
By the way, getting back to what’s chart worthy – I am pleased to have learned that Kaia’s album “Sorrow Bound,” made Canada’s Top 50 album charts. And that is something for bluegrass.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review / commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression. All photography is owned by the respective photographers and is their copyrighted image; credited where photographer’s name was known & being used here solely as reference and will be removed on request.
John Apice / No Depression / February 2016