Just plain folk: Colleen Kattau lives in Truxton, about 11 miles northeast of Cortland on Route 13. She draws inspiration for her politically charged music from the rural vibe that surrounds her there. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTOS
Ever since childhood Kattau has been imbued with a voice that haunts with its clarity and range, and an eye that roams the globe in search of contradiction and hope. Inhabited Woman (independent), her fourth album, is the first to feature all original work. Her lyrics are playful, inventive, then suddenly academic, covering topics as quirky as vegetarians gratefully consuming roadkill and as serious as an environmentalist singing a love song to a planet betrayed.
Her soprano seems to carry a hint of hope into even the darkest places, like the world of a disposable migrant worker or an abused housewife. For the first time, she’s playing regularly with a band, a collaboration that is stretching her musically beyond where she could go strumming her guitar solo. She calls the band “Colleen Kattau and some guys.” Those guys include drummer Dave Pandori, Jamie Yeman on the saxophone and bass player Mike Brandt.
You wouldn’t know from looking or listening, but Kattau, who divides her time between a house in Cortland and a rural home in Truxton, is turning 50 in June. And she seems to be relishing more than ever her role as a troubadour chasing the bad guys and celebrating the struggles of ordinary people.
This spring she was on the road with Vermont-based singer-songwriter Charlie King, performing a musical workshop entitled “Don’t Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” She plays the female part in a two-person musical narrative about the civil rights movement that has been touring campuses in the South and the Northeast. In June she taught political songwriting at the People’s Music Network gathering in Rhinebeck, and on any given weekend she can be found either playing at the Blue Frog Coffeehouse in Cortland or singing at a benefit for a number of causes in Central New York.
Kattau grew up as a twin in the Long Island suburb of Patchogue. She was one of six children born to a stay-at-home mother and a dad who worked laying linoleum floors. College brought her upstate to SUNY Cortland, and Central New York has been her home ever since. Over the years Kattau has made her mark as a protest singer, a passionate, poetic folkie in the tradition of Joan Baez, with a voice that sometimes evokes Joni Mitchell, or closer to home, Maura Kennedy. She can dip deep down in the register to channel Janis Joplin or take on a pop rock lilt a la Sheryl Crow. But then she has this other trick that turns heads and gets people asking, who is that blonde singing in Spanish and sounding like she really knows it?
That’s because what really sets Kattau apart is the impressive number of Spanish-language songs in her repertoire. As much as she is influenced by Pete Seeger and even Bruce Springsteen, she has learned from the likes of Cuban songmaster Silvio Rodrigues and the Nueva Cancion or “New Song” movement popular in Latin America during the 1970s. Lately she has begun penning songs in Spanish, and she’s discovering that writing in another tongue is really fun for her. “I can write in Spanish in a more poetic way,” she says. Her day job is teaching Spanish at SUNY Cortland.
She came of age musically at a time when Latin America was ruled by military strongmen, frequently backed by the United States. Women like Mercedes Sosa, the exiled Argentine earth mother figure and singer, became the musical voices for people whose political rights, and the lives of many of their companions, had been snuffed out.
Folk singers like Victor Jara, the Chilean whose death at an early age at the hands of the military has become the stuff of legend in Chile, made a deep impression on her and brought a different sensibility to her singing and varied rhythms to her guitar playing. (Jara was killed by the Chilean military in 1973 after being arrested days after the coup in which General Agusto Pinochet, backed by the United States, overthrew an elected government. He died at age 37 in a Santiago sports stadium which, 35 years later, bears his name).
Some of the people who inhabit her musical imagination have died in pursuit of their ideals. She sings lively music about scary realities. In her view, music both draws meaning from and gives meaning to social struggle. “In Latin America,” she says, “music is much more connected to the struggle. People’s creativity is much more connected to the struggle. People like Victor Jara, like Mercedes Sosa, they knew how to bring people together, but not in a pamphleteering way.”
Kattau is a frequent visitor to the Caribbean, and lately has made several trips to rural Colombia. She wrote her first song on the island of Vieques, off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, that for years was used for target practice by the U.S. Navy. “I was there in 1988. The Navy was using this island as a place for target practice. I had been active in Central American issues for a long time, but this was my firsthand taste. I could feel the bombs shaking the ground, and I just had to write about it.” Later she confessed, “I never performed it. It was a pretty bad song.”
One of her students, Lauren Caruso, is also a member of the Syracuse Community Choir. “She’s a phenomenal teacher,” says Caruso. “I learned a lot more than the language. I got to know her outside the classroom, and she became a huge influence on my life. She showed me that there were a lot of things that need doing in this world.”
Little of Kattau’s Long Island accent remains. Nothing in her high school years would have made you think this was a woman with a revolutionary bent, but everyone who knew her back then knew there was music in her. “I’ve always been singing,” she remembers. “I had the lead in the high school play. I played Adelaide in Guys and Dolls.” She also was big on sports. “I was a big jock—played basketball, all kinds of sports.” Her life took on an upstate flavor when she chose to attend Cortland. “I just went to school to go to school.”
In a strange twist, the big-city girl came to a small upstate town to discover the world. “I was affected in a big way, by exposure to ideas. At that time you could go to the pub and have a beer with your professor. The excitement of ideas really captivated me.” It was a time of foment, and through her study of sociology and Spanish she came in contact with people passionate about what was happening in Latin America.
If you are of a certain age you probably knew someone like her in college. Picture that pretty girl with the guitar in the dormitory suite next door, covering Carole King and Joni Mitchell. But inside this student, a revolutionary was brewing. The Latin American New Song movement brandished the notion of the “Guitarra Armada,” the armed guitar, music used not to divert people from social problems but as a weapon in social struggle, and Kattau latched on. The cultural front in the struggle against dictatorship eventually became more important than the military struggle as Latin American musicians-in-exile carried their songs of struggle to Europe and the United States. Kattau took it all in.
Her path through SUNY Cortland took her out of her working-class milieu and led her first to Spain where she lived for a year in Madrid and studied music at the Teatro Real (the Royal Theater), which remains her only formal musical education. She married and toured Cuba and Spain with her then-husband, art historian David Craven. Even today she draws inspiration from her travels and brings it back to inform her teaching, singing and organizing back home.
In 1985, when Karen Mihalyi founded the Syracuse Community Choir, Kattau was among the first to join. She still sings in the choir, which most recently performed at the Onondaga Nation School.
“Colleen is one of those performers,” says Mihalyi, “who has been available for so many things. She’s very willing to put herself out there, and in a very optimistic way. She’s very smart, and she knows a lot about the world. She’s brave, she’s traveled. In a lot of ways, she tries to make change in a very loving way.”
Mihalyi echoes what others, including Pete Seeger, have said about Kattau: that she is both a musician and an organizer. “Not every musician can organize,” says Mihalyi. “Colleen has been a real leader in the chorus, finding music for us, leading a section. She’s been one of our featured soloists. She allows us to have a repertoire in Spanish.”
Her organizing ability has recently brought her into the realm of producing for other musicians. For the past year she’s been working with a group that received a $500,000 grant from the New York State Music Fund to bring music in to the Cortland area, attracting the likes of Mexican singer Leila Downs and jazz cellist Hank Roberts to the midstate music scene.
This November Colleen Kattau will once again be singing her songs outside the Fort Benning, Ga., School of the Americas (SOA), an Army training school for Latin American military officers. Tens of thousands gather there each autumn to call for its closure, and Kattau has attended all but one of the last 10 years. The one year she missed was 2005, the year her friend and collaborator Jolie Rickman succumbed to cancer at age 34.
Rickman, well known in Syracuse musical circles and peace groups, liked to consider herself one of the “creative extremists” Martin Luther King Jr. often referred to. She was a student of art and social movements and a singer-songwriter once described by The New Times as “a singular, one-woman version of the Violent Femmes.”
Kattau credits Rickman with reviving her musical life and career. As she recalls her she turns wistful. “Jolie was really a magical being. She called me in 1997 to be part of a conference,” says Kattau. “I was at the point of putting my guitar down. I was teaching and I was tired, I was without a community. When we got together, I realized that it’s much better to collaborate with other people. We went to work on the SOA songs. We created ‘Sing It Down,’ which traveled all over the country, singing to small groups and at protests to close the School of the Americas. I realized that I’m really a folk-based musician.”
Kattau’s songwriting emerges from where she’s been and who she’s met. “I write about experience. I can’t write from thin air. I have lots of melodies in my head. Most of them are guitar-driven. I’ll have one line of lyrics. Melodies and basic structures come easy to me. I have to labor over lyrics.”
In fact, she labors long and hard until she thinks it’s done. “It has to be what I consider a good song. Musically it has to resonate with me. A songwriter, if they’re going to have a message, has to be responsible. A political song will be better if you know what it is that you’re saying. I have to reflect on the song, and ask myself—is it true to the experience?”
When she does let loose with the lyrics, there is no holding back. Take this little ditty called “Royally Oily,” a racy ballad about the Bush administration.
“Well there once was an election/ by unpopular selection/ of an imbecilic lying father’s son/ ’cause he was next in line/ to rise up from the slime/ and take the thrown by coup d’etat in Washington /first he undermined the treaties/ that do help the poor and needy/ as a payback to the greedy and far right/ then he angers mother nature/ hot enough to melt her glaciers/ while our dreams of peace just vanished overnight.”
Her brand of feminism comes across in songs like “Stupid Girl,” about the role of a female soldier in the abuse of Afghan prisoners at Abu Ghraib. “Feminism is not just about equality,” says Kattau. “It’s about forging a different vision of what is the norm. ‘Stupid Girl’ represents the stupidity of just striving for equality with men. It asks, who sets the rules? I’m not a liberal
feminist or a Marxist feminist. It’s more like a spiritual feminism for me.”
Kattau’s playlist and touring schedule read like a tour guide to every progressive cause you can name. One week she’s touring with Charlie King to educate about civil rights, the next she’s in Syracuse to perform with Francisco Herrera at a concert to “Raise Hell and Raise Bail” for immigrant workers. She sings feminist songs, ecological songs and some just plain funny songs, and performs them with an electric smile and always that soaring voice.
From the sounds of it, Kattau is just getting started. To catch the beginning of the century’s second half, you can see her at the Women’s Rights to Rock Women’s Music Festival, People’s Park, Seneca Falls on Sunday, July 13, 1 p.m. The event is free. Or on Sunday, July 20, 5 p.m., at a benefit for the Syracuse Peace Council, which will be held at the DewittShire Tavern, 3010 Erie Blvd. E., DeWitt. For more information call 472-5478.