The female vocal ensemble Kaia has been a fixture of Bloomington’s music scene since the fall of 2004. Their schedule of regular engagements has included a gig at the Lotus World Music and Arts Festival in 2009. Kaia has released several live recordings of their concerts, but their new album Freedom Land is their first studio effort.
Outside The Box
It’s tempting to place Kaia along Bloomington’s formidable a capella lineage, which spansg groups from Monkey Puzzle and Vida to the Oolites and Straight No Chaser. But they’ve recently dropped “a capella” from their tagline, preferring to identify themselves simply, with the phrase, “world music from the raucous to the sublime.”
But even within the world music rubric, it’s challenging to compare Kaia to anything else. Kaia founder Cairril Adaire explains,
Most bands will have one particular style or cultural reference. You’ve got Sweet Honey in the Rock, that does African and African-American music; you’ve got Vase,n which does traditional Swedish music, and they really work deeply within those traditions. That’s not what we do. We pick pieces from all over the world, with all kinds of vocal deliveries. So having your head whipped around at a Kaia concert is not an unusual experience, because you never know what’s going to happen next.
Far And Wide—And Deep
It might seem an embarrassment of eclecticism—like some kind of multicultural jukebox. But Kaia doesn’t just do far and wide. They go deep. “It is not just some kind of tossed salad of a cappella,” jokes Amy Jackson, who has sung with Kaia for six years.
When members of the group are considering incorporating a song into their repertoire, they’ll research it extensively. After one Kaia member heard the song “Lu Lops” performed by the group Paroplapi at Lotus several years ago, the group studied the lyrics.
Or tried to, at least.
The song is from Occitane, an all-but-abandoned tongue from southern France. The Kaia sisters studied the French translation, and channeled the song’s message of resistance through the contemporary events of the Arab Spring, which were unfolding as they learned the song. In the recording of “Lu Lops” included on Freedom Land, Kaia has even varied the articulation of the lyrics, to reflect the complexity of the song’s political backdrop and emotional landscape.
A Transcultural Game Of Telephone
It’s a prime example of the process Adaire calls “Kaiafication.” When a song presents itself, the group does its homework, studying lyrics and pronunciation, cultural context, and various renditions. As soon as the group decides to bring the song into its repertoire, the song will start to change, depending on the meanings—political, personal, or aesthetic—that they bring to it. “We tailor the song to our vision,” Adaire explains.
Kaia’s adaptive process is not without its critics. When they posted to YouTube their performance of a song taken from the shape note tradition and inflected with Radiohead, they were assailed by purists demanding to know, “What have you done to our music?” And, furthermore, “Who do you think you are?” Kaia’s version of a spiritual also provoked indignant remarks online from viewers who questioned the appropriateness of an all-white group performing African-American material. But Adaire asserts,
We never try to represent ourselves as speaking for these cultures. If [the YouTube viewers] feel as though they’ve been colonized in some way, that’s a legitimate concern. But at the same time, I feel that music is the universal language, and is going to continue to be on this long-term journey in the human experience, and it’s always going to change.