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Amai Kuda brings us sand from the sea

Acey Rowe interviews indie musician Amai Kuda.

I first met local musician Amai Kuda in July of 2011, when she was promoting a cheeky yet earnest event named Poetry to Save a City, Poems for Rob Ford. She was articulate and passionate, confident and approachable, and although I spent only a few minutes with Amai, I was left intensely curious about her.

After our meeting, a quick internet search took me to the music video for “All My Fine Shoes,” the fourth track off Amai’s then-unreleased first album, Sand from the Sea. “All My Fine Shoes,” like much of Sand from the Sea, addresses significant social-awareness issues. This track tackles fair trade and commodity fetishism, while the album as a whole reaches further, exploring issues of the environment, sexuality and de-colonization. Musically, Amai calls on elements of blues, jazz and folk, with chanting and percussion techniques inspired by both indigenous North American and African influences. As a final layer, Sand from the Sea is infused with a righteous dance album aesthetic.

A few days after the release party for Sand from the Sea I was able to speak with Amai over the phone about her unique perspective, her activism both in and outside of her music, and her return to the bush.

Queeriesmag: Tell me about yourself, Amai.

Amai Kuda: [Laughs] That’s actually hard. I go by the name “Amai Kuda,” which literally means “Kuda’s mom.” It’s a southern African tradition where once you have a kid you become “mother of” or “father of” and then your first child’s name. My son’s name, “Kuda,” is short for Kudakwashe, and it means “the will of the creator.” I thought it was appropriate in terms of music for me to be “mother to the will of the creator.” It’s kind of how I approach my creative work. It’s that you’re kind of being a vessel or a body through which the spirit or the force of creation works. I guess that’s how I see it.

And where am I from . . . I was born here in Turtle Island (what some native tribes call Canada) and my background is Afro-Caribbean. My mother is from Trinidad and she’s of African descent, and my dad is from England. So I have a kind of mixed-up heritage that makes me aware of things from various perspectives.

QM: Sand from the Sea is your first album. What were you thinking about while writing this album, and what was the process of putting it together?

Kuda: I was wanting to create a body of work for the first set of music that I’d written. It’s funny because I’m sort of past all of that material. It’s sort of old now. I’ve got a lot of new stuff that I’ve been performing more than the material on this album, but while recording I wanted to get these first pieces down and put them out in one body, because they represent a period in my life. They also represent that range and diversity that I strive for and that I think makes music interesting.

I love jazz and I love folk and I love rock and I love hip hop, and because this first set of work encompassed a whole bunch of different genres and different themes, I thought it brought together all the flavours and feelings that are part of my life.

Sand from the Sea

QM: A central thematic focus of the album concerns injustices that have been done to native persons. Can you talk a bit about this and specifically, your work to do with de-colonization?

Kuda: It is work that has chosen me and work that I’ve started to get involved in since leaving high school. While I was in university, I did a little bit of native studies, but I think the interest came before that. It’s particularly from being a person of African descent who can identify with an experience of colonization and losing culture and losing land, but from a different perspective. As a person whose ancestors were taken as slaves, we’re also displaced from our land but in a different way than indigenous people here are displaced. So I’m just able to relate and also see differences.

Then as a person of European descent and sort of seeing that we have a lot of work to do in digging into why we spent this large chunk of our history displacing other people. Also looking at the displacements that happened in Europe and that separated us from our own indigenous ways of being.

I really think that everybody is indigenous to somewhere and that in those original traditions, people are a little bit more balanced in terms of how they live with the Earth: that there was a better sense of grounding. I believe that we need to return to that sense of grounding. Not that things are perfect in indigenous cultures – that’s far from the case – but at least that if you poop in your stream [laughs] it’s going to affect your water, right? You’re at least close enough to the Earth to realize the consequences of your actions, and then that brings a certain strength.

QM: While not as intensely influenced by native Canadian cultures as your lyrics, your music seems to be inspired by native Canadian cultures as well as your own cultural history. Was this an intentional parallel?

Kuda: Yeah. In terms of musical influence from here, it’s something that people have picked up on a bit, but it’s not something that I really approached consciously. People have said, for instance, that Incantation: Rain Song does remind them of indigenous music from here as well as African music. Some kind of combination of the two, which I think must come from the fact that for me, it’s really based on my connection to land and to the Earth. So I think that that may be where the similarities are coming from, as opposed to me listening to a lot of indigenous music and absorbing it that way. I do hear it, but I think it’s coming from a different angle.

QM: Another theme of your music is your identity as a queer artist. Tell me about “Dance Chaka,” one of the two songs that have queer content and focus on female aspects. Also, “Dance Chaka” is an immensely fun track and easily one of the most accessible!

Kuda: [Laughs] Yeah, you know it’s funny. I meant for that song to be accessible in that way and fun in that way. I was commenting on something but also, I think, ideally giving a way in. I think exposure to queer identity and queer thought is a really important way that people can just sort of get used to it. I think that some of the discomfort with queer identity is simply because people haven’t been exposed. And that’s not an excuse for ignorance or an excuse for homophobia, but exposure is huge.

I think that if people hear a song that they enjoy and it gives them insight into a woman who loves other women, because they like the song, maybe that might make them feel more comfortable with that perspective. I don’t know. It’s not something I consciously put together in that way, but it’s something I hope that I have with that song.

Also, just having fun with a certain banter that is more typical of heterosexual club songs but flipping it from a queer perspective. It just came out of me exploring that scene, the whole queer club scene and having a lot of fun with it.

QM: Do you have a favourite track off Sand from the Sea?

Kuda: That’s a tough one. I can’t say a favourite, but I do feel that “Down in the Delta” is one of the more accomplished songs, and I do feel a lot of confidence in that piece. That it’s really solid. It still moves me.

And “All My Fine Shoes” is another one. You know when you look at your own work, or at least me, when I look at my own work, I hear a lot of my errors or things that I could do differently or things that I could have done better. Already I hear that stuff, but those two songs are ones that feel like they were more hitting the mark of what I wanted them to be.

Amai Kuda

Amai Kuda. Photo: Toyin Coker

QM: What do you hope your listeners will take away from this album?

Kuda: One person, she’s not a close friend but a friend of a friend, she bought the album and wrote me a long Facebook message about how it moved her in terms of making her feel and deal with things around her own culture and her own identity. I felt really happy that it had affected her in that way. That it could help somebody to address their own challenges and move through them in a good way.

Then one other person told me that when she hears my music it has a similar effect to the healing work she practises, like meditation and massage. That she feels a sort of un-knitting of things inside her body. And I was like, “Wow. That’s huge.” I feel very blessed if I can do that for somebody.

QM: I read in your blog that you were apprehensive about releasing this album because of the nature of production. Can you talk about this? And are there any plans for a second album?

Kuda: That’s funny. You read my blog so you know that I was torn about this one and I’m sort of similarly torn as to what I’ll do next. I go on about indigenous stuff and approaching things from a de-colonized perspective, and I really feel that mass producing anything is contrary to the way that nature works. But my intention has been more to work though using online as a way to reach people. I guess for this project it was the best thing to do; you need a solid thing that people can hold in their hand, I think, for people to start to recognize you as an artist in the scene. But I think at some point I’d like to just take advantage of the online method of getting music out there.

I guess my ultimate dream is to just make music live for people, with people. And live life in the bush. [Laughs] That’s where I’d like to go eventually, but in the meantime I intend to use whatever technologies we have for people to connect to what I’m putting out there.

QM: Before you go, I’d like to say that people need artists, because artists are there to comment on the system. It seems that you’re worried about “selling out” or not keeping in line with your causes, and I don’t believe you are doing that at all. I think you are keeping in line with your causes. I just hope that you don’t berate yourself here, because you have a calling.

Kuda: You’re right. Thank you for saying that. It’s just that fine line we all walk. Walking that line and figuring out how to work it. Saying what you need to say and doing the things you need to do but not compromising the things you believe in.

You can find out more about Amai Kuda here.

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