For Colleen Kattau, a Cortland-based singer-songwriter, music and politics intersect harmoniously.
“I love music that means something,” she said in a recent phone interview. “But sometimes folk music, like the protest music, can be telling you how bad everything is. And I don’t think that’s the function of music. I think it’s a lot better to present the world that ought to be, and the world that we wish to see.”
Kattau grew up in Patchogue, N.Y., on the south shore of Long Island and is the youngest of six children. All of the family is musical, she said. Kattau’s grandfather, Charles Kattau, was a well-known Irish tenor in Patchogue. Her dad was a drummer with a local band before settling down to raise a family.
“Music is in our blood,” she said.
In high school, she bought her first guitar and began to learn the songs of Joni Mitchell and Carole King. They “were strong female role models at a time when there were very few women in the mainstream,” Kattau said in an email interview.
In the late 1960s and the 1970s, women were finding their place as individual artists, said Theo Cateforis, a Syracuse University professor who specializes in 20th Century music-history.
“This was the first time that people could begin to talk about women in music as a movement within the context of rock,” Cateforis said, “Carole King is the perfect example. She started out writing teen romance songs for girl groups. And in her 20s, she was forging her own career and identity as a singer-songwriter.”
In addition to playing guitar, singing, and writing her own songs, Kattau plays ukulele, harmonica, and the djembe. And she would like to take up piano, she said.
During her high school years, Kattau became interested in a musical movement from Latin America, called Nueva Cancion. Literally translated from Spanish, it means “new song.” That’s “often erroneously translated as protest music from Latin America,” said Kattau.
But the genre also “brings a positive social message and desires for a better world,” according to Acción Latina, a California-based Latino music and arts organization.
Kattau’s passion for Latin American culture extends beyond her musical career. She earned a doctorate in Spanish language and culture from Syracuse University and is now is a Spanish language professor at SUNY Cortland.
In her musical career, she furthers the Nueva Cancion genre by performing and writing bilingual songs. One of her songs, “Manifesto”, has been included on a compilation CD called “Sing It Down, Volume 2: Songs to Close the SOA.” The SOA stands for the controversial U.S. Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga. The U.S. Army School of the Americas has been a frequent target of protesters who accuse it of training Latin American military personnel who have committed human rights violations upon returning to their home countries.
Kattau is also lending her voice to raise awareness about hydro-fracking, the controversial method of natural gas extraction. She has two songs featured on an anti-hydro-fracking CD called “Singing Clear.” The CD includes songs on both hydro-fracking and mountaintop removal – a style of strip-mining for coal. In “Hey Speculator,” Kattau sums up the controversy related to both as she sings, “You make a quick buck, but you gamble life.”
At a recent concert at Liverpool Public Library, Kattau summed up her music and political philosophies this way: “You can’t just protest,” she told her audience. “You need an alternative.”
(Jess Marshalek is a graduate student in magazine, newspaper and online journalism.)