Culture | A conversation about conversations

Sound poet kaie kellough discusses his new album, creole continuum

“You are fully situated within your language. It’s almost a map of you,” says kaie kellough, Montreal-based word-sound systemizer. kellough just released his new record, creole continuum, an exploration of the sounds that make up language.

kellough has performed internationally, authored two books of poetry, and released two sound recordings. Sitting down to meet him, I’m excited to chat with such an eloquent artist, but his language-focused art makes me hyper-conscious of my words. I decide to start at the beginning, asking where the concept for this record came from. kellough explains that he had been “performing the formative stages of language, like reciting the alphabet, speaking gibberish, and spelling,” and he wanted to experiment with stylizing sound pieces around such experiences.

The title of kellough’s record, creole continuum, alludes to the 1960s linguistics study with the same name. “The idea,” as kellough explains, “is that in societies with an established Creole, there are degrees to which the dominant tongue and the Creole will mix as you move from standard English to pure Creole and back. That movement is reflective of different social strata, different levels of education, your family background, and the milieu in which you grew up. The study speaks to how class, colour, and language are all intertwined.” He wanted these ideas to frame the record: “so I pinched the title,” he says.

Due to our topic of conversation, all of my attention is drawn to his language and his calm manner with words. kellough doesn’t string his words together with countless ‘like’s. The more I notice his language, the more I want to be the Sherlock Holmes of linguistics, so I ask him about mispronunciation. This makes him grin. “Mispronunciation is fantastic!” he proclaims. “It’s a little detour out of grammar and orderly structure. It’s a great little chaos machine that brings noise and a more immediate perspective on language.”

According to kellough, the language that we speak is a refined version of a much more immediate and noisy experience. His record breaks down language into this particular ‘something’ which is raw, messy, and often loud. I mean really loud: think Eliza from My Fair Lady trying to pronounce the rain in spain with marbles in her mouth.

kellough concedes that the highly structured language we use has value, in that it facilitates communication and clarity. However, he adds that such language “also mirrors different social hierarchies. So it’s important to look at language from within and without that structure.” In fact, it’s precisely the malleability of language which attracts kellough to this medium. When it comes to language, he believes that “there are endless possibilities.”

Inside kellough’s CD is also a small print of one of his visual poems from a series called “erasure diasporas.” Reminiscent of Rorschach’s inkblot tests, the visual piece shows a patchy gradient of ink with lots of empty spaces to ponder. By focusing on such formative stages, and ideas that are left open to interpretation, kellough’s record defamiliarizes the listener with language.

The more oppressive aspects of language linger in this process: the fifth track, “AlphabetA”, is the longest and harshest track. Seven minutes of gibberish backed with music is about as unbearable as it sounds. kellough explains his aggression toward the English language, which you can’t miss in these more jarring tracks, by linking it back to his fascination with mispronunciations. “As someone with distant African origins, mispronunciations are a way into the emptiness created when the dominant tongue was imposed on other languages, erasing the mother tongue.”

However, the record’s jarring sounds shouldn’t put you off. creole continuum is full of possibilities. The first few tracks are orally lighter, like children toying with sounds. The third track reminds me of the kittens in Aristocats bouncing off piano keys with their paws. After this track, a sense of struggle sets in. Language fights back, stumbling and stuttering to ear-piercing noise.

“It’s an aesthetic approach,” kellough maintains, “but it isn’t always pretty.” It’s true. Depending on your mood, some tracks may sound like a migraine, but other tracks may make you smile. The sounds sometimes cause discomfort, but for those of us living in diaspora, they also act as comforting reminders of how malleable language can be. Very much aware of this malleability, kaie kellough challenges us to rethink language, in ways as simple as always using lower case letters.

“I use a visual approach. It’s a leveling of language, and I like the way it looks,” he explains. But even here, kellough seems wary of clinging too tightly to any form of language. He admits that “still, capitals can be useful sometimes, but only if you’ve got the right font.”

creole continuum is available for download at