Kera Washington--percussionist, applied ethnomusicologist, teacher, mom, and leader of Zili Misik (founded as Zili Roots, in the year 2000) —a band dedicated to connecting music styles of the African Diaspora--has led a storied personal and professional life, and she’s just getting started. I met Kera fifteen years ago through an introduction by Abria Smith and Curtis Warner from Fenway Alliance member Berklee College of Music. Kera and her all-women group Zili Misik accepted my invitation to perform at the Fenway Alliance’s Opening Our Doors cultural festival. Zili Misik has been a highlight of the festival ever since. This year, Kera and the Fenway Alliance partnered on a National Performers Network grant that allowed Kera, in a collaboration with poet Letta Neely, to deepen the conversation during the festival on issues of racial justice.
I spoke with Kera to learn more about the history of the band, and the aspects of her life that have had an influence on her music and her teaching. Kera formed Zili Roots when three other bands (Haitian bands, Batwèl Rada & Tjovi Ginen, & all female cover band, Sistahs of the Yam) she was performing in simultaneously broke up. Kera wanted to combine aspects of these bands that she loved, and, although she felt that because she wasn’t Haitian, she didn’t have a right to start a Haitian band, she knew she had been given a charge to promote the music that was shared with her, and wanted to do so in a mix of African diasporic musical connections. Initially Kera had difficulty keeping the band all female, so she opened the group up to men. At first, she said this worked just fine. Everyone in the band was excellent, musically. But when, at one rehearsal, she noticed the men were only communicating musically with the other men, she realized that part of the mission of the band - to highlight female musicians/to feature female musicianship - was lost. Zili Roots became Zili Misik—a re-dedicated all-women band, that in 2005 won the highly competitive Berklee College of Music Battle of the Bands and in 2008 a Boston Music Award for Outstanding World Music!
Kera’s interest in music in general, and the path to her specific mission of showcasing music of the African Diaspora or Black Atlantic began with her mother. Born in California, to a family of artists and educators, Kera grew up in the South - Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. Raised by her mother, an educator who shook off the stresses of her daily life by playing the piano for one hour every day, Kera quickly figured out that music was the way into her Mom’s world—a way to connect with her. Young Kera would sing along while her Mom played. Through her Mom, Kera was exposed to classical, jazz and gospel music. And though she did not grow up in the household with her father, Kera believes his favored style of Bebop music influenced her, as well.
After graduating high school, Kera attended Wellesley College where she met a Haitian ethnomusicology professor— Gerdès Fleurant who those close to called “Papi Toto” and who would change the course of her life, as she changed his. Professor Fleurant would become her mentor and one of the biggest influences on her life and career. “He became a father figure to me,” Kera states, adding: “He invested so much time in me. There is no one like him”. Though originally Kera thought she wanted to become a biologist, studying and playing music quickly became her passion. She wondered why a class on African American music, taught every other year, was not in the music department at Wellesley, but instead “lived” only in African American Studies, with an academic intersection between the two departments, but no credit given towards a Music major. “I knew this was wrong” she says, “but I wasn’t yet quite sure why.” She posed the question to Professor Fleurant. This simple yet profound question started a much larger conversation at Wellesley, and, eventually, the creation of the Ethnomusicology concentration in the Music Department. Professor Fleurant was to become the first tenured ethnomusicologist at Wellesley, and Kera was to become his first advisee. “Racial equity is not a straight line, there is always a push-pull, but we moved the needle at least an inch,” Kera says proudly.
After graduating from Wellesley, Kera attended graduate school at Wesleyan University. This was a just a few years of my life, she explains, but so rich for me in terms of learning more about important connections among the musics of Trinidad to the musics of Haiti to the musics of Ghana – to throughout the diaspora. And it solidified her passion for travel. Though Kera was on a doctoral track, she felt she needed to experience more of life. “Travel spurs my learning,” she says simply. During her 20s and 30s, she spent much of her time traveling, and even well into her 40s Kera bravely traveled solo to Haiti, Brazil, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Though she is quick to add she always had friends and colleagues to meet and stay with at her various destinations, and never felt truly alone but instead always felt she was part of a rich community of people. Through Professor Fleurant, she met one of the most important innovators in Haitian folkloric music and dance, Madame Emerante de Pradines Morse, who kindly opened her house up to Kera as a home base whenever she traveled to Haiti - which was often, as she strove to learn more about Haiti, about Madame Morse, and about Haitian music. At first glance, “The DR was like here; Haiti is like night and day. Its brutal history of colonialism (and post-colonialism) have left an indelible mark on the country. In 1804, Haiti gained independence, but was largely ignored by the developing world for the next 20 years, until it paid steep reparations to France for years, which assisted in keeping the country in poverty. When Kera first traveled to Haiti it struck her how much spending time in Haiti was like her time growing up in the rural South. “Like there, the working class in Haiti rely on each other for survival,” she explains. Now that Kera’s a new Mom, and we are still in the midst of the pandemic, she travels less, but plans travel to Haiti soon, to continuously expand her understanding of Haitian music and culture. She does not believe you can really separate the two.
In 2006, Kera started teaching ethnomusicology to elementary students at the K-5 Emerson School in the Boston Public School District, six years after she started her band. “I realized I wanted to teach and tend to young people. I realized too, that I couldn’t have a full-time job in university academia and be an elementary school teacher.” Kera eventually blended the two, becoming a full-time elementary school teacher and part-time senior performance faculty at Wellesley College. Many of her elementary school students were Cape Verdean, or from Cabo Verde. “I felt like I needed to learn Kriolu to be able to better communicate with my students.” Many newcomers were scared, shy and felt left out. Kera quickly realized if she spoke just one word to them in their native language, the students would light up—"they knew I was trying to connect with them, and could laugh at my imperfections and help me – they could be teachers also. I applied for funding to be able to travel to Cabo Verde. I wanted to be ‘plopped down’ in their culture with this different language” to better understand her kids’ experiences, moving to Boston and having to become bi-cultural very quickly. I asked the students where I should go and where I should stay. By serendipity, Kera actually met one of her students there. “I hear an ocean wave crashing and then someone (Nilda) says, ‘Miss Washington?’ She was a student I had always thought disliked me and the music class. But in Cabo Verde, she took me to visit her entire family! I could see why she was unhappy in Boston – most of her family, including brothers and sisters, were back home! Her family had all their hopes and dreams invested in her.” Through this young girl and her family, Kera learned about Creolian music on a deeper level. Kera came to understand that music was a language that could help people connect, and she realized in an even more profound way, the importance of passing on what she had learned.
When asked about racial and gender challenges and discrimination Kera has experienced along the way, she explains: “Racial and gender injustice will happen. I’m an open and idealistic person, so it still jars and surprises me when it does. “ After attending Wesleyan University, Kera attended a graduate program at Brown University where she ran into a fellow middle school band member, Renee, an African American woman who had had the same music teacher that Kera had in middle high school. This teacher told Kera she could not play the clarinet as her lips were not the right shape, and instead she must learn to play the flute. She never really liked playing the flute. Kera learned from meeting with Renee and asking her if she still played music, that Renee was told by this same teacher that she couldn’t play the flute for the same reason and so must play the clarinet! Neither of them wanted the instrument they had been forced into - and, for both, this changed their relationship to music. It took Kera some time to realize there was racism at play and to realize how important our teachers are in our lives. “It made me think of The Miseducation of Lauren Hill,” she laments wryly.
She points out that her education and her mentors have helped her navigate these types of challenges. “I’ve had a lot of great folks in my corner and on my team. Those who would help me open gates. My successes have been due to having a great support system and not necessarily one that was always apparent to me at the time.” Kera feels today’s young people coming up are so much stronger and are much more intrepid. “I hope our generation did something to pave the way, that said, I’m learning a lot from this next generation.” There will be potholes,” she cautions. “You have to remember when you feel alone that you do have people here. You CAN ask for support, and you MUST.”
When asked how Zili Misik faired through the worst of the pandemic shutdowns, Kera admits “it was a ‘dark time,’ and the uncertainty of it all made it worse. I’m not someone who likes to play solo, “ she adds, but “I did have time and mind space then.” She thought about how she could support musicians when there weren’t any gigs and concluded that grant funding could be one answer. In 2020 she applied for and was awarded, among many, a National Performance Network grant and a New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) grant dedicated to “public art for spatial justice.” “I live in Dorchester and there are so many ethnicities and races there, but we are not necessarily actually interacting and living together, so I wanted to address this with the NEFA grant funding.” Kera intended for Zili Misik to play in Neponset Park but due to COVID, she could not obtain a permit. Luckily she and her spouse, Cassandra, have a spacious yard. “Everyone was invited, safely. People were hungry to get together. We called it the ‘Project Misik’ Series”. The series was a multi-ethnic and multi-racial hit. It reminded Kera of the time Zili Misik toured Ohio when Hillary Clinton was running for President, the first time. She worried that the band were not going to be safe as she had heard the town they were performing in was a “sundown town”. During one concert the whole audience was white. “I had my own notions of these people,” she admits. In the end, Zili Misik got a standing ovation. Afterward, an older white man approached Kera, and she braced for his comment. To her surprise, he simply said, “You know what, I didn’t want to come to this concert, but I am glad I did.” “ Something touched him,” Kera explains, “music has the ability to open our minds.”
Kera believes there is a deep connection between music, people’s culture and their humanity. She also sees a connective strand through all the elements in her own life: Wellesley, teaching, the band Zili Misik, the music, and her most recent endeavor, motherhood. About her daughter Kaia, Kera beams, “We’ve been having musical conversations from the beginning. She is changing my notion of what music is!.” A striking comment from a woman who knows about music as much as anyone does. Her daughter Kaia has helped Kera appreciate her own mother more and the struggles between her Mom’s ambitions of a career and her absolute dedication to being a mother. Kera ends our conversation by saying she feels so fortunate to have an incredible spouse, with whom she can parent and who enables her to spend so much time with her daughter. And, she still has her own ambitions … intact: “Now, I want to help others make similar connections and pass on all that has been given to me.” Kera is certainly on her way with that.