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Women & Music

Envision FestivalBy Nancy Buchan

While happily slopping through the ankle deep mud at the Envision Festival I started talking with a young woman about why she was there.  It was clear early in our conversation that she was smart and politically active about all kinds of things back in her home turf of Portland.  She was open-minded about music, passionate about social and environmental issues and she was off on an adventure!  She could even play that flute she had hanging around her neck.   I started talking to more of the women there, and found most all of them to be very together.  Creative types of course – their clothes were weird and wonderful and whimsical.  They were adorned with feathers and lace and leather and crystals and tattoos and face paint and pierced body parts, yet they were mostly independent savvy young women who will probably evolve into women of substance.  I don’t go stateside very often and probably don’t hang out in the same world as these females, so I was pleasantly surprised to meet so many funny and hip young things, and am happy about their activism and commitment to global issues.  Me, I was just there to hear some music…..

Envision FestivalAnd there was some excellent music at the fest, much of it being performed by women.  I was thrilled and surprised and proud of how many of my sisters were involved.  A young woman who worked for the festival and I talked about this, and she said the fest purposely hired and presented a large number of female singers, DJs, performance artists and musicians.  It’s part of their manifesto.  We figured that somewhere around 30% of the musical artists were women – an unprecedented amount at any festival, except for maybe Lilith.   There were two sisters called Rising Appalachia who combine all kinds of influences from native Indian chants to techno to world beats and with a little Irish thrown in,  very interesting and creative.  They both played a variety of instruments and I have since watched their very cool videos and love how they bring social and eco commitment into the mix.  There were a bunch of women who gave excellent performances, from Funk to New Age to Indian to Folk.  Andrea Brook played her gigantic Earth Harp, which I am sorry to have missed.  I played there one night with Ben Orton and drummer Richard Abraham, and my teen-age violin and cello students from Ojochol were thrilled to play with some guys from Estonia at the Tea Lounge stage.  These girls were experiencing their first festival and got to be a small part of its music – no matter whether they have music careers or not they will always remember it.    My friend Jennifer Smith, founder of Community Carbon Trees in Costa Rica also found the women that attended the seminars and educational meetings to be interesting and knowledgeable, and said they were creating projects with positive environmental and social impact.   She was happy to meet Julia Hill Butterfly, the woman who lived in a tree for 728 days back in the early 90s to bring awareness about the irresponsible cutting of trees in the northwest U.S.    We both agreed that it was wonderful to see and be around women such as these.  

Envision FestivalIn the world of Rock and Roll, females make up a very small percentage, and female instrumentalists are an even smaller number.  Just the fact that there are hundreds of groups trying to help women get empowered and ahead in the music business is in itself kinda pathetic and depressing, and says a lot about the industry.  The gender issues in music have always been annoying, and I try not to get too pissed off or be too preachy about it.  I fought most of those battles decades ago – not so much as a feminist but as someone who just wanted to be a working musician in what is clearly a man’s world.  However, women are still expected to dress sexy for the guys, and women singers are regularly paid less than their male counter-parts, because they are considered ‘eye candy’.  Since I am an instrumentalist and I was lucky enough to work with good guys most of the time, I learned early on that playing music was one of the few places where I would be paid the same as the men.  But I always knew that I had to do more than my share of the work, be better prepared and look better than the guys just to get a little credibility.  Only 5 women were among the 25 highest paid musicians last year, and that includes 13 male solo acts and 7 bands, one of which has a female member.  In their 27 years of existence the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has inducted 296 people into their boys club – 40 of whom were women or bands with women in them.   Good grief – even the great Tina Turner was chosen along with her abusive husband Ike – not as an artist in her own right. 

Envision FestivalI remember going to a radio interview with a band I was playing in and it was obvious the DJ hadn’t done his homework about us.  After talking to the guys for a bit he turned to me and asked if I was just traveling around with the musicians.   What a jerk he was and oops, clumsy me, I accidentally knocked over a pitcher of water into his lap…..  Now, women can of course make the already uneasy relationship between male and female musicians worse, by pulling diva tricks, or sleeping around with the guys in the band or by thinking they only have to be cute and to heck with learning how to play well.  Chrissie Hynde – great rock player, singer and writer who refused to be stereotyped or used by the male music machine – has a list of rules for aspiring female musicians, and I totally agree with them.    “Don’t moan or whine about being a chick – no one wants to hear it.   Write a loosely disguised song about it instead and make a bunch of money.”   “Never pretend to know more than you do.”  “Make the other band members look and sound good – bring out the best in them – that’s your job.”  “Don’t compete with the guys – one reason they like you is because you don’t offer more competition to their already fragile male ego.”  “Shave your legs, for chrissakes.”     

Today as I am writing this it’s actually International Women’s Day, and there are speeches and rallies and hoopla all over the planet in our honor.  There is probably more gender equality in music than in lots of other professions, but we’ve still got a ways to go and apparently plenty more to prove.  Since this is especially true in the rock world, it’s another reason to notice any promoter or music producer who goes out of their way to support female artists.  There are so many capable, talented, creative and spiritual women in this business, but too often they get discouraged by the statistics and lack of welcome into the club.  So encourage those girls who want to play the drums instead of the flute.  Applaud the aspiring singer who doesn’t feel the need to show off her cleavage.  Hire a female sound technician.  Donate to Bonnie Raitte’s foundation that gives young girls electric guitars.   Go listen to live music whenever possible and cheer the loudest for that young woman who simply plays or sings from the heart – because that’s what music is really about.  The Heart.

“As a singer I tried on all these hats, these voices, these clothes, and eventually out came me!”                Carly Simon

“Always be smarter than the people who hire you.”                                                  Lena Horne

“Cherish forever what makes you unique, ‘cause you’re really a yawn if it goes.”                                       Bette Midler


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