A Woman’s Place Is on the Stage

The tight-knit crew of women who in 2001 put together Ladyfest Midwest Chicago made it clear from the outset that the event was a one-shot deal. Like the organizers of the original Ladyfest, which took place the year before in Olympia, Washington, their intent was to inspire other women; they saw the project as an idea to be passed on, not an institution in the making. Since then the idea has spread around the globe: by the end of this summer there will have been about 40 Ladyfests in North America, Europe, and Australia.

Tammy Cresswell was part of the Chicago crew, but after the festival ended she felt there was more to be done. “Ladyfest made such a positive impact in Chicago that it seemed like it needed to happen again,” she says. “It needs to be nurtured on a continual basis.” In February she began to think about putting together a new festival to continue what she saw as the work of Ladyfest–educating women about creative and professional possibilities open to them.

This weekend the results are on display: Estrojam is a four-day nonprofit event combining performances by female or female-fronted acts with female-focused film and video screenings and workshops. If it sounds similar to Ladyfest, Cresswell was hoping you’d notice: “Ladyfest resurrected,” proclaims a flyer for the event, and a page on its Web site calls Estrojam a “sequel” to Ladyfest. “What we’re trying to say is that this is going to be like Ladyfest,” Cresswell explains. “Of course, when you say you’re like something, there are going to be some people that feel a little offended or not as supportive because they put a lot of work into the original thing, but I think everyone realizes that no matter what happens this is a positive thing.”

Other than Cresswell, not a single volunteer from Ladyfest Midwest Chicago is involved in the new event. She says she approached some Ladyfest veterans, including all of the core organizers, but no one was interested in dedicating the time to another exhausting festival. “They got out of it what they wanted to, and now they seemed burned out,” says Cresswell. She notes that some had risked their jobs by putting so much of their resources and time into Ladyfest.

“I congratulate her efforts on organizing a festival of that size,” says Lauren Cumbia, a member of the feminist activist group Pink Bloque and part of the original Chicago Ladyfest core. She says that Cresswell never approached her about participating in Estrojam. “I think it stands alone as Estrojam and it doesn’t need Ladyfest attached to it.”

Asked what makes Estrojam different from Ladyfest, one thing Cresswell came up with was that she and her partners have tried to make the programming more diverse. But where Ladyfest featured jazz and blues artists, those genres go unrepresented in this weekend’s lineup, which is heavy on indie rock (Cat Power, Via Tania, Bitch & Animal), hip-hop (Bahamadia, Princess Superstar), folk rock (Anne Harris, Ember Swift), and dance (Analog Tara).

Cresswell’s also departed somewhat from the philosophy behind Ladyfest. For one, she’s determined to make Estrojam an annual event. “I know I’m going to do it every year for as long as I can,” she says. “I can’t put a number on it, but hopefully long enough to pass the torch to others who’ll keep it going.” And the “special thanks” page at the Estrojam Web site contains links for British Airways, Frontier Airlines, and Enterprise Rent-a-Car. Cresswell explains that these corporations made only in-kind donations–plane tickets to raffle and the free use of a rental car–but even that wouldn’t have passed muster with the vehemently DIY Ladyfest group: “We had hours of debate about a Shure microphone sponsorship, which we decided not to do,” recalls Cumbia.

Estrojam feels like Cresswell’s show, though she’s quick to give credit to the other people working to make it happen. She says that all of the programming was done by committee, the Ladyfest way, but the premiere of Coup d’Etat, a documentary she directed and produced about women musicians, is announced prominently in all Estrojam publicity. “Miniskirts,” a daylong program of female-directed short films and videos (no information about the works to be screened was available at press time), happens Sunday, while Cresswell’s movie is showing on the high-profile bill Cat Power headlines Friday night at Park West. “I think it’s really important for people to see the film,” she says.

All that said, Cresswell’s brought some terrific performers to town: Bahamadia (on the late bill at the Vic on Thursday, August 7) is one of the smartest, most distinctive MCs in hip-hop; Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings (who play the early show at Park West on Friday) serve up raucous, James Brown-inspired funk and soul; and when Chan Marshall can actually make it all the way through one of her songs her music is rapturous. All proceeds will benefit two worthy organizations–the Lesbian Community Cancer Project and Women in the Director’s Chair. Tickets for the concerts range from $7 to $20 in advance; the suggested donation for the workshops is $5. A complete music schedule appears under Fairs & Festivals, and a listing of workshops is in Readings & Lectures in Section Two. For more info visit www.estrojam.com.


Contemporary African music has absorbed a lot of Western pop over the last few decades, but acoustic-guitar folk isn’t something one normally expects to hear coming out of Senegal. Yet on Mariama (Real World), the American debut from Pape & Cheikh, the sounds of the American protest music of the 60s are as prominent as the traditional Mande elements in songs that address the political strife and fraying social fabric of Africa today, as well as the good old healing power of love. If the album lacks the hypnotic power of the best Senegalese music, it’s still undeniably pretty, and the gorgeously creamy vocal harmonies of Pape Amadou Fall and Cheikhou Coulibaly transcend the occasionally pedestrian material. The group makes its Chicago debut at HotHouse on Friday night.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.