We’re Not in Olympia Anymore

Ladyfest Midwest Chicago, which began on Thursday, August 16, and runs through Sunday, August 19, is one of several Ladyfests this year inspired by the original, a six-day women’s arts ‘n’ activism bash held last August in Olympia, Washington. A small progressive college town, Olympia was ground zero for the riot-grrl explosion of the early 90s, and not surprisingly a good many musical performers at Ladyfest number one had some connection to that movement. But the Chicago version, appropriately, is both bigger and more diverse.

“We came into this knowing that Chicago is more than just a white girl punk city,” says Lauren Cumbia, one of the key organizers of Ladyfest’s musical component, which includes approximately 100 acts at ten venues. “I think it’s really obvious that there isn’t just one type of women’s music. We wanted to represent that as much as we could.” Though riot grrls will make a strong showing–Bratmobile and Kathleen Hanna’s post-Bikini Kill band Le Tigre were among the earliest bookings–the schedule includes artists from the realms of jazz (Nicole Mitchell), blues (Ruby Andrews), house (DJ Minx), funk (ESG), and hip-hop (Mystic), as well as a raft of rockers and singer-songwriter types.

Punk and folk, both of which gave inspiration to the original riot grrls, are historically the easiest genres for women to break into–though both have certainly gone through some macho phases, they generally embrace underdogs and require little experience or training for participants of any gender. In some parts of the popular music industry, though, chicks are still as rare as hen’s teeth. Interestingly, the ones who’ve made it in those sectors can be more reluctant to make a big deal of gender than their guitar-bearing sisters.

Hip-hop has actually had its share of take-no-shit heroines, from Roxanne Shante to Queen Latifah to Bahamadia, but as smooth Oakland rapper Mystic, who headlines Saturday night’s bill at the Congress Theater, notes, “most females are still presented as part of a male crew, almost as if a male crew validates their existence.” Nonetheless, she insists that hip-hop’s vaunted misogyny doesn’t daunt her. “I’m a huge fan of Too $hort,” she says, referring to the early west-coast rap star who gave us “The Bitch Sucks Dick” and “Invasion of the Flat Booty Bitches.” “Growing up listening to hip-hop I knew I was never one of those women, so it’s never really bothered me.” She also says gender hasn’t hampered her: “The whole thing was that if you could rock a microphone and if you were dedicated to hip-hop, then people would support you.”

On her brand-new debut album, Cuts for Luck and Scars for Freedom (Goodvibe), Mystic works with a wide array of male producers, including Shock-G of Digital Underground, the male crew she first worked with back in 1996. But several tracks are collaborations with the Angel, who’s an even rarer species in hip-hop than the female MC: the female producer.

Sexism is more subtle within the electronica scene, since most of the music is instrumental, with no message at all to speak of. Still, Blectum From Blechdom, two women who met while attending grad school at Mills College, were so keenly aware of how gender might affect the perception of their music that they started out by adopting the genderfucking pseudonyms Kevin Blechdom and Blevin Blectum. “We were trying to prevent it from being an issue,” says Blevin. “You read so many articles about a female musician and in the first couple of sentences they always mention their gender, but that doesn’t seem to happen with male musicians. So we tried not to let it out that we were female. There were a couple of reviews where people really didn’t know.”

The duo fits well into the Bay Area experimental techno community, which also includes oddballs like Lesser and Matmos. It was harder to make an initial splash as women, says Kevin, but “then we crossed a threshold and it became a lot easier, almost as if it was a selling point.” Now their first full-length album, The Messy Jesse Fiesta, has been chosen as a finalist in the digital music category of the prestigious European Prix Ars Electronica competition, along with Oval’s Ovalprocess and Ryoji Ikeda’s Matrix–and though they certainly deserve the honor, there will no doubt be some who question whether novelty had anything to do with it. They cap off Saturday’s Ladyfest bill at the Fireside.

Ladyfest walks some pretty fine lines. There’s an argument to be made that it only contributes to the ghettoization of women in music–and Jim DeRogatis took a stab at making it in last Friday’s Sun-Times. But when Blevin Blectum notes, “There’s a percentage of women who aren’t going to do [our kind of] music because of the technological aspect,” she doesn’t mean women are inherently incapable of the skills required to program electronic music. The fact is, society still subtly discourages them from learning those skills–in ways ranging from gender bias in the classroom to jokes about setting the VCR. One of the functions of special-interest gatherings like Ladyfest is to show women firsthand that they can do it: if women, and girls, see women making music, some of them will inevitably envision themselves doing the same. And no female-centric event yet has included so many role models for women who don’t just wanna rock.

Viva! Chicago Outclassed Again

The city’s free Viva! Chicago Latin Music Festival, August 25 and 26 in Grant Park, sports the weakest lineup in years–and that’s saying something. As usual, most of the acts come from Mexico and Puerto Rico instead of the wealth of Latin cultures promised, but this year the bill short shrifts even good old salsa in favor of treacly Mexican regional pop styles and shrill merengue. If the mayor’s office wants to throw a party for a particular consituency, it should at least change the name.

Fortunately, two Latin music events this weekend cover some of the territory Viva! Chicago doesn’t. The annual Pan-American Festival, a $7 ticket at Soldier Field, features several important Puerto Rican salseros, including Cheo Feliciano, Gilberto Santa Rosa, and former DLG front man Huey Dunbar. And on Friday the annual Watcha tour, a rock-en-espanol version of the Warped tour, pulls into the Aragon. The Chicago lineup features a few too many repeats from last year–Enanitos Verdes, Molotov, and Latin Froz–but it also showcases the English-language group from Spain called Dover, suave Argentinean pop singer Juanes, and veteran Argentinean alt-rock band El Otro Yo.

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