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A place where a woman can find her voice

For four days, artists, musicians and others gathered at Chicago's Estrojam to share the female experience.

August 11, 2003|Susan Carpenter | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — It's a familiar feminist battle cry: Women can do everything men can do, they just need to be given the chance. But if that chance doesn't come often enough, women will just create that opportunity for themselves.

Such was the case at Estrojam, a four-day festival last week that connected the dots of female experience through a wide-ranging lineup of music, art, film and workshops that ran the gamut from home recording and electrical wiring to body image and self breast exams.

If all that sounds a lot like Ladyfest, the pioneering feminist festival that began in Olympia, Wash., three years ago and has since been replicated in dozens of cities around the globe, it's no accident.

In 2001, Estrojam founder Tammy Cresswell helped coordinate Ladyfest Midwest in Chicago -- one of the fest's more successful offshoots, with Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, rapper Mystic and Kathleen Hanna's punk electronica act Le Tigre among the headliners.

"Ladyfest Midwest was a one-time thing. I felt the success it created needed to be sustained on an annual basis," said the 25-year-old Cresswell. "There are still so many areas where women are underrepresented. We wanted to create a space where we could nurture their talents and help boost their numbers."

It is a sad commentary on today's increasingly play-it-safe recording and radio industries that some of the most talented female artists remain so culturally marginalized that events like Estrojam are necessary.

There is, after all, no such thing as Man Fest or Testosterone Jam -- although the annual Warped Tour, starring any number of angry, bare-chested male bands, probably qualifies.

But where the agenda of the Warped Tour is simply to have fun, Estrojam adds another layer of imperatives: to be seen, heard and acknowledged.

"The reason why a lot of women create or become musicians is because they don't like what they have access to," said Cresswell, an independent filmmaker. "They have something to say, and they don't feel like they fit into the categories the mainstream offers. Those people need to have something to identify with too."

It's a concept that worked for the artists and their audience at Estrojam, which, more than anything, was a place for women to come together and discover a greater community -- a place for square pegs to find their circles and thus, inspiration.

A number of acts at the festival, which ended Sunday, spoke to a bisexual crowd, among them Bitch & Animal, a gender-bending multi-instrumental duo from New York. During a Thursday evening show that was as much comedy routine as musical performance, the two, who are lesbians, skewered sexual stereotypes as they yukked it up with each other and the crowd.

Other groups, such as the homegrown trio of girl emcees called Lyrisis, spoke to hip-hop fans. Trading turns at the mike, they rapped about their lives with a fast-and-furious wordplay that lacked the high-fashion, come-hither sexiness of their mainstream contemporaries.

"These women here, they're talking about where they come from, their stories. They're not just women who are there for a man. They have things to say to uplift themselves and their sisters," said Vivienne Tan, a 25-year-old college student who was at the Vic Theatre to see Lyrisis and one of hip-hop's underground female favorites, the Philadelphia-based rapper Bahamadia.

Tan is Asian, but her ethnicity, she said, is hip-hop. "It's a culture. It's how we live, it's how we talk, how we dress," she said. "There's a big community of women who love hip-hop, but it's hard to relate when there aren't any women in the mainstream. What you hear on the radio and see in videos is completely male-dominated."

Like many of the women attending Estrojam, Tan is tired of seeing artists who don't look or act like she does. She wants to see and hear artists who speak her truth and express the full range of human experience and emotion, not market-tested cookie-cutter musicians who place more emphasis on style than on substance.

There was little glitz or glamour to any of the weekend's performances, but there was a remarkable breadth, depth and diversity of talent, even among virtually unknown acts. Whether it was the No Depression country strumming of Edith Frost, the funkadelic soul stylings of Sharon Jones or the exceptional acoustic punk act Ember Swift, the lineup of nearly four dozen acts was refreshingly dynamic and individualistic.

Emotionally raw and gorgeously rendered, singer-songwriter Cat Power gave one of the event's best performances Friday at the Park West theater. Barefoot and sitting out of the spotlight, stage left, she was far more assured and accomplished at Estrojam than she had been when she played solo at the original Ladyfest.

In Olympia, she meandered through her set, not really finishing her songs so much as letting them trail off. But on this night, a full backup band added just the right amount of texture to her otherwise simple, spartan songs.

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