Never mind the b*ll*cks
Ladyfest, the international music and culture festival for women, comes to Cork this weekend. Yes it’s a feminist event, and it’s also a showcase for some happening female musicians, writes Sinead Gleeson
ARLIER THIS year, after the Brit and NME awards, there was some debate about the lack of female winners. Looking at the gong tally for boys, you’d think that a) there were no women making music, and b) the ones that are, aren’t very good. Nonsense, of course, but in reality there isn’t much room on these testosterone-soaked music stages for a decent complement of women.
One female-friendly platform that has seeped into worldwide public consciousness is Ladyfest. Billed as a non-profit, community-based music and culture festival promoting women, it’s hard to believe that the concept is not yet a decade old. The first festival took place in 2000 and has been run in such places as Amsterdam, South Africa, Hawaii and even Dublin in 2004. It continues to thrive as more women embrace its ethos of empowerment through art, feminism through music. The latest instalment kicks off this weekend in Cork and it’s 100 per cent independent, organised by women and aimed at every man, woman and child who wants to participate.
“Ladyfest Cork was conceived by a group of women interested in doing something positive, alternative and kind of feministy in Cork,” says Shelley Marsden, one of the organisers. “What started as a pub conversation has become a weekend-long festival showcasing female talent. It’s a testament to the DIY ethic, and shows what we’re all capable of.”
Marsden and a group of 12 other women rolled up their sleeves to get the festival beyond the idea stage stage. Everyone on the committee has an equal say, and all decisions are made by consensus, but one of the festival’s missions is to get others to participate.
“With the visual arts aspect, a huge emphasis is on collaborative art, where festivalgoers will be able to help create sculptures and art work.”
The DIY element of the festival can’t be stressed enough. The Ladyfest anti-brand is a template to be tweaked and stamped with the identity of the city and the people hosting. At the 2004 Dublin Ladyfest (which I had involvement in), everyone brought a skill to the table and contributed in whatever way they could. Unlike a franchise, Ladyfest is open-ended and malleable, as long as it promotes feminist ideals through art and music. With no drinks-company branding or PR spinners, the festival relies heavily on altruism and word of mouth.
“We received no funding or grants so all costs for the festival have been covered by fundraising, ” says Marsden. “Local musicians, promoters and businesses have helped out through lending gear, donating raffle prizes and offering their venues free of charge.”
Another hallmark of Ladyfest is that any profit made goes to charity – Ladyfest Cork has chosen the Cork Sexual Violence Centre.
Although the festival programme contains everything from film screenings, clothes swaps and craft stalls to workshops on DJing and yoga, music has always been the central cog in Ladyfest’s wheel. The focus isn’t on local acts or even feminist bands, but participating bands are always aware of the ethos behind the festival.
“Ladyfests are not only about promoting feminism, but all forms of equality. It’s about creating an inclusive, positive space for everyone. We want people to be able to look beyond the labels like male, female, straight, queer, etc and see the talent that’s there.”
Showcasing Irish talent is important but allgirl bands are not a prerequisite. Many of the acts, including Janey Mac, Estel and Queen Kong, have male/female line-ups. Internationally, Ladyfest has attracted high-profile performers such as Sleater-Kinney, Cat Power and The Gossip, while Kimya Dawson and New Bloods play Ladyfest London next month.
One of the acts on the Cork bill, Bela Emerson, has participated in five other Ladyfests and loves the ideals behind it. “Every one I’ve attended has been so much friendlier than performing at a large festival like Glastonbury. It’s such an amazing celebration of women being creative. At each Ladyfest, the atmosphere and energy are wild. It’s so focused and so celebratory . . . just what a festival should be.”
American novelist Erica Jong recently urged us not to forget about feminism and the ideals of 1968. So is Ladyfest the natural evolution of group feminism and sisterly cooperatives, or could it be viewed – as some view the Orange Prize for Fiction – as a tokenistic event for women that creates separateness, not unity?
Marsden doesn’t believe so. “It could be, if there weren’t already a lot of women out there making music and art, but without a platform. Ladyfests are more about redressing the balance. Hopefully, it will encourage more women to pick up an instrument and start making their own music.”
Emily Aoibheann of Party Weirdo and Janey Mac agrees. “As it stands, women are often excluded from the mainstream musical sphere, where most of the women are tokenistic. Events like Ladyfest open up a space for a more radical exploration of what it is to be a woman and, more recently, what it means to be a man.”
As progressive as new men may be, a lot find the F-word very off-putting. Medbh Cheasty of You’re Only Massive believes that, as long as female artists are marginalised, “we may as well claim the margins as a space, but men and women are not that different ultimately and I don’t think there is a need to separate them, just to level out the playing field.”
Men attended the Dublin Ladyfest in sizeable numbers, and Cork can expect the same support. Diversity, co-operation and inclusion are what Ladyfest aims for. Whether you sign up for belly-dancing, comedy improv classes or a talk by Muslim women in Cork, it’s all about celebrating women.
Ladyfest veteran Bela Emerson