Edinburgh Ladyfest 2009

Ladyfest Edinburgh 2009, the second to be held in Edinburgh and hopefully not the last, took place over four days and evenings from 24 to 27 September. It was organised by a group of local women, many of whom belong to the Edinburgh Feminist Network, apparently over many sessions of tea and cakes at the Forest Café.

After attending Edinburgh’s Reclaim the Night in March, the ladies were struck by feminist fever and decided that they should very much like to make sure that last year’s Ladyfest wouldn’t be the one and only one to happen in Edinburgh, and so took it into their hands and set to work organising this year’s series of events. Considering they had only six months to find performers and venues, with various mishaps from cancellations of venue without their knowledge to venues losing their drinks licenses and performers cancelling at the last minute after not booking their travel to Edinburgh in advance and then not being able to afford the fares, I think the organisers – Alyson MacDonald, Marylou Anderson, Hilary Cornish and Fiona Watt – did an absolutely brilliant job.

It was fantastic to see a roomful of women, and a few men, cracking up at a bunch of, wait for it, women comedians, each with their own distinctive style

To kick start the weekend’s line-up was Thursday’s evening of comedy, fully sold out, and hosted at the Edinburgh Football Club tucked discreetly between a kebab shop and a nightclub in Edinburgh’s centre. The comedians, from the dynamic Siân Bevan – our compère for the evening – to the sullen, deadpan-faced Elaine M, performed in what was essentially a living room, albeit a rather large one, decorated with sheets of floral patterns sellotaped or blue-tacked to whatever surface would hold them up and strings of floral bunting strung across the ceiling, complete with Mr Kipling’s French Fancies beautifully laid out on each table by our hosts.

Bevan, who made it to the semi-finals at the BBC Talent Competition after having done just a couple of gigs, opened the floor with her energetic and engaging personality, captivating her audience as she introduced each of the comedians, her preambles themselves making us all double-up in laughter. First up was Elaine M from Banbridge, delivering her piece in an unsmiling, almost sulky manner, she had us all nodding and laughing in agreement at the evils of Tesco and loyalty points. Next up was veterinary student Lucy Oldham, who mused about growing up in the Midlands and wittily likened Scotland’s desire for independence to her quest for independence from her mum.

Sparkling socialist feminist Liz Ely, also formerly the bearded lady, strode enthusiastically up to the mic to deliver the pitch for her campaign to stop the murdering of sperm through masturbation, then took us through her ingenious commercial break, advertising her inspired invention: the sporty Washing ManChine, and finished off with a hilarious song about her longing to be in a band.

Finally, Jojo Sutherland, Edinburgh’s own Wife Swap participant (I kid you not!), bulldozed her audience with unapologetic tales of waving her kids off to school in the morning with a pint of lager in one hand and fag in the other. Her tantalisingly cruel humour sent the audience roaring with laughter in a kind of mortified pleasure.

It was fantastic to see a roomful of women, and a few men, cracking up at a bunch of, wait for it, women comedians, each with their own distinctive style.

Friday evening saw the grand, albeit rather rushed, finale of Sister Spit: The Next Generation’s European tour. Held at The Big Red Door which, according to Ladyfest organiser Alyson MacDonald, “was like walking into a scene from Alice in Wonderland”. After entering through a gigantic red door from the outside, real world, there is a smaller blue door at the end of the corridor to take you into the land beyond. Perhaps there should have been a little bottle with a “Drink Me” label placed on a table next to the blue door, although in this case the bottle (if it were to contain any alcohol) would have had to have been purchased from the off-license around the corner, as the venue was not licensed. However, there was tea available, and let’s not forget the delightful cookies and cupcakes baked by the Ladyfest organisers.

SisterSpit.jpgOpening the floor to Sister Spit’s line-up (see right) of spoken word readings was original member and founder Michelle Tea, who recounted tales of their adventure through Europe, from their wacky van driver to confessing that they had never been outside the US before and completely misjudging the size and expanse of the European continent, not to mention the variety of languages and cultures. As well as her own narrative, she was also our compère for the evening and introduced us to the other Sister Spit performers.

First up was Cristy Road, who described her experiences as a Cuban American growing up in Miami, complemented by a slide-show of her illustrations, which lent a powerful depiction of her life. Her artwork has a very distinct style, reminiscent of a punk-rock graphic novel, and it is her art that is shown on Sister Spit’s tour poster. Michelle Tea enchanted us with tales of her punk-or-goth (wanna-be-punk-but-probably-goth) dramas as a teenager, reading to us from her laptop, which gave a whole new techy meaning to spoken word! Rhiannon Argo’s sad story of eviction really gave you that feeling of trying to clutch on to something that is being wickedly snatched away from you.

The climax of the show, though, was Kat Marie Yoas’s side-splittingly funny anecdote about when she was skint and decided to earn some hard cash by training to become a priestess – that’s dominatrix to you and me. She had everyone clutching their sides as well as cringing in her shared embarrassment, hanging on to her every word. And just as everyone was all silent, eagerly anticipating what would come next, she lets rip with a superb rendition of the opening verse of Led Zeppelin’s Black Dog.

The workshops included a comedy workshop, male-model life drawing, knitting, Gude Cause banner making, poetry writing and DIY herbal potions

Amos Mac gave us an insight into his magazine about and for trans men, Original Plumbing, through a slideshow which depicted images taken from the first issue of the magazine. Although Original Plumbing is mostly aimed at trans men and it is about trans men’s lives and experiences, it is most certainly not exclusive to trans men, and it is definitely very positive to see it being promoted at Ladyfest.

To conclude Sister Spit’s Eurotrash tour, the UK’s very own Sheffield-based zinester Em Ledger of Lola and the Cartwheels, and manager of Sister Spit’s UK leg, shared with us a piece from a zine which relayed the importance and significance of feminism and riot grrrl to the author. And while it was certainly a pleasure to have Sister Spit perform for us, it was so refreshing to hear an account of other UK feminists. The UK scene is certainly picking up momentum and hopefully there will be a lot more budding artists and performers breaking through.

All of Sister Spit’s performers were resplendent in their own way but, sadly, because they had to get back down to London to catch a plane out of Heathrow in the ungodly hours of the morning, their show was cut a good few hours short, with no breaks in between speakers to allow their stories to sink in and for you to relish their tales. And, as a result of their time shortage, their delivery seemed somewhat rushed, leaving the audience feeling swept along rather quickly rather than allowing them to fully enjoy their words. It seems their month-long Eurotrash tour was certainly an eye-opener for them but they seemed keen to be back, so here’s hoping we’ll see them on this side of the Atlantic again in the future, perhaps with some more European additions to their line-up and perhaps with more time to spare.

Despite the early departure of Sister Spit, Ladyfest revelers’ spirits were not dampened, and folk stayed on to party, drinking and talking amongst themselves and meeting new people. One of the audience even boldly took to the stage to continue in the spirit of the evening’s spoken word performances, reading poetry from Word Warriors: 25 Women Leaders in the Spoken Word Revolution. I had the pleasure of speaking to Catherine Redfern, founder of The F-Word, who came up to Edinburgh to take part in some of the Ladyfest events, and has also written a mini write-up.

During the day on Saturday, numerous workshops took place at The Bowery, located at the heart of the old Roxy Art House and set in the basement of an old church previously used as an exam venue for Edinburgh University, but which has recently been transformed into a chic arts and performance venue. The workshops included a comedy lesson and workshop with Siân Bevan, male-model life drawing, knitting, Gude Cause banner making, poetry writing and DIY herbal potions. Unfortunately, I was unable to make it to Saturday day-time events as I was especially looking forward to my few minutes in comedy, but those who went all said that they thoroughly enjoyed them all.

Saturday evening was Ladyfest’s Big Gig, which included local folk artists Hailey Beavis and Jo Foster, as well as poetry-music fusion-duo Zorras and rock band Sellotape.

The overly keen banner-makers of the afternoon’s workshops mistook their projector ‘screen’ for Gude Cause material and cut it up for banners

The evening began with the gentle melodies and folk guitar of Hailey Beavis, whose ethereal voice could have you whisked away on a white horse to Faerie and then back again. The tenderness continued with Jo Foster’s spell on the keyboard, followed by her harmonious singing and guitar pieces that sent you adrift on a faraway sea. She finished one of her songs with sounds of trumpets skilfully played, not on any trumpet, but using her very own mouth!

Next up were Zorras, Canadian-Scottish-Venezuelan bilingual duo made up of Sandra Alland and Y. Josephine. Inspired by the likes of Yoko Ono, Miranda July, Camille and Tanya Tagaq, Zorras’ unique and unusual mix of poetry, music and bizarre sound effects, sometimes delivered through a megaphone, took you on a journey of emotions, from laughter through embarrassment, pain and anger.

Alland’s cadenced recital combined with Josephine’s amazing and powerful vocal range and rapturous guitar and rhythms made their performance utterly mind-blowing. Their show was accompanied by a slide-show, compiled and presented by Ariadna Battich, which was meant to be projected onto a white sheet hung on one wall of the hall.

Unfortunately, the overly keen banner-makers of the afternoon’s workshops mistook their projector ‘screen’ for Gude Cause material and cut it up for banners. Unable to find a new screen in such short notice, they had to improvise and made do with one of the venue’s disjointed walls, which to me actually worked rather well. It gave the often surreal display an even more distorted and twisted aspect, which brought out a sense of a warped world. For me, Zorras were the highlight of the evening and I would thoroughly recommend them to anyone, as you would have to see them to really appreciate what I’m talking about.

I also had the privilege of meeting Alland and Josephine in person for an interview before the start of the evening’s events (see below and also for YouTube video of Zorras in full-swing).

sellotape.jpgThe evening was capped off by Sellotape (right), their raw and uncompromising discordant, punky sounds with grungy and ’80s influences interspersed with eerie melodies coming off of a baby electronic keyboard, piercing through the clamour of drums and guitars, and echoing around the room, making you feel like you’re being chased by an evil clown on an abandoned merry-go-round.

Their original use of the double bass seemed somehow subdued, however, and I felt that it could’ve been given more limelight. It was barely audible over the noise of the other instruments, but this could well have been due to an unbalanced volume-level allocated for each instrument. It was most certainly a novel idea but should’ve been emphasized more. On the whole, Sellotape were thoroughly enjoyable and are definitely a band to keep an eye on.

Ladyfest weekend rolled to a close on Sunday, with an informative tour of the galleries around the centre of Edinburgh, highlighting women in the visual arts, and concluding with an evening of film at the Brass Monkey, airing the exhilarating Frida, directed by Julie Taymor and starring Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo.

All in all, the Ladyfest organisers have done a fantastic job, with the support of the Women’s Fund for Scotland and their own tireless fundraising, despite some minor setbacks, which is expected in all such projects, they have certainly been extremely successful. I do hope they managed to make some profits from the events as any proceeds were to be donated to local women’s charities. Hopefully Ladyfest will have gained enough publicity to draw in an even bigger crowd next year, and more and more people will become aware of all the extremely talented women who are comedians, singers, song-writers, artists and performers.

Exclusive interview with Zorras at The Bowery, Edinburgh

S = Sandra Alland

Y = Y. Josephine

zorras.jpgHow did you come up with the idea for Zorras? When did it all start?

S: It all started in November ’07 when I was doing an event here in Edinburgh called Who’s Your Dandy and I was new to town. I’d only been here a few months and I was looking for a band. I used to go to a place where [Y] worked and I knew she had a band, and I heard they were quite good. And so I texted her and invited her to play.

Basically I saw her perform that night, and I did a reading that night as well, and I was totally wowed by her. She plays cajon and guitar and sings, and I was like: amazing! And then I read my poetry and was thinking, oh I would so love to work with a musician again because I worked with one a long time ago. And I ended up talking to her…

Y: Well, I went to that reading and I didn’t know that she was a poet and was gonna read and stuff. I thought she was just organising the event …

S: She doesn’t pay a lot of attention to details.

(Both laugh)

Y: So, when I saw her, my god! She was so good! She was really good, it blew my mind completely.

Is that when you decided to fuse your poetry and music together?

Y: I thought her poetry was very rhythmic and her performance was so good and so precise that you could put some music on and put it together. But then, after the gig, she was talking with all the poets, saying “Yeah, remember when we had this band?” and I was thinking, ah, she already had a band. You know, she’s not gonna want to do it [again]. Because I thought it would be a great idea, maybe she will let me do some music to her poetry, I was thinking, you know. And then we meet like a week later and I was really nervous to ask her. Because I was so sure she would say no. But I didn’t know that she wanted to ask me as well!

(Both laugh)

So how did you come up with the name? Where did the name Zorras come from?

S: Well, once, I think it was after a rehearsal, we saw a fox.

Y: yeah

S: And I found out from her … I’m fairly fluent in Spanish but I didn’t know what foxes were called and I found out that they were called zorros. Well, you can say it better than me.

Y: Zorro … yeah, we were actually walking here, very close to here. Like, in the middle of the street, she stopped right in front of us. … and was looking at us, and we were like …

S: Seems very prophetic, or something … And we were like, cool, fox! And then, finding out the word for it … and the whole mythology behind the hero of Zorro, and then, what I found out, that I didn’t know, was that the female version of zorras means slut. So, it’s like, the male gets to be the superhero, but the female is a really bad word.

Y: the female is a slut!

S: So we kinda thought of reclaiming that word. And also… having all of those meanings of female superheroes and all these other things amongst it. But we thought the fox was sort of a turning point when we were working together and we thought, ok, there’s a name.

Y: Yeah.

Where do you get ideas for your material? Where do they come from?

S: When we first started, we used stuff… a little bit that we’d already done, some of my older poetry. But almost straight away we started making new things. And it’s really hard to say… a lot of the things are observations of everyday life, we do wacky writing exercises together where we’ll take a line from the television, a line from a book lying around and throw it all together … one of our songs came out of that, it’s really surreal and bizarre.

Y: We started together with a line saying “She was the sob of the train” … it’s just our fun night, we write poetry

S: We’re such nerds! We play boggle and write poetry.

Me: I don’t think that’s nerdy!

(Everyone laughs)

zorras2-1.jpgY: And then we’re like, “Let’s play a game! Let’s write a poem out of one line … in common.” It happens that now we’re using it. We have our chapbook, it’s hand-made, like a zine. And in one edition it’s one poem of mine: She was the sob of the train. But in the last one, in the new one, it’s her poem: She was the sob of the train. (laughs)

S: And we’ve been performing that one. And sometimes she’ll just pick up the guitar and start playing along to something I’m doing. Other times she’ll say, “I have this song!” And I’ll listen to that and try to come up [with the words]…

Y: Some other times, I’ll just make jokes. And then she’s like, “That’s great!” And I’m like “Oh really? OK.” I was just joking … but if you want … (laughs)

S: She’s pretty funny, yeah.

So is your stuff political as well?

S: Yeah, it is definitely political. A lot of stuff about gender, race, class, sexuality. We try to do it with a little bit of a funny edge a lot of the time because I find one thing that can happen especially with performance poetry: it can get very preachy. And often your crowd are people that already agree with you, and so if you’re yelling at them something … I mean, sometimes that kind of poetry is great, it depends on the situation, but I like to have a little bit of comedy to sort of get people more relaxed and think about things in a different way …

Y: And still give the message.

S: Even though I have very clear ideas of what I believe, I also like to leave some things open for interpretation because I’m pretty sure that my way is not the only way. So it’s nice to have that flexibility, you know?

It might come as a bit of an obvious question, but would you call yourselves feminists?

S: Ah … the age-old question. I was actually just in this anthology of feminist writing in Canada and they asked me that question, which I don’t think is ever an obvious question, actually, but … I mean … yes? Yes. It’s a very complex question in some ways. In the very basic sense of it, yes I’m a feminist. And I agree … I mean, I think that the basis of feminism is the belief in equal rights for everybody …

Yes, what I was gonna say was what, to you, is feminism? What does it mean for you?

S: For me, the very basic idea around it is that it’s equality for women, and women being human beings and having rights. But it does become complex around the different kinds of feminism that exist and which ones are most promoted or most popular, and therefore what people think of when they hear the word ‘feminist’ (Y: yeah) and I think that’s where things can become problematic. For example, there are quite a lot of feminists right now who are not very positive towards transsexuals, for example, and I don’t really wanna be associated with that kind of feminism and so it becomes sticky. But the basic, simple answer to the question is yes. For me.

Y: Well, I think I agree with you. The thing is, it’s like she was saying… there’s people who think that all feminists hate men … and gay men … and I have known men being feminists (S: yeah) … and I don’t like the feminists that reject the transsexual people either, so I’m not that kind of feminist either, and I don’t really know if to call myself a feminist if that includes those groups, you know. I don’t hate men or transsexuals, I love them.

I suppose it’s what it means to you.

S: Yeah, exactly. And I suppose by calling ourselves feminists, we make a clear definition of what that is for us by what we represent. And so, it’s clear that we’re not this other kind of, you know … but yeah, those are the sticky issues of feminism. Simple answer! (laughs)

Who inspires you as artists?

S: So many people …

Y: She does (points at S)!

S: Aw, what a sweetie! Oh my gosh, so many people … right now, some of my favourite people are Miranda July, Yoko Ono, Andra Simons, who’s a poet in London … he’s amazing. I’m trying to think of people from over here more, ‘cos I have so many Canadian and North American references but people don’t always know what I’m talking about.

I really love funk music … we both love funk music. Camille … do you know Camille? She made an album called Le Fil It’s all in French, so it doesn’t always translate, but she does all her music with just sounds of her mouth, all of the percussion … and so we’re really inspired by that sort of thing. Likewise, there’s Tanya Tagaq, who does Inuit throat singing. She’s from Canada and does all these crazy sounds, and so we like to play around with sounds in our poetry, and so those things are what we’ve been listening to a lot.

But yeah, in terms of their politics and things and the art they make, Yoko Ono’s always been a big inspiration for me. But she can get a bit sappy and she can get a bit cheesy, but because she’s Yoko Ono, it’s OK … like, if somebody else did it, I don’t know if it’d be OK. Like her whole, I don’t you if you’ve seen her latest thing, her “I love you” … it’s a little like “that’s cheesy” but I still think it’s really powerful.

Y: I love it! (makes a soppy face … and then laughs)

S: It’s really bizarre, because I think if almost anyone else did that I would just be like “Pfft … Whatever!” But because it’s her (Y: yeah) … I really like her.

How did you get involved with Ladyfest?

S: I believe that Ladyfest sent us a Myspace “hello” … yeah, that was from Marylou … I believe she’d seen us perform before in town. It seems Ladyfest is a lot more visible and bigger this year, which is really great because …

Y: We didn’t play last year?

S: No, I don’t think we did. But there was a lot of stuff going on. But I feel like this year, it just feels a little more visible, like it’s getting more press attention and stuff. Well, we do a lot of feminist events. We just did one at the Edinburgh University Feminists a little bit ago, and we’re just gonna get around.

Having written her first ever review, Wisrutta seems to have caught journalism fever and imagines herself interviewing all sorts of people and writing all kinds of articles. But perhaps she should just try and finish her PhD first…