Sutu’s Sirens’ first practice was held in Sutu Forté’s living room, where a drum set, a stand-up bass and a couple of guitars were crammed among the furniture.
On this recent Wednesday evening, the Sirens were still unsure of how their collaboration will sound. The band — pianist Forté, bassist Linda Bott, saxophonist Nancy Dietz and drummer Aubrey Van Hoose — had never performed together.
For Bott, the collaboration represented another first.
“I’ve always wanted to play with an all-girl band,” she said, “but I’ve never been able to get a group together.”
Forté took care of that, bringing together some of Columbia’s best female musicians for the Women in Tune Festival, which begins October 7.
Forté’s choice of musicians reflects the band’s diverse musical influences, from classical and jazz to funk and rock.
“They said I could find some male musicians if I had to,” Forté said. “No thanks. One of my primary reasons for calling them was that they are my sisters.”
More than two-dozen national artists and performers are part of the four-day festival, which will take place at four downtown venues. But, with more than 70 Columbia artists participating, festival-goers will be exposed to a wide range of local talent, some of it for the first time.
For Halcyone Ewalt Perlman, director of the Mid-Missouri Dance Theatre, the festival represents a unique opportunity for local women. Perlman, a former professional dancer who has directed the troupe since 1967, said that while dance in Columbia has become more popular over the years, it has a limited reach.
“There’s not the audience here that there would be in a large city,” said Pearlman, 69.
For that reason alone, the WiT Festival, as it is referred to, is an important event for Columbia’s female musicians, painters, writers, dancers, actors and storytellers, many of whom have become accustomed to an every-woman-for-herself artistic environment.
“Men don’t like to share a stage with a woman,” said Van Hoose, 19, who has been playing drums in The Van Hoose Family Band for five years. “There’s this idea that a woman can’t play as good as a man, so don’t even try.”
Playing alongside men has been a more positive experience for Bott, whose strategy is to appear nonthreatening. However, audiences haven’t always responded positively.
“They’ll tell me, ‘You play all right for a girl,’ ” she says. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“If you’re told you play like a woman,” Forté replied, “that means you suck.”
Forté, 52, studied music at Juilliard, where she discovered that sexism also existed in classical music. Instructors and other musicians expected a certain repertoire from a woman — “pretty little music,” she called it.
“I tried to play big anyway,” she said, “but no one took me seriously.”
A piano teacher, Forté has noticed that girls are often intimidated from performing when boys are present. The experience has reaffirmed an important lesson while attending Stephens College: Sometimes, exclusivity is necessary to foster independence.
Her current source of inspiration is the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, where women do everything from booking the performers to building the stage.
For Forté, it’s a sharp contrast to Columbia’s recent Celebration of Women in Song festival, which recruited men to play bass and drums. Forté deduced that women in Columbia had become musically dependent on men.
“It may take a few years of excluding guys to get female drummers and bass players.” Forté says. “We have to be together and support each other.”
Forté is not the only musician looking for solidarity. Natalie Voight, 24, has lived in Columbia for three years, yet still
doesn’t know many women musicians.
“I don’t know how big the scene is here,” said Voight, a singer/songwriter and guitarist. “This will be my first opportunity to meet other women, so I’m excited.”
Voight will be performing twice at the festival; first with her band, Nova Lunacy, which features several men, and later, by herself.
For Voight, who considers Pearl Jam and Pink Floyd her primary musical influences, there’s no such thing as “women’s music.”
“It’s the same thing,” she says. “I like Sarah McLachlan as much as Pantera. Either way, it’s an individual expression.”
Like Voight, Perlman, never thinks about the role womanhood plays in artistic expression.
“I don’t even think about that. I just do my work,” Perlman said.
On the other hand, many women think art created by women has distinct qualities. Femininity has influenced the graphic design of Kathleen Weinschenk, 61, who says that women’s art reflects values that are specific to women.
“We are the people that nurture,” Weinschenk said. “I hope that comes out in our artwork.”