Popular music for all its supposed irreverence and revolutionary attitudes can be surprisingly conservative. This is especially true when it comes to the role of women in bands or as performers. How many bands have had “the chick” on the keyboards singing backup vocals since the days of The Partridge Family
Even today were swamped with girl toys whose Barbie doll sexuality is their main selling point. Few and far between has been the woman fronting a band who is not there because of how good she looks in a short skirt and tight top. But what’s even more telling is the seeming refusal of any mainstream record label to recognize that a woman can pick up a guitar and play with or out play men.
In the past two weeks I have listened to two recordings that will hopefully go a long way to shaking up that old status quo. A short while ago I reviewed Blues Guitar Women a compilation put together by Sue Foley on Ruf Records featuring two discs of contemporary and traditional blues women. Now along comes La Guitara: Gender Bending Strings, a collection of pickers and strummers guaranteed to open eyes, ears, and maybe even a few closed minds.
La Guitara is a collection of fourteen tracks representing women players representing a diversity of guitar virtuosity that that spans continents and time periods. Patty Larkin has chosen players of an astonishing variety ranging in styles from classical, blues, flatpicking, jazz, Latin, rock, and even some that define easy categorizing.
Fittingly Wu Man’s track which opens the disc is entitled “Invocation”, aptly summing up the album’s intent of giving voice to those who have been silenced. Her track is also the one most alien to our ears as she performs on the traditional Chinese stringed instrument, the pipa. One of the oldest know stringed Chinese instruments with references found to it in texts dating as far back as the second century B.C., it is also appropriately enough been one of the few instruments that women have been allowed to play for the last thousand years in China.
Of course there are those women who are appearing on both these compilations, simply for the reason that no one can ignore their talents. Leaving Memphis Minnie and Rory Black out of any album of women guitar players would be like omitting Robert Johnson and Albert King from a similar disc dedicated to men. Both are seminal blues players representing two distinct generations.
Ellen Mcilwaine is another repeat from the blues compilation but on this disc she shows another, more esoteric side of her nature with the song “Sidu” (Grandmother). Considered one of the finest women slide players in the world, she has the distinction of having played with people as diverse as Jimi Hendrix, Taj Mahal , Johnny Winter and Jack Bruce. “Sidu’ shows off the fact that she hasn’t limited herself to North American influences and explores the eastern range of her expression.
When scanning down the list of those included on the disc another name that sprang out was that of Brazilian Badi Assad. I first heard her on Three Gutitars, a DVD recording of a concert she gave with Larry Coryell and John Abercrombie in Paris France, and she blew her more renowned band mates off the stage. A multi talented musician who combines percussion, vocal work, and guitar she explodes on stage in a flurry of handclaps, voice contortions and magnificent Spanish guitar style playing.
Preludio e Toccatina is a piece that was written by one her two classical guitar playing brothers, and is actually quite subdued when compared to some of the work I’ve seen and heard from her. However it is still a lovely piece of Brazilian styled classical music.
Of course the pleasures of discs like these are not limited to finding old friends. There is also the joy of discovering new treasures and uncovering forgotten diamonds. Into the latter category must fall Elizabeth Cotton. Born in 1895 she didn’t make her first recording until she was sixty-three. A domestic servant all of her life she had started playing guitar as a child, writing songs and teaching herself chording and picking.
On her first album she recorded a song she had written as a child which almost everybody knows to this day and has been covered by almost every folk/country artist: “Freight Train”. Her contribution to this disc is a rendition of the “Wilson Rag” that was taken from her Folkways album from all those years ago. Miss Cotton died in 1987 and her legacy is obvious in the playing of so many men and women who pick out songs today.
One of her descendants would have to Muriel Anderson who became the first woman to win The American National Fingerpicking Guitar Championship. On “Rumores de la Caleta” her contribution to the disc, she shows off her comfort with Flamenco work as she deftly works through this piece by Isaac Albeniz.
The talent on this disc is so rich and diverse it makes you wonder why it’s necessary at all for it to exist. When was the last time you saw a CD sampling the work of various male guitar players? Not bloody likely is it? But these women who are every bit as talented and inventive as their male counterparts are forced to go begging cap in hand for public recognition beyond their peers and limited followings.
The problem lies in a public perception that is perpetuated by the popular music press (check out any of those glossy guitar and music magazines and see for yourself how many woman who aren’t scantily dressed grace their covers) that women aren’t guitar players.
Patty Larkin and the people at Vanguard Records are to be commended for making this effort to rouse interest in the music that these women produce. This is a CD that shouldn’t have to exist, the fact that it does is a sad commentary on the reactionary nature of popular music. Hopefully we won’t need too many more discs like this one before their necessity is a thing of the past.
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