Women musicians and composers
Censorship based on gender in the arts does nothing but harm. But as K reports, female musicians from the US to Iran are still a long way from sharing the spotlight equally with men.
“Imagine you’re not allowed to sing. It’s like the colour red ceased to exist and you can no longer paint.” This is how one performer describes her career in Iran.
American film-maker Judy Chaikin believed she knew all the main 20th century jazz bands until a friend told her about Jeri Thrill, a fantastic female drummer from the 1940s. This piqued her interest. “I found out that not only were there women’s big bands, but there had been great female jazz artists who had been completely left out of the history books”. After eight years of digging through archives from the 1930s to the present day she completed The Girls in the Band, a 2011 documentary about the greatest jazz musicians you’ve never heard of.
Composer Billy Taylor sums up sexism in the jazz world when he talks about pianist Mary Lou Williams: “If she had been a man, she would have been able to do so much more, for the music, for herself.” But why push such talented musicians to the sidelines just for being women? “We like to think of the music business as a wonderful conglomerate of artists who are happy playing together” says Chaikin.
“But there was incredible male competition. Add into that a female who is competing against them and you bring in a whole other dynamic. Men don’t want to compete with women; they want them to be in a certain place so they don’t have to deal with that aspect of their lives.”
The 2014 film No Land’s Song follows the extraordinary journey of Iranian composer Sara Najafi when she decided to stage a concert in Tehran featuring female singers. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution women have been banned from singing solo in public. The law is so rigid that teacher Sayeh Sodeyfi, who took part in the performance, isn’t allowed to sing in front of her male students. “I have to teach how to sing theoretically” she says in the documentary, “like if you open your mouth 25cm you will sing forte.”
When Najafi asks religious scholar Abdolnabi Jafarian to explain why the female voice is forbidden, he rationalises it like this: “If you eat simple cheese that’s fine, but if you add more and more ingredients the joy from this harms you. Food and drink must not alter our condition; they mustn’t make us drunk. Similarly no decent man listening to music should get sexually aroused.” So, one wonders, are songs by Iran’s queen of pop Googoosh more sexually arousing than the greatest hits of Diana Ross and The Supremes?
After getting permission from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the government had a volte-face: the concert could go ahead but only if it was turned into an un-ticketed workshop with a guest list limited to people from the arts scene, and all their names supplied to the Ministry. As a sweetener they were offered $4,000. Two and a half years of intense toing and froing with the authorities seemed to be ending in disappointment.
All singing and dancing?
Even in dance music, a genre we like to think of as forward-thinking and egalitarian, women are not getting as much coverage as their male counterparts. Female producers and DJs are shockingly under-represented in the press and on line ups. “Women have been discouraged from going into this field, just like I was” says Chaikin, who was given a hard time by the boys in her high school band. “They say it’s a man’s world, don’t bother, you’re not going to get anywhere, but there are women who are born to be musicians just like there are men who are born to be musicians. And they have persevered and are brilliantly talented. If promoters say there aren’t enough women I say they haven’t looked hard enough because there are plenty of brilliant women.”
Imagine you’re not allowed to sing. It’s like the colour red ceased to exist.
Najafi’s team refused to bow to pressure. Aided by the involvement of French musicians and the French Embassy, along with the desire of the newly elected Iranian government to send a ‘positive’ message outside Iran, the performance took place in the once-legendary Vahdat Hall, packed with 300 people, despite only having official capacity for 200. For the first time in almost 35 years the sound of female voices rang through the venue.
“It’s not just a matter of letting women in because it’s the right thing to do” says Chaikin, “it’s bringing women in because they have something to offer that is not being said. That is the future. It’s where the music wants to go.”
The Girls in the Band, the trailer
No Land's Song, two excerpts: