Beating the drum for women

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 October, 2011, 12:00am

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Examining an idea as complex as the place of women in music today, we are obliged to recall the greats: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Joni Mitchell, Shania Twain, Sister Sledge, Debbie Harry, Alanis Morisette, Whitney Houston and of course the ever shocking Lady Gaga.

'Nina Simone, Patti Smith and Janis Joplin were true artists and they had exuberant personalities to match. They were outspoken and honest about themselves and the music they were making,' says Sue Shearman, who performs as an acoustic duo with violinist Charliah J Best and with New Tonic Press, who describe themselves as an 'alt-blues, indie-noise rock and dream pop band' from Hong Kong.

Women have used music as a way to voice their thoughts and opinions and have found themselves being heard when the person delivering the message is a rock goddess, acoustic poet or hip hop queen. In those guises they have proved themselves at least equals of their male equivalents.

Fleetwood Mac are a perfect example of the joining of the genders through music. Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks demonstrated the importance of such collaboration to the advancement of the music industry. This resonated through the past 20 years with bands such as The Cardigans, Garbage, Imogen Heap, No Doubt, Portishead and Paramore following in the footsteps of their icons. 'We wouldn't be where we are today without the women of the past paving the way,' says Tiffany Laue of Hong Kong-based bands Hungry Ghosts and Jade and the Stagger Swallows. 'Sexism is ... still very prominent in today's society ... [and] even more prominent in the past. Without these women opening up in all areas of expression, I don't know where we would be today. Being in a band, especially fronting a band of boys, does feel liberating and I hope I can inspire women of today too.'

Ivy Fernie of Dark Himaya, an alternative rock band in Hong Kong, echoes Laue's sentiments about the women who came before her: 'Through their creativity, influence and respect, they have made it possible for us to enjoy the current environment and have made us ready to influence and guide the next generation of female artists. Women are and always will be important to music because it is in our nature to express ourselves differently from men.'

Many of the female musicians we listen to today grew up listening to girl bands during the 90s, particularly the Spice Girls. The catchphrase 'Girl Power' was ingrained into young girls' beliefs of what a woman should strive for and this has carried through to the production of female music today. Destiny's Child singing about 'independent women' and creating a life for themselves without financial help from men stuck. Now more than ever, we are surrounded by female artists who appear to be the most powerful in show business: Adele, Taylor Swift, Beyonce, J Lo, Florence Welch, Rihanna, Katy Perry - the list goes on.

Our television screens are dominated by images of talented, independent women who are encouraging a whole new generation of young girls to reject notions of inequality. Shearman believes this has reverberated on the Hong Kong music scene. 'There are more of us on the scene, but it's not a massive presence if you compare it to how many men there are. There are some great musicians and singers, but they're still on the fringe and you have to seek them out or hear about them from your friends. The media don't give them a lot of exposure,' she says.

'Despite that, in Hong Kong the arena has really blossomed and women are involved in more aspects of the indie music scene. That includes musicians, singer-songwriters, DJs, graphic artists, web designers, photographers and event organisers.

'Women are also fronting bands more often and that's good to see too. It'd be nice to see more women getting involved in studio recording,' Shearman says.

Fernie adds: 'Now we have 'Girls With Guitars' organised by the Underground HK (an independent music platform in Hong Kong for artists to introduce their bands and perform live music) to give pride to all the female guitarists. I have had the opportunity to meet a few female artists in Hong Kong. We have Chris Bowers, Reign Lee, Sue Shearman, Heather Lowe, Tilly, Aileen Alonzo who is also a member of Dark Himaya, and Joves Fuego [who] inspired me in a big way. She was the first female acoustic player I watched here in Hong Kong.'

Madonna erupted onto MTV, with her attitude of the assertive female. From dressing in drag to kissing Britney Spears on stage, she

More recently Lady Gaga has taken on Madonna's role by also going against the norms of gender identity. Yet some might view artists as women who use sex to sell music rather than using their sexuality as a way to express and liberate themselves from gender bias.

Sexuality often detracts from music rather than enhancing it, creating more of an obstacle for women wanting to be respected for their talent rather than their looks.

As Laue says: 'I would love to believe that we live in a gender equal world, but unfortunately we don't. From what we see on TV, in the magazines and on the net, it would be ignorant of me to say that sex doesn't sell.

'Sometimes it's hard to see past the marketing and see the artist for who they really are, especially for females in the pop music scene. It's debilitating when you see female artists who are subjected to 'male' marketing ploys. I feel they are just puppets. But the sad truth is that it does sell to the majority of the public,' Laue says.

Bowers, who plays guitar and performs vocals for the band Thinking Out Loud and who is an organiser of the Underground, says: 'Every woman who makes a statement with her music, her songs, her playing and her style makes more in-roads for female musicians. I'm not talking about half-naked pop stars who fill up the tabloids, I'm talking about real musicians, who crave writing and making music. It's tougher to be a female musician as people presume you are just all about looks and can't really play, so you have to play better than other guys to be taken seriously at times.'

Ciosa Houlihan, a member of 9 Maps, a Hong Kong indie folk band, remarks: 'The HK scene is bursting with young talented women now. I think there's something for everyone too. None of us feel like we have to fit into a certain genre - if you like it old-school like Le Tigre you've got Tigerbombers, if you like it a little more folk you've got Sun Eskimos, if you like it a little more indie you've got Who Shot Holga?'

Hong Kong is a platform for musical diversity and creativity and has been the birthplace of both all-girl and mixed gender bands. Thinking Out Loud, Orthon, Dark Himaya and Hungry Ghosts are just a few examples of bands with female members who not only sing, but also play keyboards, guitar and bass.

'I created the series called 'Girls with Guitars' so that we could feature and highlight female guitarists,' says Bowers. 'I support and encourage female musicians and The Underground Compilation CD 4, which was released in May this year, had a record number of female musicians. I guess I'm positively biased towards females.'

These artists create their own families while continuing to be successful in their careers, poking fun at the notion of the women's place being solely in the home.

Now more than ever we are seeing women not only being vocal musicians but also taking on the roles of drummers, guitarists and bassists. The instruments give a sense of increased power and right to these women. 'People are sometimes surprised because of my guitar style,' says Shearman. 'I bash my strings a lot and I play quite fast, too. It feels natural to me but people have commented on it. I think if I was a man they wouldn't have mentioned it.'

Sherin Siew, also of 9 Maps, says: 'I feel as though the form and intensity of reception is mostly linked to what genre you're in and how good you are, rather than your gender. We're in the minority. Sometimes people are more intrigued by the minority. I know that whenever there are females in unexpected roles, like a drummer for example, people watch more closely, there's more hype over it. But in the case of the Hong Kong indie scene, gender certainly isn't a big issue, there's egalitarian support between bands and organisers.'

Hong Kong has a unique and varied music community, Laue says. 'In one night you could have a solo female folky act followed by an all-boy heavy metal band. I feel being male or female doesn't matter.'

Carina and Shireen of Hong Kong band FAD believe the presence of female musicians in other Asian countries has encouraged more women to become involved in music in Hong Kong. 'The Hong Kong band scene is more open and active nowadays and there are a few girl bands who made being female more acceptable in music,' says Carina.

'We do find that the response from the Hong Kong audiences seem to be that with a man, they concentrate on the music, the song arrangement, their instrumental skills and the overall performance. However, with a female musician, they focus more on appearance.'

Houlihan adds: 'Women are definitely becoming more prominent on Hong Kong's music scene, though I'd like to see more of it. It seems most of the female singer-songwriters or bands we've had in Hong Kong are active for a year or two but drop off the radar after that.'

With venues such as The Wanch and organised nights like 'Girls With Guitars' offering a platform for women to showcase their talents, the scene is sure to keep growing, and Laue has advice for all aspiring female musicians: 'Don't be afraid to get out there, especially in Hong Kong. It's a great place to get started as a musician. Don't be put off by people's opinions and trust in what you believe and go with it.'