While there’s a long tradition of women singing the blues, going back to Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and others, they don’t always get centre stage.
Vancouver Island MusicFest favourite Shakura S’Aida aims to change that, as she has put together the Friday night headlining show, HER Majesty, for this year’s festival. She had rounded up a stellar cast of singers and musicians for the evening of July 8.
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S’Aida and fellow performer Terrie Odabi came up with the idea at a blues showcase event in Memphis, as they wanted to find a venue to give the women more of a chance in the spotlight, while being backed by some other women, all crack players on their instruments.
Through the pandemic, she had been staying in touch with other Black women in the blues community, as they were being hit especially hard by the shutdown of live music. Coincidentally, S’Aida’s second last show before live venues had to close was in the Comox Valley in March 2020. She has been performing some in the time since, including a couple of symphony shows.
For this summer’s Vancouver Island event, festival artistic director Doug Cox asked S’Aida to put together the Friday night headliner. Cox describes Shakura’s choices as an unprecedented gathering of women who have made their lives in the blues in Canada and the U.S.
“When I considered such a collaboration there was only one person who came to mind to curate this for us, and that person is the brilliant singer and music fan Shakura S’Aida. Shakura is someone who is no stranger to MusicFest. In fact, last time she was here we had her close for Ry Cooder,” he says. “When I asked her to curate a woman’s blues revue for our festival, she jumped at it, and in doing so, put together a powerhouse group that no one else could have put together.”
For S’Aida, the event is a chance to show people the talents of women in the blues world, across different generations, at a time when some might think young Black women are not singing the blues.
“Black women and the blues is a seemingly dying breed,” she says. “You hear about the old school Black women.”
The tradition runs strong though, which is part of why she reached across different generations for the lineup.
“It was really important to honour that,” she adds.
S’Aida started contacting some of the women she knew to see who was available. Unfortunately, her friend Odabi was booked, but there were plenty of others. Along with S’Aida, the featured vocalists will be: Seattle’s Lady A (the original blues singer, not the renamed country act), Melody Angel from Chicago, Annika Chambers based out of Texas and Florida, Toronto’s Rita Chiarelli, Nikki D from Toledo, Ohio, Detroit’s Thornetta Davis and Cecile Doo Kingue from Montreal. The accompaniment will be provided by Colleen Allen on sax, Anne Harris on violin, Anna Ruddick on bass and Tamara Williams on drums.
The singers will be taking centre stage but also stepping back to sing background and dance, in other words, support each other. When asked about the performers, S’Aida raves about each of the women on the bill and their range of styles, stressing no one is the headliner, but rather they are up there to collaborate and support each other as a community.
“It’s a court of queens, not a court of queens and princesses,” she says.
She is also hoping to hold HER Majesty more than once and bring others like Odabi to town.
“I hope I can do this again,” she adds.
For more information, see www.islandmusicfest.com/