Ottawa
4 min

A call to community

A place deep in the woods where women gather

SWEET HONEY. Sweet Honey in the Rock's one of the main attractions at this year's festival. Credit: Capital Xtra files

For thousands of women, Michigan is more than a state and August is more than the eighth month of the year. The two words trigger a tribal memory. They are a call to a time and a place deep in the northern woods where women gather to create community.



“Michigan” is the mother of all womyn’s music festivals. Now in its 28th year, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival has outlasted many other creations of the women’s liberation movement. For every festival-goer of a certain age who attended self-exam speculum parties back in the day, there’s one who’s never heard of Holly Near but knows Bitch and Animal’s “Pussy Manifesto” by heart.



Each August, the festival attracts over 5,000 women from around the world. They come for widely diverse programming that runs the musical gamut, hundreds of workshops, a week-long film festival and a crafts fair with 125 artisans. They come to experience a world made by and for women. They bring their kids. They bring their mothers. They bring their drums, their costumes and their battery-operated espresso machines. They come to flirt, debate, learn something new, forget something old, walk at night without fear, shed a few tears, see a shooting star and laugh and laugh and laugh.



The festival is produced by the We Want the Music Company, and will feature more than 40 performances in three outdoor venues: the intimate late-afternoon Acoustic Stage, the rowdy, sun-drenched Day Stage and the beautifully lit, tree-fringed Night Stage.



This year’s highlights include Sweet Honey in the Rock, whose 30 years of political artistry formed the soundtrack to a number of social justice movements. Their performance becomes multi-generational with Sweet Honey co-founder Bernice Johnson Reagon welcoming her daughter, Toshi Reagon and her band Big Lovely to the stage. Country folk star Cheryl Wheeler, one of the festival’s most requested artists, returns to share her songwriting genius and irresistible stage persona. Betty, fresh from the off-Broadway run of their hit autobiographical rock opera, offers their frisky brand of rock and roll.



Musical pioneers Holly Near and Cris Williamson perform together on the Acoustic Stage, preceded by legendary pianist Adrienne Torf. The Night Stage features Rhiannon’s energized jazz stylings, Aleah Long and Full Circle’s uplifting spirit and Ferron’s haunting songwriting magic.



The raccoons will be running for cover when these rockers take the stage: gender-bending rap-punk performers Bitch and Animal, Gretchen Phillips (backed by Butchies drummer Melissa York), Nedra Johnson, Magdalen Hsu-Li, Chi Chi Palace and The Kitty Kill. Crowd-pleasers Catie Curtis, Pamela Means and Susan Werner illustrate the best of today’s singer-songwriters, while four of tomorrow’s up and comers are featured in a Singer Songwriter Spotlight (Laura Blackley, Kerrianne Cox, Holly Figueroa and Libby Kirkpatrick). Music inspired by cultures from around the world is represented by the exuberant beats of Women of the Calabash, the on-your-feet klezmer music of the Isle of Klezbos, the alt-bluegrass of The Dolly Ranchers and the crisp, clean jazz of Straight Ahead.



It may be called a music festival, but Michigan is actually more of a cultural smorgasbord. Daily films, impromptu performances on pathways and open mics at the August Nite Café mean there is always something to feast on. And that’s on top of the comedy, spoken word, dance and theatrical performances presented on the stages.



In keeping with the long tradition that’s earned Michigan a reputation as “the political festival,” Reno performs Rebel Without a Pause: Unrestrained Reflections on September 11th. This off-Broadway hit is now a feature-length film winning raves at international film festivals, but you can see it here live. Renowned choreographer Kim Epifano reclaims a piece of women’s history with “Einstein’s Daughters Cabaret,” a dance performance that tells the tale of the women overshadowed by the famous scientist. Evolution presents six artists, dancers, drummers and teachers in a weekend music ritual performance. Pushing the envelope of spoken word, Alix Olson and CC Carter punch through the white noise of our dominant culture with their syncopated truth telling. On a lighter note, the outrageous Pulp Vixens perform their over-the-top melodrama Derailed Desires.



To ease the pain of departure, Sunday’s Comedy Afternoon features festival fave Elvira Kurt, along with the musical comedy of Roxanna Ward and – fresh off her Comedy Central special – René Hicks.



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WORKSHOPS



Women eager to share their skills and learn from each other hook up in hundreds of workshops that cover everything from health and wellness to arts and culture to spirituality and relationships. This year’s offerings include Bicycle Mechanics, Politics and Activism, Interracial-Intercultural Dating, Wilderness and Urban Survival Skills and Womyn and Alzheimer’s Disease. You can get airborne with stilt-walking and acrobatics or down-and-dirty in weeklong salsa, hip-hop and country-western dance lessons. Daily attendance at the drumming and One World Inspirational choir practices culminates in Acoustic Stage performances that are the highlight of many women’s festival.



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COMMUNITY LIVING



The magic of Michigan is as much what happens off the stages as on them. Everywhere you turn – the community centre, the crafts bazaar, the health care or childcare or food service areas where you do your workshifts – is an opportunity to connect with old friends and new. Everywhere you turn is evidence of what women are capable of creating. A large-scale village (the largest in two counties) where for one week a year women entertain, care for and challenge each other to extend the lessons of this annual community out into the larger world.



28TH MICHIGAN WOMYN’S MUSIC FESTIVAL.

Aug 12-17, 2003.

The price for a full week of camping, meals, and all programming and services is $310-$360 (sliding scale) if purchased before Jul 19. More information can be obtained at www.michfest.com, or by calling (231) 757-4766.