Sisters who don't play second fiddle

The Women in Music Festival is no ghetto. It aims to bring women into the mainstream
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The Independent Culture
The local paper had no doubts about the true story of the day - "Poison Plants Alert!" shouted the headline. The farmers were on the offensive, too: sudden fluorescent notices leapt out of the hedgerows. "British beef is best!" "Be a British beef-eater!"

The plants and farmers weren't the only voices calling for attention. Any reasonable person would have expected the end of May to mean fine sunny days in Somerset. But the hills were more alive with the sound of cars racing through puddles than the sound of music.

However, the trials that Chard's biennial Women in Music Festival faced this year served to underline the extraordinary quality of this event. It is, in a very real sense, its own mistress. It was started by a woman town clerk six years ago. Angela Willes's husband had bought her a tape of Elizabeth Maconchy's music and it occurred to her how rare it was to hear music by a woman. Many people would simply have noted this and moved on. But Angela Willes is tenacious. Instead, she devised the idea of a festival for music by women and - in the case of folk, jazz and world music - music performed by women. The council of Chard - an unexceptional small town noted more for its charm than its liberalism - was divided, but finally succumbed.

It has its detractors, but Chard's Women in Music Festival has quietly settled in. It doesn't beat a loud drum. Men are welcome in the audience and, in some instances (like Germany's Fanny Mendelssohn Quartet), as performers. It is inclusive in its definitions of music rather than exclusive. And the simplicity of the impulse that caused its birth lives on in the unassuming and informal feeling of the festival itself. In its third festival, which ended yesterday, a cappella rubbed shoulders with contemporary music, jazz co-existed with Early Music, and reggae with classical. The imposing facade of the town's Guildhall welcomed in all worlds without discrimination.

"I got very irritated when I told people I was playing in a women's music festival and they were slightly dismissive," said the pianist Kate Ryder. "It's a cliche to say it is a ghetto. It's not a ghetto at all - in fact, it means wider horizons." At times, those wider horizons could leave you feeling dizzy. On my first night, for instance, I came upon a group of local women with scarlet nails, heavy make-up and bright smiles singing American barber shop songs. In a short break, the rows of chairs were rapidly re-arranged to curve round a grand piano and a small card table. The lights dimmed. Then, from one side, came a quasi-monastic procession - two young, silent women, one carrying a candle and the other a bell. Sitting at the table, they let the silence register, and then the singer Sarah Stowe started an unaccompanied chant by the 12th-century nun Hildegard of Bingen. Stowe and Ryder maintained the concentration through an impressive recital that included a premiere of Alwyne Pritchard, Errollyn Wallen and a new work by Deirdre Gribbin, which had won a Holst Foundation award. Challenging and difficult music, it was listened to by the 70-strong audience with keen attention.

Responsiveness proved to be a constant - whether for the Cameroonian singer Sally Nyolo, or reggae singers Abacush who had a packed house bobbing about on the crowded floor, or Stevie Wishart's mesmerising improvisations on the violin and electronic hurdy-gurdy.

The experience makes it easy to answer the charge that a women's music festival is counter-productive. Chard had a number of functions: it pushed at people's musical boundaries, for although each event did bring its own audience, each one also had people who had bought season tickets and were trying out a range of experiences. The highly eclectic span also made a point, and the work dispelled the fear that targeting destroys quality. During its three festivals, 150 works by women have been played, including 14 world premieres.

The focus means that the festival can function as a professional showcase,helping to take women's composition into the mainstream. It also provides the context in which to raise uncomfortable questions. Why, asked a small seminar, do women make up only 15 per cent of jazz performers? Spurred on by Angela Willes, South West Jazz has set in motion a national enquiry. In its quiet way, Chard will make waves.