On a femme frequency
Charleston teems with live music and abounds in
gigging musicians of all genres. City Paper talked with four women in the local music industry about their artistic contributions and perspectives on women musicians in the Lowcountry.
Leah Suárez looks back on Charleston’s jazz scene
Charleston-raised singer/brass player Leah Suárez was part of a formative group of influencers who not only nurtured the early-2000s jazz scene and set up a foundation for Charleston Jazz to flourish into what it is today, but also spent many nights singing and playing within the scene itself.
Suárez started at College of Charleston’s (CofC) jazz program in 2000. Longtime jazz proponent and columnist Jack McCray became a mentor to Suárez and inspired her to get involved in cultivating a Charleston infrastructure for jazz. Considering two prolific jazz players, Tommy Gill and Quentin Baxter, were also her professors at CofC, Suárez experienced firsthand how the college’s music department offered the chance to create networks with working musicians.
“But there were no women who were leading the pack — aside from Ann Caldwell singing and Bobbie Storm singing — and I didn’t know where I fit within that. I didn’t really have access to women who were mastering instruments. It was uncommon to see any women on the bandstand.”
Although Suárez spends the the majority of her time in Mexico these days, she continues to be involved in the Charleston community. She said she is excited to see what arises for young women now that music education is more accessible.
“What I would love to see more of is the cultivation of professional spaces for artists, especially for women and women of color, to be able to produce, to be autonomous and to be fully supported. That’s what’s lacking here,” Suárez said.
To her, equality doesn’t mean giving women a chance, but bringing them to the table. It’s about men stepping up and asking, “How about we do this together?”
“A rising tide lifts all boats,” she said.
Suárez currently is creative director of her production company DELALUZ Global that does virtual collaborations all over the world, including South Africa, Copenhagen and New York City. She served as musical supervisor on a recent film project produced through La Cumbre Collective entitled Durga: Forging a New Trail, which tells the story of 34-year-old Nepalese woman Durga Rawal and her path to independence. Suárez contributed vocals and created a score for the film project in collaboration with Los Angeles-based artist Kenny Lyon.
Quiana Parler evaluates the city’s resources
Quiana Parler is a vocalist and composer for the Grammy Award-winning roots music group Ranky Tanky. She had her first Charleston show with female performers at age 11 at an old place called the Coconut Club on Market Street with Gullah/jazz singer Ann Caldwell and gospel act The Lucas Sisters.
And since then, it seems she’s been surrounded by women as she came up in the Charleston music scene. Parler’s vocal teacher at the Dock Street Theatre, the late June Bonner, would make sure Parler saw Tina Turner, Bette Midler and Anita Baker’s shows when they played in Charleston. Then from about ages 15 to 18, Parler performed in a show at Charleston Music Hall called “The Serenade Show” with several female dancers and singers.
Fast forward to today and Parler also leads the in-demand party band, Quiana Parler & Friends when she’s not touring with Ranky Tanky.
“I deal with up to 13 guys in my party band on stage, and I’m the only female,” Parler said. “It’s all about timing and boundaries. I’m an alpha female. It’s all about finding your position and meeting people where they are at the exact moment.”
When she considers the lack of resources she had for networking as she came up as a musician, she views the local women’s group, Sisters in Song, to be a vital addition to the scene.
“I think it’s amazing and a beautiful thing, Sisters in Song,” Parler said. “I didn’t have [anything like] that growing up — it was just myself.
“The industry is a male-dominated industry. Sometimes I don’t think people know how to give us the resources. I don’t think they understand. But I think women — we’re speaking up, we’re not sitting back and just taking it anymore. We’re planting our feet solid.”
Erika Lamble does what she can
For the past seven years, Ear for Music booking agent Erika Lamble has mostly booked weddings and private events for the Mount Pleasant-based entertainment agency. She’s found that she’s rarely run across another local female booker. Lamble also represents local acts Seth G, DJ rDot, DJ Natty Heavy and several male acoustic acts.
“I book a lot of males,” Lamble said. “I feel like a lot of people just expect that a male is going to be the performer. If I have a corporate planner that says, ‘Send me five bands to send to my client,’ I always make sure to throw a couple women in because they just kind of expect it’s going to be a male solo acoustic guitar player. I wish I was booking women more. I wish more people were taking the bite.
“Women tend to be the support singers. The woman is always kind of the afterthought. And that’s something that needs to change.”
Hunter Park considers the current music climate
She Returns From War frontwoman Hunter Park was raised in Charleston and spent the past 10 years working as a musician here.
“It’s important to note that gendered influence ebbs and flows,” Park said. “Maybe it’s not that Charleston has a lack of women, it’s just the resources [to find] these people [aren’t] as strong these days.”
Perhaps it’s a matter of women-centered shows being overshadowed by more marketable acts in town, Park said. To her, it’s important for bookers and promoters to be intentionally representational and diverse to combat the status quo with women’s showcases and women’s nights at bars and restaurants that feature live music.
She believes opportunities are accessible here for femme musicians, but the group is facing burnout from the past couple of years.
“You can pool together resources — it’s just the push to do it that has been difficult recently,” Park said. “There’s always the glass ceiling working somewhat against women and trans women. People say they want to support [us], but it plateaus out [at] a point — like speaking on the issues if it’s Women’s History Month and then the rest of the time [the media is] covering the same stuff because the media finds it more comfortable.”
Park has always managed herself, she said, because she realizes the industry doesn’t see her as marketable in comparison to more mainstream images. But to her, it just means that people haven’t put in the effort required to respect women and queer musicians’ professional acumen.
“There are companies here [and] brands who are willing to support artists without prejudice,” Park said. “There’s Sightsee Coffee and Tarpon Cellars. It doesn’t have to be Pride Month or Women’s History Month for them to reach out [to me] and say what are your needs as an artist?
“My band stands for women’s empowerment because I was taught by powerful women,” Park said. “I keep the faith [that] hopefully one day somebody would look up to me that way.”
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