Sister Fire burned bright under the Saturday sun as 4,000 people, most of them women, gathered together to celebrate cultural strength, renew emotional bonds and address themselves to a bundle of survival issues--ERA, abortion, pollution, nuclear power, cutbacks in social programs, and gay and human rights. They also confronted three universal themes that take on many disguises--racism, sexism and violence. The afternoon recalled similar building stages in the labor, civil rights and peace movements, exhilarating music of change and commitment interspersed with speeches, poems and occasionally numbing sloganeering.

As personal and profound anthems were performed by Holly Near, Cris Williamson and Sweet Honey in the Rock, the crowd sang along to familiar choruses while interpreters for the deaf created an insistent physical harmony at the edge of the stage. If the poetry was occasionally self-conscious and pedantic, the music was more often intimate, revealing and optimistic. With Near, Williamson and surprise guests Margie Adam and Ronnie Gilbert of the Weavers, the emphasis was on message-carrying voices curled around a piano or guitar, or in the case of Sweet Honey, each other's voices.

There was also the swirling energies of Ratumba Con Pie and Women of the Calabash, both hooked on the percussive exuberance of West African and Afro-Caribbean rhythms and melodies. The Harp Band proved a surprise hit with its harp-sax-flute base and accessible synthesis of jazz, pop, classical and Latino influences. There was also the relief of the harp from its classical duties; played with compelling energy by Ellen Uryevick, it was an eloquent symbol of Sister Fire's energies. The highlight of the seven-hour program may have come when Near, Gilbert and Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey joined together in one of the most direct musical statements of the afternoon: "We are a gentle, angry people and we are singing for our lives."