Sisterfire is more than a women's music festival. It is an oasis, a refuge and a marketplace not only of goods but of sounds, visions and ideas. Now in its fourth year, the open-air celebration unfurled this weekend across the grounds and large field adjoining Takoma Park Junior High School. Over the course of two days, an estimated 6,000 people -- nearly all of them women -- availed themselves of the entertainment and basked in the warmth of the sun and each other.
"When somebody gets happy, you just make sure they don't hurt themselves," remarked master drummer Edwina Lee Tyler Saturday afternoon. "You just let them go on." She was referring to the wild outbreak of boogeying that she and her troupe, A Piece of the World, had inspired. Yet her statement could have applied to any one of the activities in which the happy thousands were engaged.
Some prowled the myriad stalls of the bazaar, examining the glinting ear cuffs, the "Celebrate Women" T-shirts, the feminist post cards and journals, and the pamphlets distributed by such groups as CHAI (Concerned for Helping Animals in Israel), the American Atheists and the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club. Others watched the self-defense demonstration, sat in on an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or a medicinal herb workshop, enjoyed a massage or a tarot card reading. And many ate shish kebobs, broccoli tofu medleys, carob brownies and other delicacies peddled by vendors galore.
The centerpiece of Sisterfire, though, has always been its strong and diverse musical fare. This time around, the roster of performers was expanded to include dancers, mimes, poets, actresses and a "Fumorist" (a feminist humorist).
"You would not be sitting on this lawn if you did not believe there was room for change," declared vocalist/pianist Debbie Fier prior to leading her band through the song "Risky Business." The need and the struggle for change was indeed the operative sentiment here. Ronnie Gilbert, of the curly gray locks and golden contralto voice, sang about issues like equal pay for women and the struggle in South Africa. The two-woman Mischief Mime performed a hilarious skit, "Body Image," in which one babbled about physical self-improvement while tying her passive "double" in ropes.
Edwina Lee Tyler's notion of change came direct from the fact that she and her ensemble have taken drums -- traditionally male-relegated instruments -- into their own hands. What force and fire these five people possessed! The six Urban Bush Women made their point through movement, updating African rituals and filling the stage with images of both nuturing and awesome power.
And there was more: Ferron, the dream-weaving balladeer; Susan Freunlich, who has fused sign language and dance into a stunning new art form; Washington's own Sweet Honey and the Rock, the group that turns a cappella singing into a political and spiritual act.
Sisterfire may appeal only to a specific segment of the concert-going population, but the vibrant sounds and messages sent forth this weekend may very well affect all of us in the not too distant future.