Music News & Reviews

Band of sisters

On a warm fall night, several dozen people pack into the Blank Page gallery in Delano. Their attention is riveted on the stage, where rock band Ratanana plays its indie-pop punk music. Dancing and cheering pervade the small space. Young fans are rocking out to a favorite band. There's nothing really new about the scene, except that it represents what some think is a growing trend in Wichita: female band members.

Fronting Ratanana is Christy Oeur, 27, who belts out tunes as her fingers possess the keyboard. Behind her is her younger sister, Rathana, playing bass, as well as two male members of the group.

For Christy, being a musician is part of her identity. It comes naturally. But she's also part of an expanding group of women in Wichita who are enriching the local music scene in what has historically been a male-dominated industry.

She finds audiences in Wichita not only welcoming, but also seemingly intrigued by the idea of two hard-rocking female musicians.

"A lot of people actually find that a band with two Asian chicks is pretty cool," Oeur says. "For some people, it's a novelty, but the quality of our music backs it up. If that's what gets people in the door, I'm OK with it."

A struggle for acceptance

Outright hostility and overt discrimination against female musicians have never been common, but women have struggled over the years to find acceptance on stage. Rachelle Coba, a member of the Wichita Blues Society, has seen the scene steadily improving for women over two decades as a professional musician.

"I've definitely seen a change since I've been involved," she said. "It's more inclusive now. Twenty to twenty-five years ago, young women had only a few role models. Now there are lots of young girls with guitars."

A Wichita native, Coba attended the University of Miami, where she received her degree in classical guitar. When she began her studies in the early 1990s, she was the only woman in the program.

"The first ensemble I walked into, everyone groaned," she said. "Everyone was aware that I was the only girl, and I definitely wasn't allowed to suck, lest I put a bad name out for all other women."

Coba encountered some static from men who had problems playing with a woman, but over time those issues dissipated and became secondary to the fact that she was an accomplished musician.

"The guys who were the worst culprits of this type of behavior in my life have not amounted to much themselves with music," she said.

After returning to Wichita six years ago, Coba became active in the local music scene. She plays weekly at Chelsea's Bar and Grill and recently performed at the Wichita Blues Society fall crawl. Many of the issues she faces here are universal, regardless of sex.

"It's hard to be a professional musician," she said. "If you talk to older ones, they'll tell you that the pay is the same today as it was 30 years ago."

Open arms

Wichita musician Lisa Hittle, who has directed the jazz program at Friends University since 1989, says she's noticed an explosion of young female musicians in recent years. She thinks there's something special about the music culture and specifically the jazz world that makes inclusion possible.

"By and large, musicians are pretty nurturing, welcoming and encompassing," she said. "The music culture at large really fosters more openness."

Hittle has been gigging around Wichita since the early 1980s. She's a regular fixture at Larkspur restaurant, responsible for booking its music during the patio months. Like Coba, her struggles have centered on issues universal to musicians, like pay and lack of available venues in which to perform.

As with many other societal and cultural matters, there seems to be a generational shift toward inclusiveness. Women younger than Coba and Hittle grew up in a world where the road to opportunity had already been paved by the women who went before them.

Jessie Roth and Miki Masuda-Jarvis are two who have benefited. Roth, a flute player at Wichita State seeking her master's in music performance, notes that women were traditionally discouraged from playing wind instruments.

"It was considered taboo for a woman to perform while having something in her mouth," she said.

Roth also credits blind auditions, where musicians perform behind a curtain with judges unable to see them, with helping women advance in the classical music world. Locally, she thinks that Wichita offers women more opportunities than larger cities might because they don't get lost in a sea of people here. That's a sentiment that rings true for Masuda-Jarvis.

Originally from Tokyo, she came to the states in 2001. She received her undergraduate and master's degree in music from WSU and is now a faculty member there.

"It's harder to get noticed in Tokyo because the scene is huge and the circles are closed," she said. "This town is just so friendly."

Another young woman who has benefited from social progress is singer-songwriter Michelle Monger. New to the music scene, she started playing downtown last year. She is a frequent presence at the Blank Page and Riverside Perk.

"Everyone is so accepting and welcoming," she said. "Playing locally is a challenge, though. People are always skeptical at first. You have to work to prove yourself."

A self-described feminist, Monger says that one of her goals is to show young women that it's OK to be the center of attention.

"Some girls are made to feel that they should be quiet and that holds them back," she said. "I'm all about living your passion."