One night, Wayne Shorter walked straight to Miles Davis’ hotel room and knocked on the door relentlessly until Miles got up and opened it. Wayne confessed he couldn’t sleep. He had to come and see for himself, in person, the future of jazz. Content with this short, midnight encounter, he turned around, retracing the steps to his bed. It’s an anecdote about being on the brink of a new era, about passing the mantle, and finding peace of mind in one’s successors. At Girls Rock! summer camp this year, I came face to face with a future generation of aspiring musicians.
I visited on the Friday before the camp’s big showcase. “You came on a perfect day!” Saiya Miller, one of the volunteer organizers, told me as she gave me a warm hug and led me on a tour of the classrooms and workshops, held this year on NOCCA’s campus. “We’ve been getting press visits a lot this week. This is the best day to be here because you’re the only one here. You can see everyone as they get ready for dress rehearsal!”
DRUM AND BASS CLASS
They rocked for a while, then discussed. “Did anyone notice anything that worked or didn’t work? Did you notice when the rolls started happening that it was easy to get off beat a little?” Janke asked contrustructive questions as she guided campers through a self-evaluation. Then Sonia Saxon, another counselor and member of The Flying A’s and Relax Family Band, presented an inquiry to the bassists: “Did you notice how much easier it is with all these drummers? You have a lot of support with them.” Afterwards was a jam sesh. For the last ten minutes, all formalities were disposed of and the crew of young musicians freestyled.
Janke Seltsam (a counselor and drummer for the local punk band Swampass) coordinated bass players and gave a small pep talk to the drummers. Soon after, the sound of bottom-end bass tones filled the room. Percussion followed, synching up to the rhythm. The campers collaborated with all the bassists playing one bass line, then the drummers joined, playing a drum line in unison. At first it was andante, or walking speed, then it picked up, faster and faster—yet everyone stayed together. The camp counselors weren’t really teachers, or leaders in any way, but more like coaches in the game of music. By the end of it, the bassists and drummers were solid. The nervous excitement I noticed in the girls had vanished, replaced with pride in their collective achievement. Everyone was stoked.
Counselors would briefly sit with campers and play along, then remove themselves to let the campers do their own thing. They also tapped sticks and danced to inspire beat keeping, walking around to check up on girls and offer specific suggestions to them. “How do you feel after jamming?” Sonia asked the campers. “We’re exhausted!” The girls exclaimed in semi-unison. Some looked surprised, others a little tired. Some looked like they could keep on going.
Later on, I followed the girls down to a common space where they hung out for the few minutes before heading to the next class. One camper, Attica, pleaded with Saiya, “I want to keep practicing!” Indeed, she looked very natural on the drums. She even mastered that look of ennui while playing and keeping perfect time. Saiya put her arm around Attica and smiled. “I feel like it’s a good instinct to want to practice more, but at some point you have to just work with what you’ve got.”
A dress rehearsal for the big showcase was scheduled for the end of the day. The girls gathered together in the common area while Li Yaffe, a founding member of Girls Rock! Camp in New Orleans, prepped them for a mock run. While the roadies carried equipment to the practice stage, Li led the girls in some reflection about their camp experience and gave them some last-minute reminders, such as introducing themselves when they get on stage, and projecting their voice into the mic.
I had a moment between sessions to talk with two of this year’s counselors, Sonia and Sarah Brooks (drummer for Panty Wasted and formerly of Tragic Girls End Up Like This and Ovary Action). Sonia was the bass instructor and band coach for Glo-Wolves, a band of 11 and 12 year-olds. Sarah was the guitar instructor. When I asked them what the most rewarding part of being involved was, Sonia replied, “I love all the ecstatic moments we’ve had, and seeing kids be creative. I love seeing them doing what they love, which is also what I love to do. I love passing it on to them.” Sarah echoed the uplifting sentiment. “I love seeing groups of girls together getting along,” she said. “They’re complementing each other, working together, and saying positive things to each other.”
The coach’s positive attitudes seemed to be shared by everyone involved with GRC. As a professional educator, I couldn’t help but realize that Sonia and Sarah were essentially describing what educators call “the shared experience.” The shared experience is an everyday phenomenon that occurs between people, the realization that each party affects and is affected by any given situation. In a classroom, the teacher affects the student, and vice versa. In Girls Rock Camp, counselors and volunteers were prepared to affect the campers in a positive way, but were totally surprised by the way the campers affected them. Over and over again in conversations with different people, I heard how unbelievably proud they were of the girls, expressing feelings that are probably comparable to the pride parents feel for their offspring. Stacy Share, one of the Girls Rock! organizers, put the camp’s approach into perspective: “In schools they’re just so focused on trying to teach them certain things, and it’s so frustrating as an educator because you think, ‘These kids can do so much more if you could just give them space.’ This was a great opportunity to be able to give the kids the tools, and say, ‘Here ya go.’”
The organizers and camp counselors were the perfect leaders for this camp because they are all part of the New Orleans DIY scene. They live in the same neighborhoods as the campers and understand the backgrounds the girls are coming from. Camp counselors came in all shapes, sizes, genders, hair styles, and talents. In addition to the camp staff, Girls Rock! was helped out by quite a few businesses, such as The Joint, Theo’s Pizza, St. Coffee, and French Truck Coffee (all who provided catering), as well as assistance from the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, RUBARB Community Bike Shop, the Zeitgeist Center (where the public showcase was held), and Webb’s Bywater Music, where the GRC instruments were tuned up and repaired. In addition to a grass-roots funding campaign, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation gave the camp a grant.
THE TAPE RECORDS
I was in the hallway when all of a sudden one of the coaches popped her head out of the room. “Hey, can someone come in and be the audience for them? The girls want to practice playing in front of other people.” How could I say no? I went in and saw a band of 8 and 9 year-olds. Their name was the Tape Records and they were the youngest band in the camp. They played their song and I was amazed.
At first they were scared. Some of the band members had never played music before. From the first day of camp, they started collaborating and writing their song. Mary Jacobs, a first year Girls Rock counselor, told me she was mostly hands off, letting them work their ideas out, interjecting only to keep the band focused and on task. They problem-solved on their own and worked out their own issues. They came up with a system: if they have a disagreement, they take a vote. If the vote is split, they do a coin flip. However, The Tape Records rarely had disagreements; they were simply too eager to rock out together. Earlier in the week, thanks to the local LGBTQ youth advocacy group BreakOUT!, the girls had the chance to have thoughtful dialogue on gender, personal identity, and human empowerment. They made “gender-bread people” to epitomize how they view themselves. From this The Tape Records came up with positive, empowering lyrics such as, “I can do anything / I can do anything / I can do anything / even if I want to scream.”
I had the pleasure of sitting in on the Glo-Wolves last practice before dress rehearsal. Trista (guitarist and vocalist) was playing so hard she broke her string. Initially she was bummed, but drummer and vocalist CC helped her out by picking up an extra guitar in the room, plugging it in and handing it to her. It can be awkward to pick up a strange guitar and use it like it feels familiar, but she adjusted quickly and pummeled through the last precious minutes of band practice. With a head full of bouncy curls and standing almost 6 feet tall, it was hard to believe Jah-sia (bass and vocals) was only twelve years old. She had a quiet demeanor, but was friendly and a bit goofy. Jah-sia performed like she’d been singing with a bass on her shoulders since forever.
I tried to think back to what I was doing when I was twelve. I don’t really remember, but definitely not anything as cool as starting an all-girl band with other experienced musicians!
The Zeitgeist was the most packed I’d ever seen it and energy was high. Later, Li told me the showcase drew approximately 200 people. The air was electric with the sound of chatter and shuffling of people in every direction (including up! My friend Bowen was smart and went upstairs to catch a birdseye view of everything). All the girls were wearing the shirts they designed with their band logos displayed on the front, screenprinted with help from Rachel Speck of the New Orleans Community Printshop. A lot of them had black lipstick and sparkly makeup. Hair was dyed or crimped in true rock star fashion. The Showcase started with the youngest and ended with the oldest group. The whole show was seamless: the girls sat together and knew the order in which they were going to perform.
First up was The Tape Records. They kicked off the show with their anthem “I Can Do Anything,” which started with everyone repeating “I can do anything ” in a soft, perfect-pitch a capella, with minimal key, bass, and guitar hits. The moment Marli, bassist and lead singer, said, “even if I want to scream,” Amari busted in with a bass and snare line that sounded like the ultrasound heartbeat of the new punk rock generation. They had upbeat verses like “Oh baby, I’m feeling crazy / Don’t call me lazy / Cuz I’m rocking out tonight,” going back to the choral repetition of “I can do anything ” and then ending with “even if I want to…. SCREAM!” which everyone loved.
Next was Sap Sorrow with their song, “Nightshade.” In their unconventional composition, everyone got a little solo time. Attica played the drums hard and solid. Zoe had a steady bass line that held everyone together. Peyton looked so natural on the keys. Alysia was amazing for singing and playing guitar without losing the beat. It was cool to hear Rosaria on the trumpet, not sounding like part of a ska or brass band, but in her own rock style.
After them, Wyld Wolves took to the stage. “The Wolf in Us” had an infectious pop rock vibe that really made my head bop. Josie, the bassist, seemed like she was giving cues that kept everyone on point. Sydney had a beautiful smile on her face as she played the keys; she looked like she was having a blast. Destiny was a diva on the drums, and watching Gillian play those power chords was like watching Joan Jett before she formed the Runaways. Wyld Wolves also had parts in which everyone sang together, which gave it a sense of unity.
Dynomite Demons were next, with their song “Under the Overpass.” Their song was short and sweet, and made me wonder if they hadn’t played a few generator shows already. They made accessories (horns and tails made of red and black pipe cleaners) and blew everyone away with their pozzy vibes.
They looked like they’d been friends for ages. Emma (bass) and Caitlin (drums) formed a steady rhythm section, while Sofia was charismatic on guitar and Nola, the trumpet player, was all the horn section they needed.
After Dynomite Demons came Glo-Wolves, featuring Trista on the guitar, Jah-sia on bass and CC on drums. Their song was cool because it had a short rap section in the middle. Trista looked like a little Lita Ford with her crimped blond mane and confident command of the guitar. I loved Jah-sia’s ease at being the lead singer, while playing the bass, an instrument she switched to (originally she was on keys) in the middle of camp. And everyone loved CC’s super fast and super loud drum fills, which reminded me of firecrackers on the Fourth of July.
I think the next band, Neon Percussion, was especially appealing because their song, “Grungy Cupcake,” was something everyone could relate to, with lyrics like “all I need is that one cupcake / that cupcake that makes my day great.” Grace had a tight, fast drum fill that reminded me of CC’s from Glo-Wolves, and it matched perfectly with Nuri’s bass to make a real supportive rhythm section.
The final band of the Showcase was the oldest group of girls, Forehead. Their song, “Girl, Hey Girl,” blew everyone’s minds. At first, Jaelin’s guitar and Elexys’ bass were subtle, but soon they swelled into a raging fireball of teen angst. When Sage started shouting, “Destruction is your world!” everyone jumped up and started cheering and screaming too. I got goosebumps watching everyone rock out to Forehead, because I was raging the way I did when I saw En Vogue at the Paragon, and I was surrounded by people who felt the same!
That was the magnificent thing about the Girls Rock Showcase. Not everyone knew these girls or had heard their bands before, but everyone in the audience was having the time of their lives! Diaper-clad toddlers were shrieking in glee, in the arms of their mom or dad (also cheering), next to tatted-up punks who were banging their heads to these young bands.