Women Up Front 

Let us now praise socially conscious female musicians.

The East Bay is blessed with a dedicated community of female musicians who have done much to promote a wide variety of musical scenes -- leaders and organizers such as Linda Tillery, Susan Muscarella, Rhiannon, Carolyn Brandy, Rebeca Mauleón, Montclair Women's Big Band, Lichi Fuentes, Donna Viscuso, Holly Near, Ronnie Gilbert, and others. But events specifically to praise the unsung heroines are few and far between. That's unfortunate, because these women have taught, mentored, and inspired us with their performances. Leave it up to La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley to fill the void and find a way to unite and recognize resident women musicians with something unique and culturally rich.

"The Mujeres/Women series is a microcosm showcasing the different genres, communities, generations, and voices that we present here at La Peña, and their relationship to different social movements," says Sylvia Sherman, director of development and special projects at the renowned Berkeley cultural center (3105 Shattuck Ave.). The series of concerts, funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, will present eleven concerts in six months. It opened March 12 with Near and Gilbert, and continues this Saturday with the band Cava, featuring vocalist Claudia Tenorio and singer-songwriter Lichi Fuentes.

Recalls Sherman: "It was a couple of years ago at the Latin Jazz Legacy Series that Donna Viscuso and Lichi Fuentes were so impressed how history was told through conversations and performances, they said: Wouldn't it be great to do something like this to honor and show the role of women in music in the Bay Area?"

For Sherman, co-curator of the series with Fuentes and Viscuso, the showcase is close to her heart not only as a woman percussionist in the Afro-Cuban son band La Familia, but also because of what the recognition means to the arts community. "I've benefited from community arts programs and am committed in supporting and continuing them wherever they may be. It's a place where people who might not ordinarily get involved in the arts can go and get training. That's what happened to me, and now I see that the musicians of today are the ones who were in these classes fifteen years ago."

The conversations preceding each concert are hosted by Fuentes and Vicuso with help from activist/artist Cece Carpio and Melanie Berzon, program director at KCSM FM 91.1. Among the highlights is the 5th Annual Women in Salsa Celebration, featuring Cha Cha Boom and Orquesta D'Soul, on April 22. Sherman performs on April 16 with La Familia, folklorist Jackeline Rago, and the Venezuelan Music Project. The latter group, which includes singers Violeta Arroyo and Lena Luna, performs the second Friday of every month at La Estrellita Restaurant, 446 E.12 St. in East Oakland, where it has garnered a positive reputation.

"I've been part of an unusual reality," concludes Sherman, "where women have had a chance to grow and learn as musicians. There is definitely a dynamic in the professional artists' world where only the exceptional women are integrated into primarily male-run ensembles. But I've seen how women forge ahead and create opportunities for themselves, and we honor that spirit with this series."

For details and tickets, call 510-849-2568 or visit www.lapena.org

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