Sunday, 30 September 2012

Vanessa Ferdinand

Old time/bluegrass banjo player extraordinaire

What are your experiences of sexism?

When I lived in Morrocco I played in Marrakesh, in the main square.  The main guy there wanted me to play in some berber fusion band, but in the end it turned out he just wanted to marry me.

That happens a lot.

Yeah.  And when I worked in a music store, people would call me up to ask me about musical equipment, but they wouldn't take me seriously, I think because I was a woman. 

Yeah, that happened to me a lot when I worked in a DIY store.

Someone else who is in the room: 'That happens to me working in a bike workshop'

Vanessa: The repertoire I have to work with are murder ballads, about men taking women out into the woods and killing them. So I have to rewrite these songs so I can actually sing them. 'Polly Pretty Polly'.. (traditional ballad where the protagonist takes his fiance for a walk and they encounter a hole in the ground, which turns out to be the grave he dug for her the night before). She's like, 'please don't kill me'.

In (traditional ballad) 'Tam Lin', she gets raped and falls in love with him anyway.

Yeah, the women are always so weak and stupid.

Have you ever felt pressure to sexualise yourself when you're on stage?

I played in an indie rock band. I felt that I had to wear...I wore revealing short shorts, and one time I wore a crocheted could see right through it, and I got an amazing response.

Did you feel pressured to dress that way?

It was more of an assumption. I was just modelling myself on what I'd seen. It was more about looking cool. But I felt like I had to make more of an effort than the guys did, because they'd just be wearing a dirty T shirt.

Do you think you experience less sexism playing the fiddle and banjo than if you played the guitar or drums?

Oh yeah. I'm lucky enough to be in a genre where you don't sell yourself on looks whatsoever. I'm out of the realm of potential experiences, it's more about how plain you look. But bluegrass, and banjo are a man's music.

So how come you don't get judged on that?

Because I'm not in Georgia playing the banjo. If I were in Georgia I'm sure there would be a novelty aspect of me being a woman, not just my good pickin' (grins).

But I do attend a bluegrass night here, and it's all men. And they really frickin' like me. I get a really good response from them. Bluegrass is all about older males, so I'm really encouraged. And bluegrass is fast and technical, so when I go to bluegrass things I enter it very humbly because I know I'm not at the same standard as everyone else. So I'm not in a position where I would experience sexism.



  1. I started playing banjo at age 15 and I'm now 26. I grew up in a tourist town and naturally was a busker (following in the footsteps of my foster-father). Long story short, I eventually realized the only way to perform my art without harrassment, condescending comments, unsolicited "lessons", as well as accusations that I only make tips because I'm female, was by donning a full-body costume with a mask.  That way I could be silent and not have to politely answer men's time-consuming and disingenuous questions or comments, nor comply with their demands to show me "how its done." Also no one would even know I'm female. 

    I've since stopped playing in public and only play from time to time in the privacy of my home.  It's just too sad to me that when I'm seen carrying an instrument, (sans costume) men routinely ask me if I carry it just to look like a musician.  I play because I love mastering new skills, and having the ability to convey my feelings through sound, I love making people happy and for children to be entranced by a live performance.  I'm very good, I can pick very fast with excellent rhythm, and write most of my own songs.  It sucks that when men see me play, they don't display happiness or anything positive; rather they look crestfallen, embarrassed, or even angry. I don't like inspiring those feelings in anyone, which is why I don't perform in front of men unless I'm wearing a costume to conceal my sex/gender.  Those who aren't upset ask for my phone-number, ask if I have a boyfriend, try to grab and touch me, offer or demand to play my instrument, or otherwise ask me to stop playing in order to give them attention, and if I don't comply I may have my tip-bucket kicked over, be called a bitch, be asked if I'm gay, called a feminazi, etc. (I'm married, incidentally, to a man :p)

    That's an absurd way to live, having to cover one's entire body in order to perform unmolested, which is why I've given up on performing altogether. Sexist as it may be, my husband doesn't entirely approve of my performing, either.  I guess its just not in my cards to play music with or for others.

  2. Hi Sam, I'm really sorry that you've had to put up with such crap. Do you live in Central Scotland or Northern Ireland at all? Just wondering because there is a strong movement of women playing music rapidly building, mostly between Edinburgh, Glasgow and Belfast. Girls Rock School Edinburgh, Girls Rock School Northern Ireland, and the Rock and Roll Summer School for Girls Glasgow are all helping more women and girls to start playing music in a supportive, empowering space. There's also one in London I believe. All of these organisations are open to volunteers helping out, so I imagine if you got in touch with your closest one you could put your musical skills to use helping other women and girls to learn. We're also teaching women and girls how to navigate the sexist bullshit and build their self esteem and confidence. Let us know if you wanna get involved!! Also, I reckon you should ditch your husband!! ;)