Wednesday, September 19, 2007


This six-day, LGBT-friendly festival celebrates so much more than music

by Don Baiocchi

In five years, some festivals barely get going before collapsing in mismanagement or lack of interest. But Estrojam, the Chicago-based music/arts festival run by and showcasing women, is celebrating half a decade of continuous growth and influence. Attendance has doubled to 12,000 people since its inception; last year, men and women came from more than 20 states and seven countries. Among many accomplishments, the festival promotes lesbian and transgendered artists to thousands of people. To celebrate their success, the organizers are packing concerts, Margaret Cho's "The Sensuous Woman" burlesque show, art exhibits, a film festival, workshops and panels into just six days.

"Our main goal is to bring programming across the genres, generations and borders," explains T. Khyentse James, Estrojam's founder and executive director. Fun, well-traveled and ambitious, James is also in charge of the music programming. Estrojam is known mostly for music, and James and her staff have a history of staying two steps ahead of the mainstream. Past years have featured Cat Power and the Gossip before others "discovered" them. This year, look out for the up-and-coming band Grace Potter and the Nocturnals and local rapper Psalm One. They'll play alongside such legends as Bahamadia, one of the first female MCs, and funk/soul band ESG, playing their last U.S. show ever.

Unlike other, music-only festivals, Estrojam has a mission not just to showcase artists, but to encourage local and global awareness in its audience. This year, workshops range from helping women tackle the quarter-life crisis to exploring female sexuality. Plus, they've partnered with WE-ACTx, an international organization helping women and children in Africa with HIV/AIDS. "Everything that happens in our world, even on the other side of the planet, will eventually affect our lives right here in Chicago, and vice versa," says James, whose vision for the festival is influenced by her graduate work in both business and Buddhism. WE-ACTx will have a table at every show with information about how to help, including volunteer efforts in Africa.

With so many women working both behind the scenes and on stage, it seems inevitable that Estrojam gives many lesbian and transgendered artists exposure not found in other festivals. Previous years have featured LGBT artists ranging from Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls to electronica band Lesbians on Ecstasy. "There are a large number of LGBT people who are involved and who come to the event," explains James, and this year is no different. Among others, Tampa-based trio Yo Majesty is the "self-proclaimed only all-lesbian rap group," and local rockers 8 Inch Betsy have a huge queer following. Meanwhile, the film festival will be showcasing the work of at least five lesbian filmmakers. One standout is out filmmaker Marie Martino's Pie in the Sky, a short, experimental video with a split screen showing two simultaneous narratives. "[Estrojam] fosters education, community, creativity and, well, fun," explains Martino. "It's such an awesome event."

Mixing artistic expression with social responsibility, Estrojam is a Chicago festival that becomes a microcosm of how art transcends gender, sexuality, race and culture throughout the world. With five years' worth of lessons and experience behind her, James knows that this year's anniversary won't be the last. As she says, "this is just the beginning."

Estrojam runs from Sept. 18 through Sept. 23 at various locations;