Women From Space Festival Fosters Encouraging Environments

Toronto’s new and experimental music scene is saturated with innovative and eccentric artists, so it makes total sense that the city is home to the annual Women From Space festival. Each year, Women from Space sets out to amplify and facilitate a supportive environment for diverse artists of marginalized genders, and the expansive 2024 program is no different. This year boasts a fruitful line-up of inspiring, eclectic artists bringing a cornucopia of sounds to the stage, ranging from from Afro and Latin electronica to improvisatory new/contemporary classical and noisy hardcore skronk. Beginning Mar. 8 on International Women’s Day and running through Mar. 10, the festival will take place at 918 Bathurst, the unorthodox arts “sanctuary” and former Buddhist temple, intriguingly tucked into the downtown but largely residential neighborhood, The Annex.

Women from Space was created in 2019 by saxophonist-improvisers Bea Labikova and Kayla Milmine to elevate and bolster creative music, and make it more accessible to audience members. Labikova says that the first year was “a very ambitious DIY edition of the festival, with opening night in a 20-person capacity basement.” Since then, the festival has cultivated a wide-reaching network of international guest artists, local performers, and supporters who are curious to discover unconventional experimental music.

Along with trumpet-live processing duo BLOOP, night one will include sets by Morgan-Paige, a Toronto-based interdisciplinary artist, and a 17-piece improvising “all-star band,” Big Bang!, comprising past festival performers and musicians who form the Women from Space community – a reflection of their commitment to foster ongoing relationships with their invited artists. The ensemble will perform commissioned arrangements and reimaginings of Björk songs by six Canadian composers, including Jessica Ackerley, Mingjia Chen, and Lieke Van Der Voort. “At times, there will be two drum sets, two vibraphones, a harp with electronics, eight horns, beats, samples, synths, and four vocalists… and large-scale visual projections covering the entire front side of 918 Bathurst,” explains Labikova.

The 2024 Women From Space festival Big Bang! band -- Photo courtesy of Women From Space

The 2024 Women From Space festival Big Bang! band — Photo courtesy of Women From Space

Much like Exit Points – another Toronto-based improvisation series produced by Michael Palumbo each month at Arraymusic – Women From Space pairs guest artists with one another to create never-before-heard exploratory collaborations. However, the festival stands out in its commitment to facilitating a safe environment specifically for women, gender-nonconforming, Two-spirit, (gender)queer, and transgender artists to experiment and take risks in performance. Every year, Labikova and her team set out to feature “curated, ad-hoc improvisation ensembles” of artists who share complementary sensibilities and will create compelling musical conversation. “Each night will take audiences on a ride through vast sonic possibilities. You never know what will happen,” Labikova says. And she is content to share that some of the festival’s curated matches have spawned collaborations after the festival.

On the other hand, there are a select few ensembles coming to the festival already formed. On night two, Mali Obomsawin, a Abenaki First Nation at Odanak artist, will be performing both written and improvised music with her quartet consisting of Mili Hong (drums), Magdalena Abrego (guitar), Allison Burik (woodwinds), and herself on bass and vocals. Obomsawin’s music is steeped in the traditions of free jazz, Northeast folk, and Indigenous culture. Her practice largely centers on collaboration; she says, “As a composer, I write sketches that outline the spine of a piece. From there, I choose my improvisers based on the qualities I want to bring out.”

Her 2022 debut album Sweet Tooth (Out of Your Head Records) embodies this approach; Obomsawin shares that “a lot of thought went into the personnel of the band. A big part of the collective composing process was conversation, and talking about the conceptual background of the music.” The group shared in-depth reflections on colonialism and how they move through the world as people of color, which was integral to a project that involved translations to and from Obomsawin’s ancestral language.

Mali Obomsawin -- Photo courtesy of Women From Space

Mali Obomsawin — Photo courtesy of Women From Space

Obomsawin’s Women from Space performance will be co-presented by The Music Gallery, an artistic incubator founded by the Canadian Creative Music Collective in 1976 to nurture contemporary music. After moving locations several times since its creation, their partnership with 918 Bathurst began in 2017, and they now occupy the small, but lively hall in the venue. Along with aesthetic appeal and cavernous reverb, The Music Gallery’s “Safer Spaces” policies offer increased safety measures for its artists and audience goers. Offerings include therapeutic rooms, safe walks between the venue and modes of transportation, harm reduction kits and Naloxone, COVID support, gender-neutral washrooms, and financial assistance – those unable to afford event tickets are never turned away.

The final evening of the festival kicks off with underground Colombian producer chiquitamagic, along with longtime colleague Anh Phung and first-time collaborator Emjay Wright (a DJ and improviser). chiquitamagic has a background in traditional jazz and choir settings, but now creates dance and electronic music that leans into the political nature of Latin women’s empowerment through sexuality and the body. Following the trio is Haitian electroacoustic artist and turntablist Val Jeanty (aka Val-Inc) sharing the stage with movement artist Nickeisha Garrick. Jeanty frequently incorporates Haitian Vodou rhythms with modern electronics in what she deems “Afro-Electronica” (or “Vodou-Electro”).

The concluding act is headlined by American improviser, multi-instrumentalist, and composer Matana Roberts, who has been paired with percussionist Germaine Liu and trumpet/electronics artist Nicole Rampersaud. “We’ve never played together before, so it’s an excursion of possibility,” Roberts says. “They both seem deeply committed to their vision and art life, and I am very inspired by them.”

Matana Roberts -- Photo courtesy of Women From Space

Matana Roberts — Photo courtesy of Women From Space

Roberts is a mixed media sound artist who has performed across the international contemporary arts spectrum to much acclaim. In Sept. 2023, they released Coin Coin Chapter Five: In the garden… (Constellation Records), the fifth installment of their archival “sound-quilting” project of African American history. They are currently working on setting up shows to tour the record, creating artwork for an upcoming exhibition, and writing a book of essays and short stories. As a non-binary artist, Roberts says they appreciate being included in the Women from Space line-up “regardless of how I identify,” and champion the support of trans women upheld by the festival.

Organizing Women From Space proved a massive undertaking with many moving parts – “It takes a village,” Labikova remarks. However, the spirit of collaborative music making, and the facilitation of environments that encourage risks and accelerated vulnerability, make it a feat worthwhile. She fondly states, “After six years, our network has grown… I am most looking forward to seeing a room full of people having a joyous time, celebrating innovation, and feeling the sense of community.”

You can find more information about the festival and artists, and purchase tickets (priced $15-30CAD) on the Women From Space Festival website.


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