‘Gender shouldn’t be an issue’

Growing up near Rosscarbery, Co Cork, Catherine Sikora had never been exposed to much jazz, writes Don O’Mahony

However, having heard some on the radio she knew it was something she wanted to pursue further.

She took flute lessons when she was a child so when she found herself drawn to the saxophone she had enough of the basics to find her own way around the instrument.

At the time the nearest place for her to study a degree in jazz was in England, but dissatisfied with the experience, she relocated to New York in 2000.

What she experienced among the avant garde jazz community there was inspiring.

“I was hearing people play in a style that I hadn’t really experienced and at a level that I definitely had not seen before that was mindblowing,” she recalls.

She found a jazz community she describes as welcoming and generous.

“I was never treated in any way different. I felt like it was very much egalitarian,” she says.

“I was always treated as an equal to the point where I didn’t think about it. And definitely with the particular circles that I was working in it was not an issue, which is really nice. I think it’s how it should be.

“If you’re in a room playing music with people gender kinda shouldn’t be an issue. Everyone’s there and why would it be an issue? It doesn’t affect how you play an instrument.”

Speaking ahead of Ban Bam, a new one-day festival from Improvised Music Company with a focus on female artists in jazz and improvised music that is taking place in Dublin, Sikora notes that most of the gender prejudice she experienced came from non musicians.

“Where I’ve many times walked into a venue with two big honking saxophone cases on my shoulders and someone says ‘Oh, you must be the singer.’

And I’m like, ‘Yeah, and I’m carrying these instruments for my boyfriend. Of course’,” she laughs.

“Once I had a man get mad at me because then I got up onstage and I played. I came off stage, he said ‘you told me you we’re the singer.’

“I said no. He said ‘I said you must be and you said I must’. Yep, agreeing with you.’ Which hopefully made him think.”

She also has to carry two big cases to gigs. “They’re not small instruments that I play. And I have to walk sideways through doors to get in with them.”

Sikora sees Ban Bam, a play on ‘bean’, the Irish word for woman, as an important initiative.

“I think it’s really important. especially outside of places like New York, where things advance faster there than other places.

“I think having it here is great and I think giving a little extra support to women is great because we are still definitely the minority.

“What’s important is that all across society whatever it is that a little girl wants to do she has role models who are women and who are successful and who are treated equally and equally respected in whatever she wants to do.

"So that needs to happen in music definitely for instrumentalists and definitely for people working in the technical side,” she says.

The one experience she has of experiencing sexism from a musician interestingly came from a European.

She recalls: “I was in a rehearsal for a recording in New York and a European musician had been invited to sit in and immediately assumed I was a girlfriend of someone.

“Again, sitting there with my horns and a big pile of music in front of me, and he actually said something to that effect. The band leader afterwards called me, completely mortified.

“But you always have individuals who aren’t as evolved and that does needs to change.”

The one-day Ban Bam festival focuses on female artists in jazz, improvised and experimental music on Saturday at The Complex in Dublin. Katherine Sikora is among the acts playing at the live gig at 7pm. improvisedmusic.ie


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