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La Guitara Draws From Differences

With Berea College as their first stop, the female guitarists of La Guitara kicked off their much anticipated tour on International Women's Day with a skillful and stunning collection of songs.

Badi Assad performs as part of La Guitara.

Organized by Patty Larkin, an accomplished singer/songwriter, La Guitara is a ground-breaking assembly of great female guitarists from many styles and backgrounds. Feeling that women guitarists and their contributions to the evolution of modern guitar have been largely ignored, Larkin has compiled a CD, "Gender Bending Strings," to bring focus to 14 of these skilled female musicians.

"This is a real thrill because it's such a mix of genres," said Larkin.

The concert at Berea and the ensuing tour features three of these guitarists: slide-guitar master Ellen McIlwaine, Brazilian-influenced Badi Assad and Larkin herself. The day before the concert was the first time Assad had met Larkin and McIlwaine.

In three twenty-minute solo sets, each woman offered a sampling of her talents at singing and songwriting as well as playing guitar - and the different styles and influences that each drew upon in their guitar-playing.

McIlwaine used her powerful voice, wry humor and incredible skill at the slide to perform Al Green's "Take Me to the River," "May This Be Love" by Jimi Hendrix and some of her own work, including "Sidu" - a song written for her Lebanese friend's grandmother. McIlwaine also demonstrated the variety of sounds that can be made with an ordinary guitar, making her own instrument wail like an electric guitar.

"I would remind you that it's just a six-string guitar," said McIlwaine, "But with a slide, you can make it do anything."

McIlwaine, who is thought to be the only guitar player in the world to have played with Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter, Taj Mahal and Jack Bruce, takes her influences from blues and R&B as well as the music of Egypt, India and Japan. "I listened to music from all over the world before they called it world music," she explained.

Following McIlwaine was Badi Assad, who set out to change the temperature of the concert with musical styling based in her home country.

"I'm taking you to Brazil," she said.

Assad's set included her contemporary compositions and her take on traditional Brazilian guitar, as well as her covers of work by modern artists such as Tori Amos and the Eurythmics. She used her skill at vocal improvisation to accompany her music, often making popping and clicking noises at the same time as singing or humming.

" I discovered I could do more than one thing with my mouth, and ever since I never stopped it," said Assad of her talent.

Larkin stepped on stage after the intermission, introducing the concept behind the CD and tour as well as sharing her own set of songs. She also launched into a humorous monologue about the difficulties of raising kids. In addition to some instrumental guitar compositions, her songs "The Book I'm Not Reading," "Tango" and "Angel's Wings" were drawn from her 10-album recording career.

As the end of the concert neared, all three women gathered on stage to play together. They drew the audience into their performance, encouraging them to clap, sing and engage in the music.

McIlwaine shared some thoughts with the audience before the group's last song. She discussed the fact that each and every snowflake is different and unique, yet differences in people are not equally respected. La Guitara seeks to bring those differences into the foreground.

"I think we all need to raise our voices and speak our truth," she finished. "So that's really what this [song] is about."

Proceeds from La Guitara sales go to Guitars in the Classroom, a program designed to provide instruments to teachers, turn schools into rich musical environments and aid in the development of creativity in students.

For more information about Guitars in the Classroom and the artists in La Guitara, visit the links below.

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