Come out and play At innovative day camp, girls, non-binary kids learn rock bands aren't only for boys

It’s a Wednesday morning in mid-August, and the halls of the West End Cultural Centre are alive with the sound of music. In the lobby, a handful of keyboardists are hammering out chords. In the main room, a group of drummers are trying to stay on the beat with the New Radicals’ You Get What You Give. In the basement, ethereal vocal warm-ups are underlined by a rumble of bass.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/08/2018 (1632 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s a Wednesday morning in mid-August, and the halls of the West End Cultural Centre are alive with the sound of music.

In the lobby, a handful of keyboardists are hammering out chords. In the main room, a group of drummers are trying to stay on the beat with the New Radicals’ You Get What You Give. In the basement, ethereal vocal warm-ups are underlined by a rumble of bass.

The energy in these rooms is one of nervous excitement. Five bands are preparing for their first concert, which will take place on Saturday — just days away. Oh, by the way: these musicians range in age from 10 to 14, and most of them have never played an instrument before.

Welcome to the inaugural Girls Rock Winnipeg, the city’s coolest day camp. In just six days, 21 girls and gender non-conforming kids will learn an instrument, form a band, write and record an original song, and perform a concert.

Ashley Au teaches bass. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

It’s a crash-course in musical instruction, but it’s also a lesson in teamwork, confidence and empowerment.

Girls Rock Winnipeg is part of the Girls Rock Camp movement, which began in Portland, Ore., in 2001. Now, camps are held in more than 20 countries over six continents. All of them are independent, but follow the same basic format.

Founder Brandi Olenick. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Camp co-director Brandi Olenick is the woman who brought Girls Rock to Winnipeg. Since last November, she’s worked tirelessly to make this week happen, organizing fundraising shows as well as securing sponsors and donors. She was willing to do it all on her own, too — until she teamed up with her co-director, WECC community outreach co-ordinator Jessee Havey. Both women are musicians themselves, and both wanted to make this dream a reality.

And reality, by Wednesday, was even better than Olenick could have expected. “It seems like every day is getting better than the last.”

That said, it hasn’t been without its challenges. “Some of them have backgrounds in singing, but for most of them picking up guitars and keyboards, it’s the first time,” Olenick says. (The kids include their first and second instrument choice on their camp applications.)

As well, one band had a personality clash on the first day. “As bands do,” she says. “But they were able to work it out. We have great staff here, and some have counselling backgrounds.”

Nicole Froese (left) and Adrianna Cardamone set up the keyboards before class at the inaugural Girls Rock Winnipeg. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

The volunteer staff of band coaches, managers and instrument instructors — as well as support staff — includes many faces from the Winnipeg music scene, including Mise en Scene drummer Jodi Dunlop, bassist/composer/arranger Ashley Au and Mulligrub guitarist/vocalist Kelly Campbell, to name just a few.

Campbell, who came to Winnipeg from Halifax seven years ago, was dismayed by the lack of women, non-binary and queer folk in this city’s music scene.

“When I moved here, I felt like all the music I saw around me was made by straight, predominately white, men,” Campbell says, taking a break from band-coaching duties.

Drummer Mollie Lysack, 10, loves punk, rock and rap. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Getting involved in Girls Rock Winnipeg, as both a band coach and a board member, was a no-brainer for Campbell. It’s a chance to elevate the emerging voices of girls, trans and non-binary people, while also creating a safe space where they can be themselves without judgement. “Which is what we’re encouraging,” Campbell says. “They don’t have to tone themselves down.”

One gets the sense that all the world is a stage for camper Debie Tolawak. The gregarious 10-year-old has a big personality and an even bigger singing voice; she does an absolutely gorgeous a cappella rendition of Sia’s Chandelier. She’s the vocalist in her band, The Los/vers Club (a blend of losers and lovers that’s an It reference), but she’s also learning the bass. Tolawak lives for pop music.

“I obviously love Pink,” she tells me, referring to the singer. “I don’t like pink, but I love Pink.” (She’s also already mastered the sound bite.)

“I thought it was going to be cool, and it is,” she says of Girls Rock Winnipeg. “I’m sad it’s only a week. I love that everyone here is so friendly and nice. I love that Shout Out wall.”

Autumn Baker-Foort sings during vocals class. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

The Shout Out Wall, on which campers write positive things about one another, is just one example of empowerment to be found on the walls of the WECC. The camp song, with its shouty chorus — “Girls Rock Winnipeg/we are strong/we are brave/Girls Rock Winnipeg/smash the gender binary” — is another. And campers are awarded pins in the daily I Rock ceremony, which acknowledges campers who worked hard or supported each other.

Mollie Lysack, 10, is a pint-sized drummer in a Descendents T-shirt. She likes rock, punk, pop, rap. “I like the Beastie Boys, Descendents, Ramones — slow rock, fast rock. I like it all,” she says.

“It’s fun because you get to learn new things,” she says of camp. “Yesterday, we learned about girls who had influence on the world, like girls singing and girl bands and stuff.”

Their Girl Rock History timeline is displayed on the wall in the main room. Each practice area has also been named for an influential woman or trans woman: Regina Spektor (keys), Aretha Franklin (vocals), Laura Jane Grace (guitar), Kim Deal (bass), and Sheila E. (drums).

But the role models these campers look up to the most are right here in the room with them.

Alex Cloney plays during bass class. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

● ● ●

On Friday afternoon, the campers are huddled around learning about technology that predates them by decades.

La Broquerie musician Emily Granger is teaching them how to turn colourful plastic plates into vinyl records. Each band has already recorded its original song with Madeleine Roger of Roger Roger. They’re also sporting the band T-shirts they’ve designed, which all look like something you’d find in a cool vintage store.

Mallani Nabi plays during bass class. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Cooper Vint, 11, and Alex Cloney, 13, are both in the band Iskotew, which is Cree for “fire within.” Vint is a drummer; Cloney, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, is a bassist. Neither of them played their instruments before Monday. They’ve become fast friends through Girls Rock Winnipeg.

“If you’re not friends with your drummer, nothing’s going to sound good,” jokes Cloney, who has cut off the sleeves of their band T-shirt. Cloney is into metal and punk rock; Vint is into “the exact opposite, nerdy musical theatre,” she laughs.

Mia Tellier-Lalonde hams it up for the camera during vocals class. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Neither were sure what to expect heading into camp.

“At first I thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be stressful and hard and I’m gonna be dying — but I’m not, so that’s good news,” Vint says of camp with a laugh. “It’s not as hard or stressful as I thought it was going to be because everyone’s super-nice and it’s super-fun.”

“That’s so sweet, man,” Cloney says to Vint. “I found it really frustrating. I’m not the best at working with people, so being shoved in a group of five people who I’d never met and then had to make music with was really hard, but I’ve come to enjoy it.”

Both campers are nervously anticipating tomorrow’s show; Cloney is “terrified.” At 2 p.m., they will take the WECC stage for the first time as Iskotew.

Amellie Tara dances during the keyboard class. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

“I’m anxious, but I’m also excited because I get to wear a ridiculous costume and no one will judge me, unlike normally,” Vint says.

Because of her gender-neutral first name and her fondness for bowties (she has seven, she explains proudly), people sometimes give Vint a hard time.

“One thing I was worried about when I came, whenever I’m in something that’s all girls, it’s always like, ‘You’re not a girl, why are you here?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m a girl,’ and they’re like, ‘No, you’re not.’ And I’m like, ‘Why are you arguing with me about my gender? That’s really weird,’ “ Vint says.

“But the exact opposite happened here. No one cares.”

● ● ●

It’s Saturday afternoon, and you’d be hard pressed to find a dry eye in the house.

The five bands from Girls Rock Winnipeg — Iskotew, The Los/vers Club, Maker, Ring of Fire and Wildlife Rox — have just played a killer showcase to a roaring crowd filled with family and friends. With their glitter-streaked cheeks and Manic Panic hair, they look like rock stars. More than that, they look proud.

They just did what many adults would struggle to do: get up on stage and perform an original song they wrote just days before.

From a Riot Grrrl-inspired song about a girl named Anna and her four-legged friends (”Cheetah, goat, wolf, puppy/Anna is so lucky!”) to an empowerment anthem about being yourself (”Don’t tell me what to wear, don’t tell me what to say/ We’re all strange, don’t tell us to change”), the week’s teachings were all over these performances.

The campers became visibly more comfortable as they played on, their band coaches supporting them. By the end, there was even some swagger.

Drummer Jodi Dunlop, one of the instrument instructors, says later that being involved with Girls Rock Winnipeg was one of the most rewarding experiences of her life.

“The amount of respect, confidence and talent demonstrated by these young individuals from start to finish is inspiring to say the least,” she says. “Getting to work alongside some of Winnipeg’s most talented musicians as a fellow instructor felt pretty surreal. Throughout the week, almost all of them had expressed that they wished they had the opportunity to learn their instrument in a setting like the one provided by Girls Rock Winnipeg.

“It blows my mind to think that these super-talented instructors had ever been made to feel uncomfortable or not good enough — but sadly I can definitely relate, and that’s why Girls Rock Winnipeg is so important.”

“We need this camp,” Olenick said through happy tears onstage. “We need it every year. We need support and sponsors.”

And as the kids excitedly introduced their band coaches and managers to their parents, you could tell they feel the same way.

After it was all over, one of the campers shyly walked up to Olenick.

“Thanks…,” she started, then stopped. “Um… just thanks.”

(Susan Keller photo) Twitter: @JenZoratti

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Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.

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