Offbeat 17/Offbeat Women’s Big Band 1984 ~ 87
Al Rider, tenor sax; Angele Veltmeyer, sax; Ann Day, drums, percussion; Diane McLoughlin, sax; Di Davies, trumpet; Gill Baker, sax; Gwyn ?, vocals; Jessica Palin, congas; Judy Couthino, guitar; Louisa Lasdun, flute, arranger, composer; Mandy Budge, trumpet; Pat Tell, piano; Renee ?, trumpet; Ros Davies, trombone; Sarha Moore, sax; Shirley McCaw, trombone; Sonia Davenport, bass; Yolanda Armstrong, trombone
Out of the Blue
Ann Day, drums, percussion; Alison Rayner, bass; Deirdre Cartwright, guitar
Jana Runnalls, vocal, 6 string guitar, clarinet, take block (bamboo ratchet), kazoo, West African drum, kplanlogo drum (Ghana); Rosemary Schonfeld, vocals, acoustic 12-string guitar, electric guitar, Juno 6 synthesizer, cabasa, Linn drum programme, kalimba, thumb piano, log drum. Additional musicians played on the following albums: Ova, Benni Lees, bass; Linda Malone, congas; Sammy, Fender Rhodes/ String Synthesizer; Out of Bounds, Josefina Cupido, drums; Alison Rayner, bass; Helen Hurden, synthesizer; additional vocals from Amazon Voices: Moira, Annie, Lizzie, Jan, Chess, Lindsay and Sybil; Possibilities, Zephyrine Barbarachild, voice, Jenny Gibbs, voice, Susy Taylor, voice, Livvy Elliot, voice and ankle bells; Who Gave Birth to the Universe, Jane Reese, keyboards; Katrina Brown, voice.
Ova were formed by Rosemary Schonfeld and Jana (previously Jane) Runnalls in 1976. Originally they were a duo called the Lupin Sisters,* named after the catchall surname for the people who lived in the gay squat. The new name was coined by Sally Beautista, a musician who played in the band. Although when the band first started there were a number of musicians who played in Ova, including Maggie Nichols, Ova were predominantly a duo for most of their performing and recording career.
Jana and Rosemary met in London towards the end of 1975. Jana had been living in Paris and was having some success as a singer-songwriter there, and Rosemary, who had grown up in Canada, had been travelling around the world before moving to London where she became involved in the squatting scene. The pair fell in love and started a romantic and creative relationship playing mainly contemporary folk songs and songs by the Beatles. In the mid-1970s homophobia was prevalent throughout society and many of their friends and family disapproved of their sexuality. Indeed, Rosemary and Jana were the direct recipients of homophobic violence when they were beaten up and forced out of their North London squat. Luckily they found a place to live with members of the Gay Liberation Front in Railton Road, Brixton, a place where radical political culture and squatting in particular, has thrived.
It was in this context the pair became fully politicised learning new words like ‘homophobia’ and ‘misogyny’, and started to use music as a vehicle to express women and lesbian positive ideas. They soon found themselves in the midst of the burgeoning lesbian and gay subculture to which they contributed.
Self Defence – Ova
Jana and Rosemary discuss the ‘dangerous’ lyrics to ‘Far Beyond the Dawn’ on radio
Ova played a wide range of instruments including hand drums, guitars, synthesizers, log drums, keyboards, flute and clarinet. Improvisation was a feature of their performances. Percussion and Jana’s adventurous vocal improvisations were a distinctive part of their sound. As a duo Ova recorded four full length albums, Ova (1979); Out of Bounds (1981); Possibilities (1984) and Who Gave Birth To the Universe (1988) on the feminist label Stroppy Cow Records who also used by Jam Today and Maria Tolley. Stroppy Cow was set up to encourage ‘women to make their own kind of music in their own time and space without the counterproductive pressures of commercialism. The music industry often restricts creativity by pre-determining images and roles that women have to conform to in order to be heard. The policy of Stroppy Cow Records is to encourage women to define their own musical output and to be involved in every stage of production.’
Ova perform as part of the Nottingham Women’s Festival in 1984 (please note that this is the whole documentary. If you want to see Ova they are 30 minutes in).
Like many feminist bands of the 70s and 80s, Ova positioned themselves outside of the dominant, capitalist music industry. They took full control over their musical output: from writing, recording, producing and distributing their own material. Following the example of Jam Today, the band also had their own PA system and sound engineer.
The band toured the UK, Europe, Scandinavia and the United States extensively. After a performance at the Melkweg women’s festival in Holland, Amsterdam, in 1978, Agnes Lewe, who ran a women’s music distribution business called Troubador, based, Germany, offered to organise a tour in Germany for the group. Ova were popular in Germany and toured there on numerous occasions, their last appearance being in 1988, and met a couple of members of the German lesbian band The Flying Lesbians.
Ova – live at the Vrouwen Festival, Amsterdam, 1979
The band toured the US three times, including one coast-to-coast tour and played at the famous Michigan Womyn’s festival in 1980. At the festival Ova were challenged by women of colour over their use of a West African drum. This was a decisive moment for Ova, who would later introduce all the instruments they used on stage, as well as on the inlay of their albums, in order to be sensitive to issues of cultural appropriation.
Ova – Madness of a Memory
This interview with Rosemary Schonfeld, conducted by Debi Withers on behalf of the WLMA in 2010, contains, as Rosemary says, “a lot of very relevant information about that time, about Stroppy Cow records, Jam Today, how we all were trying to create an alternative to the music industry, the Ova Music Studio, the issues we were all dealing with, how we lived, etc. Anyone interested in that era and what we were up to musically and politically would find it informative.” Researchers wishing to use this and other archived Ova material in their work are welcome to contact Rosemary via the WLMA.
Below are a series of Ova interviews, with accompanying notes written for WLMA by Rosemary Schonfeld in May, 2014:
Over Africa BBC World Service 7.19 minutes
‘Very poor quality sound, but interesting because it demonstrates how we were exploring and using non-Western instruments at a time when this was not commonplace. Every other festival band uses djembes now, but back in the early 1980’s, not even the BBC presenter knew what that type of drum was called. We also describe the mbira and log drums we used in our set.’
Newsbeat 4.56 minutes
‘Fascinating for the announcement of the big “celebration” [farewell party] to mark the abolition of the GLC, and all the groups who were going lose their funding. The Ova Music Studio is mentioned because we were lucky that Camden Council took up some of our funding. Jenny Gibbs, our administrator, describes what the Ova Music Studio was about. Some of the history of the GLC is talked about.’
LBC 6.28 minutes
‘This is an interview about the Drumbelles, the women’s drumming group which grew out of my percussion workshops. Anne Peck describes how the group evolved. I describe some of the drums, the unusual rhythms we work with, and how pieces of music are developed.’
Inside London 27.20 minutes
‘Quite an in-depth interview. Good ‘unusual’ sound and a ‘richly various musical output.’ We talk about our approach to music and refusing to be pigeonholed, how we don’t believe in hierarchies and ‘lead’ singers etc., how political music is anathema to the music industry. The interviewer says our music is ‘dangerous’ and ‘discomforting’ because of the overt lyrics about lesbianism. We also talk about recording, Stroppy Cow Records, being in control of every stage of production, distribution. There’s a recording from one of Jana’s singing workshops, and Jana talks about why we did women only workshops. At this stage we are still looking for premises for the Ova Music and Recording Studio, and describe what we are hoping to achieve by setting it up. Songs played: Far Beyond the Dawn, Language for Lovers, The Granny Song, Possibilities’
Gill Pyrah 24.16 minutes
‘Another in-depth interview, but only with Rosemary. The political nature of our music is immediately brought up, and The Granny Song is played. ‘Broad Feminist Left CND’ is how Gill describes it. Gill asks about our US tour, how the Americans responded to our ‘unglamourous’ appearance. Interview finishes with song Language for Lovers, which sounds as if the cassette tape is about to snap!’
Capital Radio 5.35 minutes
‘This focuses on the Ova Music Studio, and was done in the first week of the Studio’s opening. Jenny Gibbs explains why the Studio is for women and girls. The interviewer talks to a woman from one of Jana’s voice workshops, and to Jana. Interviewer talks to Kathy and Jasmin, fifteen and fourteen years old, who have come all the way from Liverpool for the opening.’
Radio Leeds 14.53 minutes
‘Interview opens with ‘Far Beyond the Dawn.’ We’re asked where we’re from, where we play, what our musical influences are. We are on tour in the North. Sound quality dips about half way through, but comes back. ‘Language for Lovers’ plays out.’
Swedish Radio 26.09 minutes
‘The presenter speaks in Swedish. Songs played are: Auto Erotic Blues, Rainbow Woman, Nuclear Madness, One Day I’m Going to Kill a Man in Self Defence, Madness of a Memory, Full Moonlight Dance. Both of us speak about our music, and what we are trying to achieve.’
Stockholm Interview 36.05 minutes
‘This includes Livvy Elliot, sound engineer, and Jenny Gibbs, administrator. We are asked about our history, how Ova started, our plans for the Ova Music Studio in terms of workshops and outreach work. We say how lucky we were to get funding, and just happened to apply at the time the GLC was changing its funding policy in favour of music and multi-media outfits, whereas they’d been very theatre-focused up until that point.’
Women’s Hour 14.43 minutes
‘This is a general programme about the changing role of women in music, the images of women in pop, and why there are many women singers but not many who play the instruments. There are different women speaking: Helen Terry, Vi Subversa, Rosemary Schonfeld, Helen Shapiro. Sue Steward speaks about stereotypes, and problems encountered by women in the music industry. Song played: The Granny Song.’
Interview with Ova including Livvy Elliott 33 minutes
‘I’ve no idea who conducted this interview, or where it took place. Songs played: Travelling Spirit, Happy Drumming, Earthquake. Livvy describes in more detail her work and role with Ova, and her experience as a woman sound engineer. We talk about Stroppy Cow Records.’ [See the Stroppy Cow entry on the S page for more info on this feminist recording label.]
Walking in Mercury – Ova
R S Postscript – Postscript by Rosemary Schonfeld
Coming out story – Rosemary Schonfeld’s Coming Out Story
*Just for the record, ‘Lupin’ was originally me and Jamie and Lizzie (Myfanwy) – we all wanted a new surname and my younger brother David had kept alive for me the sheer lunacy of the Monty Python’s Flying Circus gag about lupins, hence the choice of name (you can get some clips on YouTube and even some transcripts – just google ‘Monty Python’ and ‘lupins’). Alice Bondi.
We have loads more Ova stuff to upload, including radio interviews, more music, photographs and Jana’s personal recollections so watch this space!
Ova Tones Studio
One of the most important contributions to women’s music in the 1980s was the Ova music studio. During the 1970s and 1980s women still had to fight to be in control of their own musical output, and were generally not allowed anywhere near the technology.
In 1983 Rosemary and Jana secured funding from the GLC to set up a music resource and recording studio for women and girls, with the aim of educating and empowering women and girls through and about music making and music technology. At the studio, which was based in Highgate Newtown Community Centre in North London, Ova held voice (Jana) and rhythm (Rosemary) workshops as well as teaching women the rudiments of sound technology in their 8-track recording studio. With the use of their porta-studio, Ova held workshops at schools and festivals. They also did other workshops in the community, including tea-dances and drum workshops at old people’s homes. Radio coverage of the opening of the Ovatones studio on Capitol Radio
In 1989 Rosemary and Jana went their separate ways although the recording studio still continued with different owners.
Neither Gives In – Ova
We hope to gather more information on Ovatones and continue to document the development of the studio in its next stage under the management of Lesley Willis and Lesley Wood