Sisterhood of the turntable
By Derek Paiva
Advertiser Entertainment Writer
So it's apropos that in its first year of existence, all-girl DJ crew Sisters In Sound's monthly Isis parties have grown and nurtured a long overdue yet uniquely original scene for female musicians, artists, poets and, especially, DJs.
How did the Sisters do it? By simply turning the turntables on Honolulu's male-dominated DJ scene by turning its own turntables over to a growing force of homegrown female DJs.
Still crazy after all last year (or at least, still crazily popular), Isis celebrates its first birthday Saturday with a party that promises all of the usual extras its faithful have grown to love (flowers, candles, aromatherapy, art, wickedly eclectic music, lots of girls and boys) shaken and stirred up with, according to one of the Sisters, " ... a little more pizazz ... a little more spark."
The four women who created and still make up Sisters In Sound Cheri Allison (aka DJ Toki), Marlo Dowell (aka DJ Marloca), Monica Chen (aka DJ Chia) and Maritez Apigo (aka DJ Zita) stopped by Murphy's Bar & Grill on a rainy Tuesday night last week to talk about a year in the life of ISIS, and how they put the whole darn thing together.
Excerpts from our chat follow.
Were any of you pursuing DJ gigs around town before forming Sisters In Sound?
Chia: More or less, we were bedroom DJs ... just playing in our own bedrooms, collecting records and wanting to play out. For me, it was more the fact that the opportunities were kind of slim and (I) wasn't really sure about (my) abilities.
Marloca: I had spun in San Francisco for a couple of years before moving here, so I wouldn't say I was a bedroom DJ. I had gigs for years playing different kinds of music. But I feel most comfortable playing in environments where my friends are also DJing.
How did the four of you meet?
Zita: We met on Quadmag.com (a Honolulu-based urban-culture Web site). There's a forum where you can post, and our friend ... DJ Sunshine ... started an estrogen-friendly thread. We all started posting there and hooked up that way.
Had the four of you met in person before?
Chia: Toki and I actually went to the same elementary school together. And Toki and Marlo were friends back in San Francisco. So Zita was pretty much the one we never really saw until (we met).
Toki: I left right at 18 to go to college, and then decided to come back eight years later. But (San Francisco) was where I met Marlo.
Was the decision to form SIS made on the Quadmag boards?
Zita: Well, when we met ... was when it actually materialized. On the board, it was kind of, like, "Hey, let's all meet!" And when we met, it was, like, "Let's do this!" We were all down for the same cause. We were all DJs. We were all women. The fact that we were women held it together.
Give me a sense of what went down at that meeting.
Zita: Well, I remember when I first got here and was going out, just observing that the whole nightlife scene in Honolulu (was) pretty much male-dominated. We were, like, "Where are the women DJs?"
(All four nod and laugh in agreement.)
Zita: I moved here from San Francisco and was used to seeing a female DJ ... every once in a while. I think that was one of our inspirations to bond together and do this.
(The four began planning the basic elements of what would become ISIS at the December 2001 meeting. The monthly, as they envisioned it, would feature not just female DJ talent, but female MCs, dancers, artists, musicians and poets. Women would create the atmosphere with flowers, candles and tapestries. The Sisters never imagined the party as a platform strictly for themselves. Even a few male DJs were dropped into the ISIS mix early on.)
Zita: We didn't want to play out individually. You'd be the only woman and it'd be more of a gimmick like "Come see the female DJs spin!" That wouldn't be the kind of thing where the music comes first or what she's doing comes first, but the fact that she's a woman comes first. And we didn't want that. We wanted what it is you have to express to come first, and then the fact that you're a woman to come second. So we're not anti-male. We're just pro-female.
(It took a few weeks for the four to agree on a name for themselves. Names like Sisters, Beat Sisters and Sisters of Sound were considered, but when Sisters In Sound was suggested, the decision to go with it was unanimous. Their debut as SIS was at Honolulu photographer Hesham's studio in January 2002. Meanwhile, SIS began taking its earliest concept for ISIS to clubs, bars and restaurants around town.)
Chia: A lot of venues are more concerned about whether or not you have a following. Even if an idea is good, they wonder about the following that will come with you. If you don't really have a following because you're starting out, then they question whether or not you can make money for them.
(Chia, Marloca and Toki had spun at an all-girls DJ night at Telepathic a Monday-night party at Auntie Pasto's, Kapahulu and knew the crew that put the event together. Telepathic put in a good word for the Sisters' concept with Auntie Pasto's management. SIS drafted a proposal detailing what it wanted its night to represent, and Auntie Pasto's eventually offered them a single evening for their party.)
Chia: A monthly was very rare here (at the time) so they were questioning why we wanted to do a monthly, and if we could do a weekly. They also weren't sure if they could keep the last Saturday of the month available for us. ... And so when we started our first night, we weren't really talking too much about future parties with them. ... We were looking at other venues, too, because we needed to fall back on something.
(The first edition of ISIS happened on Feb. 23, 2002, after the Auntie Pasto's Kapahulu dinner rush, as a one-time only event called Luna, with no promises made for a second night.)
Zita: We asked for that after our first party when we broke the record (for attendance and bar sales).
Chia: After that, it was, like, "OK, you can do whatever you want."
How many people showed up?
Chia: I would say we got about 250 people, (coming) in and out. It was packed. ... We got really lucky that we hooked up with another girl, Una, who did the interiors for us ... and created the atmosphere for ISIS. She was the one that had the idea of using tapestries and candles and aromatherapy and incense ... to change the whole restaurant around.
(Besides having all the accouterments that continue to create the ISIS vibe, the evening also included female percussionists and a couple of guest DJs. SIS would continue to expand the diversity of its guest artists in the year that followed.)
Chia: I think that night turned out to be more about the atmosphere and the music that we were providing with the atmosphere, more than anything else.
Has attendance at Isis remained as consistent?
Chia: I would say it's reached a peak ... since our Christmas party. Honestly, we haven't been as active in the promotional part as we were when we first started. All four of us have full-time jobs and daytime lives, and this is our hobby on the side. So it's really hard to have extra time to do promotions all the time. But I think the word has finally spread. We've had a very responsive and huge crowd within the past two months. Aside from that, the past year has been very consistent. There's always been a crowd.
And from my eyes, anyway, a close-to-even mix of men and women.
Toki: I never pay attention to that ... but I hear it.
Zita: It's either even, or more girls than boys. But it's never been more boys than girls.
I'm sure the guys who show up are OK with that.
Marloca: Of course, the guys aren't going to complain.
Chia: And they're all well-behaved, too. At least most of them are.
Marloca: They'd better be, especially if they're outnumbered.
(Since August, SIS has hosted two all-boy DJ ISIS nights to quell the protests of male DJ friends who wanted to crash the sisterhood. On Feb. 8, SIS launched a second monthly, "Escape," at Indigo Eurasian Cuisine's Green Room lounge. Planned for the second Saturday of each month, each "Escape" party will feature a rotating duo of Sisters, sans the trademark ISIS environs and "strictly about the music.")
Have the four of you noticed more female DJs breaking out of their bedrooms in the past year?
Zita: Of course. And that was really one of our goals.
Chia: I think we've actually doubled or tripled the amount of female DJs that we've known since last February. ... Some have asked (to play), and some you have to try and drag them out because they're so scared. (Laughs.)
Still, I'll bet there's no shortage of female DJs now for ISIS guest spots.
Chia: No, there is a shortage. It's a treasure hunt. You're always looking for that needle in a haystack. We keep an open clipboard ... at ISIS asking for any female musicians, artists or DJs to sign up. It's not that we don't like the DJs that we've highlighted; it's more about trying to get the new talent out. What we're trying to do is pull these people out girls, and boys, too and get them started.
What's been the most rewarding thing for each of you about what you've accomplished with ISIS?
Chia: Well, we made one year. And we made it together. And we're still going strong ... It's still getting better. We don't hate each other. We work so well together. I'm working with three of the most wonderful girls that I could ever work with.
("Awwwwwws" from Toki, Marloca and Zita follow.)
Marloca: I just really like everybody else's involvement. I think it's really great to see all of our guests get involved and get other people involved. It's great how we brought together a community of people. ... It's just neat to make a little network of friends and throw something that's different and something you can really believe in.
Toki: We're not creating some master plan where we're going to be all sinister and then flip the scripts on people. We all have legitimate ideas, really great ideas. ... For me, to see it all come back around and to be able to share with our friends and the other DJs female or male having them help us set up, clean up, break down, and just be part of us as a group, is really rewarding.
Zita: I think the most rewarding thing is pretty basic: that we've done it, and that we keep doing it every month. And it wasn't here before we started and created it. Now women are DJing in Hawai'i! And you get to hear them! And that was nonexistent before, pretty much.