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Soul Divas 2024: celebrating women in jazz, funk & soul music

Following six years of activity, the inclusive event was an empassioned salute to the society's female and non-binary members.

Returning for its sixth year, Jazz Funk Soul (JFS) society’s annual women’s night ‘Soul Divas’ took to the stage at Mr Wolfs on Tuesday the 7th of May, for an infectiously fun evening of music, celebrating female and non-binary musicians. 

By Megan FoulkSecond Year, English Literature

Founded by University of Bristol Chemistry graduate Marla Kether in 2018, ‘Soul Divas’ was created as a JFS charity night ‘dedicated to celebrating musical women, non-binary people, and anyone who identifies with the female experience’. This year featuring the biggest band ever, with a line-up of 19 female identifying musicians, the undeniable success of the evening reflected the ongoing importance of supporting women in jazz, funk and soul music - genres which are typically dominated by male musicians. 

Energising the dance floor from start to finish, the set list stacked with feel-good classics saw audience members climbing atop tables for a glimpse of the electricity on stage. From Rihanna’s ‘Rude Boy’ to Rose Royce’s ‘Car Wash’, there was no time to spare a visit to the bar, as banger after banger kept the crowd twirling the floor and asking for more.   

Organised this year by second-year Music student Izzy Mastriforte, in conversation with Epigram, Izzy highlighted the importance of women’s nights like ‘Soul Divas’, expressing some of the struggles experienced in organising the annual event. 

 “It was not easy getting Soul Divas 2023 together and we didn’t get paid (which so many people in the music industry experience sadly), and yet, in an effort to prove why we deserve the stage as much as our male counterparts do, we still went ahead with Soul Divas 2023, and it was the biggest profit-making night that JFS saw last year.” Affirming that the event is here to stay, in line with last year’s success ‘Soul Divas’ 2024 sold out faster than ever, leading the band to consider whether more regular women’s nights might be a possibility. 

Soul Divas @ Mr Wolfs | Ali Barton

When asked how the environment of a female-only stage differs to a typical male and female performance setup, Izzy noted a ‘more open’ and ‘less intimidating’ atmosphere, that encourages female musicians to ‘try new things, like soloing’. Typically occupying the more ‘passive’ accompanying positions, women-only performance nights give female musicians the opportunity to adopt the more ‘active’ male dominated roles of improvising and conducting, positions female performers may typically shy away from.  

As the only female conductor of Bristol Big Band Society’s auditioned band ‘The Bristol Hornstars’ in its fifteen-year history, Izzy is a figurehead for encouraging female musicians to the front of the stage. Despite Big Band Soc being a hugely inclusive and well-supported society, Izzy reflected that, ‘of the 19 Soul Divas performing this year, only three auditioned for a horn part in Bristol Hornstars’, highlighting, not only an opening for more instrumentalists, but that a high percentage of female musicians in jazz, funk and soul genres are vocalists. 

Soul Divas @ Mr Wolfs | Ali Barton

One variable thought to discourage female performers from jazz particularly, is the genre’s audience demographic, as the Independent notes: ‘among audiences … more men than women report attending jazz concerts, and the gap is larger for jazz than for rock’. An issue which ‘Soul Divas’ tackles directly, women’s only performance nights encourage proportionately greater female audiences. As a result, the confident, comfortable environment fostered on stage translates to the entire room itself. Evident in the raw joy of the crowd, all inhibitions were left at the door with your coat.  

A shot of serotonin and a welcome reminder of the community music can foster, ‘Soul Divas’ 2024 proved that women can dominate stages and achieve sold-out success. Glancing around Mr Wolfs as it radiated positivity, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone that wasn’t up for a boogie, which begs the question, surely a gig this fun deserves more than just an annual spot on the bill? 

Featured Image: Ali Barton

Have you been to a Soul Divas night before?