In Conversation With Sarah Bandy

By Shelly Simon
Banner Photo Credit: Shelly Simon

Who is Sarah Bandy?

She is a powerhouse, badass babe that lives in Nashville, TN. She is the executive director of YEAH (Youth Empowerment in Arts and Humanities) and works with a variety of rock camps for girls, boys, and gender non-conforming youth in Nashville. This year marks the second year she is heading Ladies Rock Camp – where adults can congregate for a weekend, learn an instrument, form a band and perform. She also sings & plays ukulele in the band Hula HI-FI, is working on a drone machine and harp album, and naturally she is a drummer.

Bandy is bringing a rock and roll revolution to a city built on music: Nashville, Tennessee. Her influence in Nashville over the past three years has influenced a musical metamorphosis.

Her efforts contribute to a societal shift; a shift that celebrates the fact that kids, adults, women and gender non-conforming folks can pick up a guitar, jump on a drum kit or slap on a bass, no matter their age or identity, and learn something new. This is the social shift the Southern city needs – highlighting a positive feminist agenda which focuses on empowering the youth. This change also offers adults in the community a chance to challenge themselves and explore their creativity.

“It’s rad to do things you don’t really know how to do” – Bandy in response to learning a new instrument, idea or concept from the ground up.

Photo by Shelly Simon

Her influences have spanned across several Southern cities including Austin, Texas and Charleston, SC. Like a snail trekking through the sand, Bandy leaves a trail of glitter, goals and good vibes for others to be inspired by. Last year I was fortunate enough to spend time with Bandy in Morocco – a country with a music history that she’s incredibly inspired by. From playing bongos in the Sahara Desert during an over-night camel excursion to plucking banjo strings in a riad in the High Atlas Mountains – Bandy disclosed to me how North African music shaped the way she works in this world.

“North African music is so illustrative of the landscape that we got to visit last year. It’s meditative in the way that it moves, with contemplative moments and circular, hypnotic rhythms. It was so amazing to be with music-makers in Morocco and be consistently surprised at where the “one” of the beat landed! There’s a smoky, sandy, adventurous quality to the tones that shrouds a mysterious world while also showing the tender underbelly of it. I think the way the beats move reflects the nomadic nature of the Tuareg people, padding methodically across a desert landscape”

Slow and steady, thorough and true – that’s Sarah Bandy in a [nut]shell.

I caught Bandy in between a weekend of hiking, band practice with Hula HI-Fi and putting the final touches on the 2017 Ladies Rock Camp agenda to ask some questions regarding rock camp protocols, the positive and negatives of power in such a special, specific community and how her musical influences played into her execution of managing hundreds of musicians over the years.

SS: I should start saying “I Rock” to people when I bump into them – it’s inevitable in New York City to not be brushed, bumped or bustled by and often without apology. Tell us your approach to curbing your children at camp from apologizing for their mess ups. When learning an instrument – the more you mess up, the better you become – right?

SB: Right! My mom always says, “Practice makes better,” and that’s become a big theme in my life. I think the notes that are “wrong” teach you more than the right ones sometimes, because it gives you a broader understanding of what you like and what sounds good to you. Rock Camp is all about destroying the cool and blowing up the idea that you have to be an expert at something before you even approach it. It’s so invigorating to work with youth that, by day three of camp, are feeling the vibes and letting themselves make mistakes and building on them.

Photo of Sarah and 2016 Rock Campers provided by Sarah Bandy

SS: There’s a lot of opportunity for growth in these curated safe spaces – do you think such specific vicinities host potential for favoritism of who is allowed to occupy said spaces?

Meaning do you think nepotism exists in the music world – specifically concerning the more niche categories like girls/women/non-binary rock camps – where there is space being created for this exploration of creativity yet there is potential for favoritism in regards to leadership roles, responsibilities and appearance?

SB: I think that nepotism, or cronyism in this case, is everywhere – it’s a symptom of patriarchy, and we still exist in one. Girls Rock Camp aims to build a new world with and for youth where multi-layered oppressions are examined and dismantled through music-making and intersectional connections.

At the heart of that is the idea that more voices make a better, more nuanced conversation and centering that is imperative for the movement. I do think it’s inherent in tribe mentality to want to cling to those who are closest to us and have historically made us feel safe and supported in the tough work of de-programming and moving forward.

I’m not sure that favoritism plays as much of a role in staffing camps, etc. as the idea of wanting to work with people that are fierce and share the same goals, but I do recognize that it’s very easy to take the path of least resistance and surround ourselves with people we already know and trust. In the past couple of years, we’ve launched a Junior Counselor program which lifts up youth to take on more responsibility, and hopefully that is helping build more horizontal leadership and ownership of our programs.

Photo of 2016 Rock Campers provided by Sarah Bandy

SS: Starting the conversation and creating that responsibility early on is so important. Like good habits, one must implement them early on to ensure positive and lifelong results. Let’s highlight the positives of these created safe spaces – what does Ladies Rock Camp do for you, the community it creates and the community that continues to thrive after the weekend is over?

SB: I got to be a camper at Ladies Rock Camp last session and took beginner drums! Now I try to play drums every day, sometimes just for ten minutes. I play a lot of instruments pretty poorly, but it’s SO fun to explore sound-making and songwriting that way. I know that carving out space for self-care, whatever that looks like, is a gift that you can give yourself, and that’s like loving yourself enough to say,

“Hey, you can take ten minutes out of your day to do something for just you.”

In regards to the community created from camp – the most-heard quote after our Rock Camp showcases are….

“I wish this had been around when I was a kid” 

Personally I feel like I would have skipped some of those self-hating teen moments if someone had opened the door to music for me. The idea of Ladies Rock Camp is basically opening that door to women and gender non-conforming adults to say that you’re never the wrong age to try something new.

SS: These weeks, weekends and months that each type of camp you’re involved in – create such a unique opportunity for people to take time out of their “real lives” to explore themselves. What does this construction of exploring creative freedom look like to you?

SB: I think it’s easy to overlook our curiosity about what you can create. Especially when we’re operating in capitalism and so much of one’s worth is tied up in earning. There’s also the real issue of having to provide for yourself and your family, as well as the second shift of domestic and emotional labor that women take on, so it’s hard to find time to give yourself the gift of exploring your creativity. The spirit and programming of LRC is meant to spread the shine and amplify the voices and perspectives of those that may not have the wherewithal to open the door themselves. It’s also set up as a sliding-scale fundraiser for our Scholarship Program, which consistently serves around 40% of our youth.

In the end it’s all connected and we’ve got to support each other from all angles and in all ways possible.

Photo of Sarah & Hailey, Program Director of YEAH! provided by Sarah Bandy

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