How FemFest Connects and Uplifts the Women of San Juan and Oakland’s Experimental Scenes

Photo by Kevin Brown

Alexandra Buschman wants to elevate San Juan’s experimental music scene to new levels — especially the women belonging to its latest creative wave, and the fans and onlookers who might one day also join it. Along with Danishta Rivero, Buschman is the co-founder of Las Sucias, the duo serving anti-patriarchal noise on a bed of charred reggaeton beats. She left Oakland last May for Puerto Rico, to open a venue that would serve that mission.

“I had a fancy-ass job in the Bay Area,” she says. “I was working in tech…I was making really good money, but I was miserable. I just kind of needed something a little deeper in my life. I was doing stuff for the community, running a space and all this, but I feel like there’s a lot more work needed here. I thought that coming here, I would be more useful…than [if] I was in Oakland.”

Tonight, that endeavor sees a massive step forward. Buschman has reunited with her former organizing partner, Lana Voronina, for a three-day series of shows dubbed FemFest. The lineup features a slew of artists from Buschman and Voronina’s community in Oakland, many of them Latinx and people of color, and a varied roster of the many woman-identified pillars and up-and-comers of San Juan’s experimental and outsider music scenes.

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Buschman hopes the collaboration will help fortify Puerto Rico-based artists who “don’t realize how good they are.” It’s a means of inspiring more to join the ranks, too. “I think women [making experimental music] here, compared to Oakland and other parts in the U.S. – there’s not a lot of women here,” she says. “And it’s not because we’re lacking talent, there’s just not enough spaces created for that.”

The fest carries hopes for creative exchange, but also catharsis.

La Bóveda, the venue Buschman opened with her partner, is the mission’s unique base camp. It’s literally underground — in the early 1900s, it served as the vault for the first American bank on the island. Once a symbol of colonialism, the cavernous space, with its arched entryways and tunneled layout, now serves an opposite purpose. It’s a conduit for decolonization through music and performance art.

“The changes we’re having in Puerto Rico, the debt and the PROMESA bill and everything, and how we’re going into really difficult, more difficult, times…the outsider music aspect to it is very important, because I feel like it gives people another channel,” Buschman says. “Punk is really big here and there’s all these styles of music that are really big here, but I think that giving people – showing people – other options for how they can channel their fucking rage and their feelings and revolution…I feel like we need more variety…for people to connect with.”

For the visiting Oakland artists, the fest carries hopes for creative exchange, but also catharsis. All of them are survivors, Buschman says, of the tragic Ghost Ship fire last December. “These are all people that lost someone close or were there and were able to get out.” Voronina says the trip is a way for them “to heal and to empower” so they can continue “doing the things we love and that we’re good at and make us happy.”

She and Buschman used to co-run an Oakland space, Life Changing Ministry, and another before that; they also lived and went to school together. “We wanted to come as a group to Puerto Rico to meet up with [Buschman] and her artist friends here and just learn more about Puerto Rico and culture here, and get inspired and heal our spirits after that trauma.”

Each night of FemFest is themed: the first is Tropi-Mística Futurista. Las Sucias, La Tron, Screwilla Deville, and Bbybangz will join Puerto Rico’s La Emperatriz, a solo experimental electronic dream-pop artist, and Vena Cava, a drag queen known for sociopolitically charged performances. Saturday marks the second night, taking place at Santurce art-and-music staple El Local, then the events return to La Bóveda on Sunday for the Riottt! installment, where everything from noise to punk to women-only arm wrestling and improvised cello will converge.

Carolina Santiago Hita of Lavanda, a local outfit that blends experimental sounds with performance art, says the exchange is absolutely needed. “It is undeniably necessary to create strong bonds with women on an international level,” she says. “Opening our doors and minds wide open for anyone who wants to perform in front of an audience, who has something to show, is very crucial for our local underground scene to evolve. Bringing international women into our scene and having them present their projects to our community is simply a necessity.”

FemFest is a conduit for decolonization through music and performance art.

Puerto Rican alt-pop powerhouse Macha Colón is also on the bill at the finale show; she echoes the feminist sentiments FemFest’s mission, as well as Buschman’s observation on the shortage of women involved in the underground scenes.

“From the Women’s March to the call for the International Women’s Strike on March 8, it’s urgent to keep the momentum going. So every bit counts, and it’s important, more than ever, to stay together and remind each other that we are not alone in this struggle,” she says. “I see the changes, I feel the power, but I’m looking forward to a time where I don’t have to count the amount of women participating in an event.”

Undoubtedly, FemFest will help that cause. San Juan’s scene is seeing more events catered to and powered by women and queer people already, and FemFest will stand as a milemarking boost forward. Buschman notes: “It’s hard to ignore a three-day event.”

FemFest hits San Juan from February 16 to 19. For more info, click here.