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Endless Devotion: Suzanne Sterling encourages community-building at her performances.

Breaking the Rules

Musician Suzanne Sterling finds her audience

By M. V. Wood

People don't usually find themselves as a result of going to Los Angeles. Oh, perhaps they might find a part for themselves there--like, say, a new cleavage or something. But "finding oneself" on the deep philosophical and spiritual level is what folks from L.A. come to the Bay Area for, not the other way around.

Musician Suzanne Sterling has always been a creative free spirit who does things her own way. So when she left the North Bay and moved to L.A., she discovered yoga. That led to a deeper sense of spirituality. And that led to a new musical path. Instead of the folksy music she played with her former band, Sky Clad, she found her true voice in performing "devotional music," she says.

This new voice didn't find the most responsive audience in the typical venues of bars and nightclubs. "It's not the kind of music best appreciated by a bunch of drunk, rowdy people," she explains. So Sterling made her way back home to the North Bay where she could find more appropriate outlets for her devotional sound, which is influenced by Middle Eastern, Indian, and Celtic music. But because she sings in English instead of Sanskrit or Turkish or Persian, the lyrics are "unabashedly devotional and accessible," she says.

On Saturday, Feb. 8, she and her band Bhakti (which means "the path of devotion" in the yogic tradition) will headline the Love and Justice II concert, which features over a dozen performers, including locals Copper Wimmin and Joanne Rand, plus San Francisco's 87-year-old grand dame of folk music, Faith Petric. The show will benefit Equality Now (www.equalitynow.org), an international organization that works to end violence and discrimination against women and girls, including the practice of genital mutilation.

The evening begins with readings by contributing authors from That Takes Ovaries! Bold Females and Their Brazen Acts, a collection of stories from women and girls recounting times they pushed the boundaries and broke the rules. Audience members are invited to share their own true tales.

"I love playing at concerts like [Love and Justice], because the audience is open to this music," Sterling says. Her sound might be reminiscent of New Age music, but these aren't the kinds of songs you want to get a massage to. This is music for dancing.

Dance is important to Sterling because, in the same way that she believes spiritual paths need to be created and not simply followed, she thinks musical performances should be interactive. "I like to get away from that idea that a concert is something in which a bunch of people stare up at the performer." Sterling instead tries to inspire interaction, dance, and ritual at her performances. And with a long history as a priestess for an earth-based religion (she doesn't call it pagan or Neo-Pagan because that might be too limiting), Sterling has a lot of practice in rituals.

In the past, she's had audience members come up onstage, walk around a cauldron, and announce their intentions for the future. Other times, she's asked them to introduce themselves to their neighbors and have a chat. Sometimes she leads the crowd in a guided visualization.

"I can't create the path for others, but I think I have a few tools I can give out to help people find their own direction," Sterling says. "Hopefully, I can help others create their own magic."

Sterling believes that finding one's own path is a birthright many are claiming these days.

"People are becoming disillusioned with organized religion," she says. "Not only in the sense that there's a lot of power and corruption there, but people want to be their own spiritual authorities. I think most people are spiritual, and they don't believe in anyone telling them what that spirituality is supposed to look like. And there's really no precedence for that kind of free thinking on this large of a scale."

Yet the desire to forge one's own way doesn't preclude the need for unity, she adds. "People are longing for that experience of connecting with others. And that's what I try to inspire during a performance--that sense of community, of all of us being in it together."


The Love and Justice II benefit runs 6pm-midnight Saturday, Feb. 8, at the Sebastopol Community Center, 390 Morris St. Suggested donation is $15 to $25 (no one turned away for lack of funds). Children under 15 are admitted free. 707.874.9459.

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From the February 6-12, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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