Isa Luzarraga is nine years old. Her favorite bands are The Runaways, White Stripes, The Beatles, Black Sabbath, Foster the People and Karmin, whose lead singer is her babysitter’s cousin. Her favorite song is by 4 Non Blondes, and one of her favorite things to do is sing. So it should be no surprise that when Isa grows up she wants to be a rock star.
Either that, or a meteorologist. “Or maybe I can combine singing and the weather, and I could rap the weather,” Isa said. She may be onto something.
One thing’s for certain after meeting her and her mother, Julie, Isa has the confidence, the smarts and the talent to do anything she wants, but if she chooses the rock star path, she’s off to a good start.
Last summer the little red-haired firebrand stood boldly in front of a huge crowd at The Slowdown and with microphone firmly in hand and backed by her band, The Jellybeans, belted out a song with the confidence of a seasoned pro twice her age. And, of course, the crowd went wild.
Now it’s time for an encore.
The program that helped put Isa and 24 other future rock stars on stage last year is called Omaha Girls Rock (OGR). The brainchild of Stefanie Drootin-Senseney, a long-time veteran of a number of touring rock bands including Saddle Creek Records acts The Good Life and Big Harp, Omaha Girls Rock is an all-volunteer effort whose goal “is to provide a support system enabling and encouraging girls to design their own futures and to realize those designs.” And if it so happens that those designs involve music, all the better.
“What I learned from volunteering for the camp was that music is just the medium to instill confidence in these girls,” said OGR volunteer Val Nelson, who also is the house manager and booker at The Slowdown. Nelson is helping put on a benefit showcase this Friday night at her club, but more about that in a minute.
Building on last year’s success, OGR is doubling in size, with 55 girls already signed up for this summer’s camp. To make room, the camp is moving from UNO to the College of Saint Mary, where campers will have an entire building all to themselves for a week. Twice the number of girls means twice the number of workshops, twice the number of needed instruments, twice the number of volunteers “and triple the drama,” said OGR camp manager Jenn Bernard, who also is a veteran musician.
Bernard said in addition to shear size, the biggest different in this year’s camp will be better planning and use of both music and activities counselors. “Every volunteer really stepped up last year,” she said. “If there was something we hadn’t planned for, it was taken care of when the need arose. For example, we planned an hour for lunch, but realized pretty quickly that it doesn’t take an hour to eat a turkey sandwich, so volunteers filled the time with activities. We learned a lot.”
The camp, which takes place between July 30 and Aug. 3, will culminate with a showcase at The Slowdown Aug. 4, where 10 OGR bands will perform one song each. That will be followed by a day of recording at ARC Studio, where Saddle Creek bands such as Bright Eyes and Cursive recorded their biggest records.
A camp twice the size also means twice the costs. Bernard said the program’s annual budget is around $80,000. And despite volunteers and instrument donations, “We probably need to raise between $20,000 and $30,000 this year in grants, tuition and from private donors,” she said. OGR is in the process of applying for 501(c)(3) status and has appointed a Director of Development who is helping with grant writing and other community outreach.
Which brings us back to this Friday’s event at The Slowdown. Called “A Week and A Song,” four Omaha bands have been given a week to write one original song related to the theme “Superstition.” Each band will perform a set at Slowdown this Friday the 13th (Get it?), with the last song being their new original. The crowd will vote for their favorite, and the band with the most votes will send one lucky girl to the OGR camp.
Tickets to the performance are just $10, and all proceeds go to support OGR. The four bands involved are some of Omaha’s hottest up-and-comers: Gus & Call, Howard, The Betties and Sun Settings. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of any of them, I guarantee you will get your money’s worth. And to top it off, you’ll be helping put Isa back on stage.
Before OGR, the Aldrich Elementary third-graded had never sung in front of a crowd before, but said she got the confidence she needed during workshops and from her band leader volunteer Orenda Fink. The most valuable tip Isa said she received at camp: “Never be afraid to be yourself.”
Mother Julie Luzarraga, now an OGR volunteer counselor, said Isa’s taken the lesson to heart. “Prior to Omaha GIrls Rock, I don’t know if she was comfortable in group settings,” she said. “She was the kind of kid who was in the corner at play dates. Now she’s more comfortable joining in. She may not be able to recognize it, but Isa kind of found herself at camp.”
And that’s always a good step for any future rock star, or rapping meteorologist.
Beyond Lazy-i is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on arts, culture, society and the media. Email Tim at email@example.com.