By now, if you’re hooked into the “Twitterverse”, you’ll know that, while the organisers of the South African Music Awards claimed (as they did in a press release on Sunday) that pre-show tweets stood at 2 million, what they neglected to mention was that the flood that followed was as close to a lambasting as it can possibly get.
Words like “Epic Failure!” and “Disaster” appeared with increasing regularity and there was even a suggestion that next year, the IEC run the event. While proving pleasingly snappy with getting the results up, Sama’s Facebook page, it must be noted, wasn’t immune from the lashings of the disgruntled – some of whom had trekked out to Montecasino to take up the organisers offer of a more “accessible” Samas and others who pretended to “like” the page just to muscle their way in to vent. Akhona Wang-Yen Zimasa Mapundu was particularly incensed saying, “Never mind challenges, you deceived your fans, lied, misled them, gave them vague and incorrect information on purpose just to pull crowds!!!”
Mapudu’s reference to “challenges” was in response to the Sama organisers’ best line of defence: Cutting and pasting a statement with defensive abandon wherever it would fit, “Events of this scope and magnitude tend to attract their fair share of challenges though, particularly so when such a crucial element as a venue change forms part of that process. The Sama organisers acknowledge that there were a number of operational and logistical challenges in the lead-up to the event that led to the inconveniencing of many guests attending the event.”
As much as it makes me feel bitchy and is likely to put a big, black cross through my name when the list of potential judges begins to circulate later this year, I must differ.
For 15 years, I’ve taken a great deal of pleasure in being a judge at what is (and remains, for now at least) South Africa’s biggest music awards event. It’s played a not insubstantial role in expanding my knowledge of this country’s unusually extensive musical talent (there were 60-plus categories this year) – particularly helpful in my role as South African correspondent for Billboard magazine.
That means that, over the 17-year history of the Samas, I’ve seen it shift from the Kayalami Theatre on the Track to Vodaworld to (memorably for those who hardly ever venture to the East Rand) the Alberton City Hall to Sun City. Never once though have I missed the presentation of the category that I’ve judged because I’ve been unable to get my tickets. This is precisely what happened on Friday when, following the explicit and urgent instructions of the organisers, I ventured out to Montecasino and found … no one. Actually, that’s wrong: I had some company. In fact, a whole horde of disgruntled people desperately seeking their tickets – from sponsors, to artists to judges including fellow long-standing judge Gary van Riet who emailed me on Monday to say that even when he returned to fetch his tickets hours later, none had arrived. “It is disgusting treating people this way and it puts the record industry in a really bad light,” he wrote.
Although the Sama organisers ensured my tickets were there for Saturday’s show, it was clear by the confused or cross-looking people in the aisles in the dome erected at Montecasino that many hadn’t been so lucky. And, as the stories of hotel rooms booked and paid for by labels for artists simply not materialising rippled around, it became clear that missing the opening night of the event was hardly the worst part of the “disaster” (as Van Riet now refers to Sama 17).
It’s hard to really know what went wrong.
Behind the scenes there was talk that the dispute between Sama custodians, the Recording Industry of South Africa (whose 1,500 or so members include Sony, Warner Music Gallo Africa, EMI and Universal Music) and the SABC over the latter’s reluctance to pay more than R20 million in video royalties had hampered production and logistics plans. For others, a new organisational team has begun eroding the Sama brand that, in the absence of an official album sales or airplay charts here, has historically given nominees and winners credibility and even opportunities.
Among those who point in this direction is Samantha Manclark, managing director of communications company Speakers Corner which handled public relations and the official Sama goodie bags for events 14, 15 and 16. Manclark says in spite of providing “Sama with a 69% increase in positive media value around the awards last year,” her company was not involved this year “due to the non-payment of invoices and the legal implications thereof”. “Under the successful leadership and vision of previous Sama CEO Sean Watson (until Sama 15) the SA Music Awards has been developed and built to a professionally high level. I believe that under the current leadership, what has previously been built is being seriously compromised,” she adds.
Like many others who have phoned or emailed to tell of their unhappiness around this year’s event, Manclark is saddened by Sama 17’s problems. “The awards are not only the culmination of the work of an entire industry, but about positively uplifting and invigorating the South African Music Industry and about providing a platform to celebrate and showcase our diverse talent. The lack of organisation and the negative experience of the past weekend undermines the credibility of the awards. From start to finish the awards should be nothing less than world class and something all South Africans can be proud of.”
Amid all the “challenges”, it was difficult to be immersed fully in the main event on Saturday night, broadcast live on SABC 1 and beamed via more than 40,000 dedicated live streams to a global audience (a big advance in 2011 and one that deserves kudos). It wasn’t helped by the fact that the design of the dome meant if you were placed on either side, you were clueless about what was going on when the presentations took place. The presence of His Juju-ness plus entourage only added to the disconnection: probably (as many Tweeted) as part of a bid to oust Chomee as the ANC’s artist-in-residence, more than a few winners – including DJ Cleo and Kwela Tebza – sycophantically praised the ANC and the ANCYL in a way that frequently ensured the gathering sounded more like an election rally than an event to honour South Africa’s diverse music talent.
There were some true highlights: Vusi Mahlasela’s collaboration with Ihashi Elimhlope and Uche was hi-energy Afro-Gospel-Maskandi soul. Kurt Darren proved he doesn’t need auto-tuning on his number with indie hotshots, Wrestlerish. The Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra’s strings-fuelled take on Die Antwoord’s “Enter The Ninja” in the night’s most unusual coupling was inspired. And show closer Zakes Bantwini put on a performance that was part Raphael Saadiq, part Janelle Monáe, but unmistakably South African.
It’s these moments, the ones that get your adrenaline charged and reignite your belief in the incredible, one-of-a-kind music that’s made here, that should be what the Samas are all about. I may have sidelined myself out of the judging now, but this is what I hope for come 2012. DM
Diane Coetzer is a freelance writer, who was the South African correspondent for Billboard magazine and the Contributing Music Editor of Rolling Stone South Africa for many years. She currently writes about South African music for various publications including Songlines (UK).