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Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Backdrop at the SAMA awards
Backdrop at the SAMA awards.
It's raining in Johannesburg. I just got back from the South African Music Association Awards Nomination ceremony, their version of the Grammy's and just as important here. No one bothered to tell me that until I showed up in jeans and a plaid short-sleeve shirt and brown jacket. Which is to say, I was dressed like some of the musicians. I showed up 15 minutes before check in and once again spent forever in an empty room, taking pictures of the elaborate decorations. Rays of light shooting out everywhere, swimming with mist from the smoke machine, the SAMA and MTN logos (MTN is the cell phone company that sponsored it) beamed onto yellow, webby sheets stretched onto the walls. The backdrop for the stage looked like an enormous slice of tortured swiss cheese.

Soon the camera men arrived jostling me from the front table. There's a lot of jostling in South Africa. People are less neurotic about touching. As a result, they don't tend to move out of the way when you need to get by them, and the people who need to get by just tend to jostle - each party, jostler and jostle-ee as blithe as you've ever seen.

The room filled and filled and filled, a racially mixed crowd but mostly black. Some of the white artists didn't get the memo that the 90's are over, wearing black sleeveless shirts and leather pants. Bruno, the manager for a gay kwaito artist I talked to at Vaal (who does "soft kwaito") came up and re-introduced himself. Wearing a suit and tie and one of those secret-service-guy ear pieces. He said he was helping out with security for the night, and that he must get my information before I leave, and give me his. We never crossed paths again. This was a society party that would put New York City to shame. Everyone dolled up to the nines, the women wearing very little, backless halter tops are very popular here, as are cleavage and stiletto heels. There were super models, or at least super model-looking women there who's job, it seemed, was to walk around with this white clown in cornrows and an MTN MUSIC POLICE headband and yellow coveralls. I snapped pictures madly. Hoping that some of the people I was photographing would turn out to be famous because I certainly had no idea who they were.

A performer at the SAMA awards.
A performer at the SAMA awards.
Finally the show began. Wonderful tune by a wonderful and very beautiful singer. Like every other man in the room, I could have sworn she was singing it directly to me, making eye contact and everything. Me the schlubby white guy in horn rims and a brown jacket, with headphones on. (Headphones are extremely attractive to quasi-famous beautiful black singers here, by the way. Extremely.)

They also had a comedian, who made a lot of race jokes. Now, race jokes in America are kind of expected and occasionally funny but benign at this point: Dave Chappelle comparing black people and white people in terms of what they drink, what music they listen to etc. In South Africa, they have a bit of an extra edge as you can imagine.

A comedian at the SAMA awards.
A comedian at the SAMA awards.
An example from the comedian's set: "White people always say the same thing to me, man. They always say 'You black people never invented anything!' We're like, 'That's bullshit! Who do you think invented crime.' That's not true. You white people were shooting us and stealing our land way before we were hijacking you. Come on." He also said black people invented the robot (their word for a traffic light) in order to "stop the madam" so they could take her car. He imagined this black man stroking his chin and saying "I have an idea!" A bright blonde white woman in the corner of the room sipped her drink gravely through all of this, no ounce of amusement on her face.

Basically, the entire show was different officials and artists coming out and announcing the nominations for "Album of the Year," "Song of the Year," "Best New Artist," etc. The Grammys essentially, like I said before. I'm sure the Grammy Awards have a ceremony like this too but nobody covers it because it's not intensely exciting. Somehow this was a lot funnier and cuter and more collegial though. Pitch Black Afro made an appearance, announcing the nominations for Rock Album of the Year, a category that couldn't be more divorced from what he does. He laughed and joked and kind of sped through them, leaving the slide projector operator, who was screening little logos for each nomination, racing to catch up. When I ran into Pitch Black before the event I asked him "So are you psyched about tonight?" He said, "Not... really. I should be though." He got nominations for Best New Artist and Song of the Year. Actually Ghetto Ruff as a label picked up 8 nominations this year but Mpumi, the Marketing Manager, still says they were robbed. Pitch Black should have gotten a Rap Artist of the Year nomination, she said. He's the best selling rap artist in the country.

What struck me, though, is that even though this event was so important in the pantheon of South African music, I still could have gone up to anyone I wanted and talked to them. The people I had already met were happy to see me and embraced me, I mean physically embraced me. The whole music scene here is just so much more collegial and close and warm. I was saying as much to Maria McCloy when I ran into her and she said it was because it was still small enough, and new enough. People haven't learned how to give the canned, rote responses that musicians in the states give. They haven't learned to be guarded and cold.

So I'm meeting Oscar tomorrow at 10:00 AM. I didn't know it until about 6:00 tonight and the awards were at 7:00 so I have no questions written for him. Will just have to wing it. Or get up a little bit earlier and throw a few things together. I ran into Paps [i.e. Mapaputsi] at the awards ceremony (in the smoking cubicle) didn't recognize him as he was hugging me because he was sober and not wearing a hat. He said "So we're meeting tomorrow yes? We drive around Zola (a section of Soweto) for the documentary."
"Yes!" I said, "When can you do it?"
"Uh," he said "How about 12:00. In the day." Which meant probably no interview with Zola-the-person tomorrow. So I went around hunting for Mpumi everywhere, finally finding her by the coatcheck where she was frowning about the Pitch Black thing. I asked if we could push Zola the person to Thursday. She said she'd see what she could do. She's only going to be able to talk to him tomorrow. At first I thought I was crazy for doing this but then I realized: not getting an interview with Zola the person would be a shame. Not going to the townships, where kwaito music was born, would be a disaster.