“Trinidad And Tobago presents Callaloo” at SXSW 2015: a pre-showcase exhibition review¹

pre-sxsw-flyerThe evening of March 5 was an interesting one for music performance with the potential to make or break the careers of local artists on the global stage at the annual South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas. That evening at the Central Bank Auditorium, ASK Promotions, helmed by music manager and CreativeTT board member, Stephen Howard, held a Pre-SXSW Showcase exhibition of the artists selected to appear at this increasingly popular and important event on the global creative industries business calendar.

Genres represented are soca (Shurwayne Winchester), East-West world fusion (Mungal Patesar and Pantar), parang (Los Alumnos de San Juan), spoken word (Desmond Morgan) and steelband ensemble music (Codrington Pan Family). The Mighty Sparrow, calypso king of the world, soca superstar, Machel Montano/Monk Monté, and hip-hop flash-in-the-pan, Trinidad Jame$, all unavoidably absent on that Thursday evening, are booked to appear in Austin under the Trinidad and Tobago banner. ASK Promotions made the push to establish a country-branded showcase, “Trinidad & Tobago presents Callaloo” at SXSW, a first, which may redound to the benefit of this country’s creative industries development.

To Trinidadian ears, the artists selected represent an eclectic mix from the many genres present and unique to Trinidad and Tobago, however, the major music markets look at this collectively as “World Music,” and Trinidad and Tobago will have a showcase evening on 21 March at the Karma Lounge, a popular club in downtown Austin, for each act to display its wares for about 45 minutes for music executives, international booking agents and interested folk there.

Todd Puckhaber, Music Fest Programmer / Venues SXSW
Todd Puckhaber, Music Fest Programmer / Venues SXSW

The SXSW website tells us that: “In the beginning, SXSW was thought to be more of a Rock/Pop focused festival. Today, every genre of music is represented including an ever-growing presence of World music, confirming that Austin is the Live Music Capital of the World.” This squelches arguments made by local music pundits who questioned the demographic spread of the line-up, ultimately chosen by music industry veteran Todd Puckhaber, in charge of music booking, programming and venues at SXSW. Puckhaber, who was here last year for the ASK-produced AMMBCON music conference, revealed some of the surprising choices, from a local point of view, of acts to participate and the reasons for their inclusion.

He noted that there are hundreds of rock bands coming to SXSW, so that any local act replicating American pop would not even be considered. His belief that the parang group would have a connection to the TEX-Mex population and the Latin music sector, which sees artists from a number of countries, validated Los Alumnos’ inclusion. It’s about making an impact in a crowded space beyond the norm. Mature spoken word artist Dennis Morgan was another Puckhaber favourite, and rightly so as he commanded the stage at Central Bank with the presence of a seasoned thespian.

Stephen Howard at Pre-SXSW Showcase. Photo by David Wears. © 2015 by David Wears. All right Reserved to David Wears. Used with permission
Stephen Howard at Pre-SXSW Showcase. Photo by David Wears. © 2015 by David Wears. All right Reserved to David Wears. Used with permission

Speaking to Howard after the showcase revealed further rationale behind the interesting artist choices and the effort at making the trip to Texas a reality. Admitting that many local artists were reticent to work with him because of his frankness and perceived reputation, he recognises that there is a belief among local musicians that they can compete easily in the international pop, R&B and rock world. “The reality is a bitter pill to swallow. It is easy to work with what you know. Showcases are not concerts, audience size is less important than who is watching you. SXSW has the eyes to see that spark of difference and the persons to help to make that leap up the ladder to success.”

The buzz factor is another thing that matters now, hence the inclusion of Trinidad Jame$ who famously flamed out after a meteoric rise in the hip-hop world. Puckhaber and Howard believe that the “macco factor” would add to the quality and quantity of the crowd at the SXSW showcase event. Already, Austin360 blogged that among the names that jumped out of the thousands of artists appearing at the festival is Trinidad Jame$. Similarly, Montano and Sparrow’s inclusion with their attached celebrity would add to the buzz and redound potentially to T&T.

What are SXSW, Midem and WOMEX and why are they important to T&T?

SXSW-2015-MusicSouth by Southwest (SXSW) is a set of film, interactive, and music festivals and conferences that take place early each year in mid-March in Austin, Texas, United States. It began in 1987, and has continued to grow in both scope and size every year. It is the largest music market in North America. With 72,000 registrants and artists in attendance, SXSW is one of the most effective channels for promoting your business to professionals connected in the Music, Film and Interactive industries. The 2015 edition runs from March 17-22.

midem2015Midem is the acronym for Marché International du Disque et de l’Edition Musicale, (translated as International Record and Music Publishing Market.) Midem provides a forum for business talks, political and legal discussions. Held annually in Cannes, France, it is a market where global distribution and music deals are sealed. It also is a platform for showcasing new artists, musical trends and music-related products. Midem 2015 will run from June 5-8.

In the late 1990s, Midem expanded to the Latin American and Caribbean region with Midem Latin in Miami, Florida. In 1997, T&T under the auspices of TIDCO sent a contingent including Andre Tanker, Sharlene Boodram, Machel Montano & Xtatic, Blak Mayl, H2O Flo, General Grant, Choco, Ajala, Colin Lucas, Ataklan, Tony Prescott, David Rudder, Superblue, and 3Canal.

header_womex_15_654x130WOMEX (short for World Music Expo) is an international world music support and development project based in Berlin, whose main event is an exposition held annually in different locations throughout Europe. It integrates a trade fair, showcases, conferences, film screenings, networking sessions, and awards. Musicians and their labels have the possibility to make contacts for international touring and album distribution. WOMEX 2015 will be held in Budapest from October 21-25. 3Canal appeared at WOMEX 2007. Kes showcased at WOMEX 2012.

For any meaningful improvement of the economy of the local music industry to happen, international distribution of the music along with tours must become the norm. These events are the marketplaces for that kind of deal making to happen.

Local participation at the major music conferences is not a new in 2015. T&T contingents and acts have already visited SXSW along with other major music industry market meetings Midem and WOMEX in the past with some fleeting success, either individually or under the auspices of governmental agencies like EIDECO, TIDCO and TTEnt. (See sidebar) Touted as the largest music conference in the largest music market in the world, the opportunities to showcase at SXSW were universally heralded by the artistes.

The impact on the local music industry by fulfilling a branded showcase event was not lost on the selected. The potential to expand the reach of local music internationally is replete with benefits to artistes, the promoter and the country, which line up with the diversification goals of the present government.

Minister of the Arts Dr Lincoln Douglas noted in his feature address that his ministry has funded over $1 million towards the artists’ expenses to get to SXSW, a figure that is revelatory in light of his ministry’s prior entrée into music showcasing with the Trinbago Interactive Music Exhibition (T.I.M.E.) in 2014, which is still to show positive signs of international uptake for local acts.

CreativeTT, separately, is facilitating a potential contingent “for the purposes of networking, capacity building, and representing Trinidad and Tobago’s music industry.” Howard noted that CEO Ria Karim and interim board chair Donna Chin Lee are spearheading that aspect of the build-up.

This public-private partnership may be the beginning of a trend to symbiotically work towards desired goals of success in the music industry internationally. The hustle is on, and we look forward to gauging the results.

  1. A version of this article appears in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian newspapers published as, “T&T presents a musical callaloo at major music festival”

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© 2015, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

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