Radical Randall to the rescue

2011-10-14 11:08

Idols’ resident Mr Mean has been roped in to save the SA Music Awards after this year’s shambles. Lesley Mofokeng finds out how the new Sama chief executive plans to turn things around

When I set off to meet him, the general consensus was that Randall Abrahams is quite an intimidating fellow. But I was guaranteed that beneath that veneer of toughness lay a malleable pussycat. “If you get him to smile at least once then you know you’ve hit it off,” advised my intelligence report.

Abrahams rose to national prominence as the “mean” judge on the panel of reality talent-search show South African Idols. We meet on a hot, cloudless, Joburg summer day, sweat dripping furiously all round.

Abrahams (42) arrives a few minutes late, trendy designer shades in place as well as a Ben Sherman golf shirt. He is much thinner in real life, but still intimidating.

He switches the shades for his spectacles and orders still water. Abrahams is unsmiling as he starts to shoot: “The South African Music Awards (Samas) is a collective effort. We all need to work together to make sure that Sama?18 is a celebration of the finest in South African music.”

Of course, the memory of this year’s Sama nightmare – after it was held in a giant marquee at Montecasino in Fourways, Joburg?– is still fresh in our minds.

VIP guests were turned away, with superstar singer Lira not even receiving her invitation, although she was billed to present a lifetime achievement award. And then there was the general seating-arrangement chaos.

This is where Abrahams’ mandate as Sama chief executive comes in – to ensure that the mockery made of this important event is not repeated.

He says: “I was not in the country but I would be remiss not to say that there were issues with Sama?17. The process and the awards show itself should make South African artists feel that they are provided with a level of exposure.

“This is my first interview and I don’t want to make bold promises, but I have some ideas and key focus areas, which include category revision to ensure that we have a good show. I cannot emphasise how important it is for us to stick to deadlines.”

Abrahams talks about the two parallel processes that he is overseeing. First is the nomination process whereby the industry judges, votes and decides on the winners.

This process is partnered with the category revision efforts, which will be augmented by the steering committee. Once all the consultation has been completed, the office will release the new-look Samas.

Then the appointment of the production house and sponsors will have to be finalised. “We have been in negotiations with our sponsor for three weeks already, clarifying issues, and with broadcasters,” Abrahams says.

In reflecting on his appointment, he cracks a rare smile and says: “It is fantastic. I am really looking forward to it. Artists, record company execs and journalists who have met me will tell you of my great love for music.”

A University of Cape Town political science graduate, Abrahams cut his teeth in radio when he joined Good Hope FM as a programming assistant in 1992.

In two years, he was the station’s manager. By 2000 he was the deputy chairperson of the national association of broadcasters. He became the general manager of SABC commercial radio in 2002, the same year he sat on the board of the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa.

In between these posts he was also a non-executive business development director at Total Exposure, a prominent Joburg-based public relations firm.

However, it’s his marriage to the Idols reality talent-search show that propelled him into fame. He has been sifting through the talented and the not-so-talented since 2002, and says the last 10 weeks of the show make up for the excruciating pain of bad singers in the beginning.

He is under no illusion of what lies ahead, but he seems up to the task. “Music has always been a passion of mine and the problems that the industry is experiencing now will always be there. The recording industry should be aware of these challenges and plan for them.”

The final date for the gala soiree and the venue have not been finalised but, suffice to say, Abrahams confirms that “we are at an advanced stage with our discussions with Sun City. There is every intention to take the awards back to Sun City”.

And his reasons for taking the Samas back to their spiritual home of more than a decade is because of the resort’s remote and secluded location. “The place provides a rare opportunity where you can see a lot of musicians in the same place. It is also a nice place to relax while we go through rehearsals,” he says.

Abrahams is under no illusion about what fuels a great ceremony. “Awards shows are made of great moments. This year’s Oscars will be remembered for the speech made by the best supporting-actress winner (Melissa Leo) who swore, and people remember that. Not to say that’s what we aim for with the Samas.

“We would like to incorporate the best elements in terms of production values from other shows. The winning formula is management and time.

“We need enough time to focus on the job at hand and to work with experts in different fields. My role is to coordinate the best people for the job and operate at a strategic level,” he says.

We change gears and talk about music and, of course, his love affair with Elvis Presley’s music. “It’s the voice and the personality,” he says of the King of Rock ’n Roll.

So, does he think Elvis is alive? “Bono said we’re all dead and Elvis is alive,” is his response. “There is a spiritual compact about Elvis and the simplicity in the rhythms and the directness of his voice that make him great.

“In popular music, it takes a lot more than just singing well. Can Mick Jagger sing conventionally? No, he doesn’t. But the combination of what he has makes him very popular.”

Alluding to his toughness on Idols and also showing his passion, Abrahams says it should not be taken lightly. “The music business is filled with all sorts of pressures, business and personal. Why wouldn’t you want someone to take it seriously?”

He doesn’t appear fazed by all the press he gets as “Mr Mean” and the notoriety of being difficult and unfriendly. “The window through which people see me provides a narrow understanding of me,” he says.

But in the end, we have to ask: did I see the gentle pussycat? Abrahams is an astute and smart businessman – if not, he is a great actor. He did flash his pearly whites a total of three times and while he’s still intimidating, I got to understand Randall, the goal-oriented task master who’s serious about deadlines and proper management.

The Samas are in good hands but the real test will be from the moment that yellow carpet rolls out.

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