The Wammies: Are Good Performances and Good Intentions Good Enough?
Once again last night, the Washington Area Music Association’s 24th Annual Wammies at the State Theatre in Falls Church exhibited the inspiring and troubling aspects of this self-described “umbrella organization of Washington area musicians, concert promoters, lawyers, recording engineers, managers, graphic artists, and related businesses working together to address areas of common concern.” Hosted by WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi, XM-Sirius’s Bill Wax, and Westwood Radio’s Jim Bohannon, the lengthy program featured nine acts performing multiple songs plus numerous local musicians presenting awards. Categories included Best Electronica Vocalist (Bob Mould won) and Artist of the Year (Patti Reese won).
The most positive aspect of the night was the fairly diverse live roster. While the lineup slightly overemphasized veteran roots and Americana performers, it’s hard to quibble too much with a bill that included the mountain stream vocals of bluegrass combo the Dede Wyland Band, the upbeat charismatic flow of rapper Tabi Bonney, the powerful hornwork of the Afro Bop Alliance, the bouncy Afropop of Elikeh, the roots twang of singer Marti Brom, the funky go-go of Be’la Dona, and the country rock of the Rosslyn Mountain Boys.
Unfortunately, a handful of the awards given out last night, and the noticeable absence of certain artists from the nominations, demonstrated some of the same problems the Mike Schreibman-run WAMA has struggled with since its 1984 founding. While WAMA occasionally consults “experts” (critics and others involved with local music) to suggest nominees, it largely relies on suggestions from its paid membership, who also then vote in the various categories. In 1998, I wrote an article for the Washington City Paper on WAMA, in which I pointed out some of the problems related to its approach—a singer who bought memberships to the organization for friends for the purpose of getting votes; the neglect of certain genres; and several artists winning awards again and again and again.
Confession time: In 2009, after several years of e-mailing WAMA board member and singer Janine Wilson regarding my more recent complaints about the Wammies, I was contacted by Wilson shortly before this year's nominations were announced. She asked me for some ideas. Alas, many of my suggestions—Ethiopian vocalist Hana Shankute; Latin outfits Zeniza Allstar, Orquesta La Romana and Joe Falero and the Latin Jazz Allstars—did not make it, even as nominees. A quick look at the nominees displays many other omissions. While I am a fan of Richmond, Va.’s Bio Ritmo, it seems odd that WAMA would nominate two of that group's members for best Latin instrumentalist while leaving out the likes of Dan Sheehy and his fellow bandmates in Mariachi Los Amigos. Maryland’s southern soul Hardway Connection won a 2009 “Carolina Beach Music Award” but were not nominated. Southern soul combo Jim Bennett and Lady Mary did not make it. The critically acclaimed afropop band Extra Golden (with members from D.C. and Kenya) were also overlooked. WAMA’s longstanding failure to follow the area's indie/alternative/experimental rock scene meant that it did not find room in its Modern Rock category for the likes of Screen Vinyl Image, the Shirks, the Points, Rustbuckit, Title Tracks, or any metal or hard rock bands. WAMA’s omissions year after year suggest that critics like me are not merely nitpicking; we're pointing out structural flaws in the nomination methods.
WAMA's voting history and the omissions from its nominations taint some of this year’s actual winners, deservedly or not. Should bar-band roots rocker Patti Reese have beaten out Wale and others for Artist of the Year, and should she have won Album of the Year, Songwriter of the Year, and three roots rock awards as she did? Oh, and did I mention that her label, Azalea City Recordings, tied with Smithsonian Folkways for Best D.C. Label? Should all five blues/traditional R&B awards have gone to white musicians? Was Bob Mould an electronica vocalist in 2009 even though he used his guitar somewhat? Should singer Margot MacDonald have won three out of four of the modern rock awards? Are Hotspur, a Killers-style pop-emo band, really the Best New Artists? In addition, the noticeable absence of many of the winners at the event, as well as the loud conversations among audience members while trophies were handed out, demonstrated that after 24 years, these awards are still struggling for respect. I recognize, as WAMA board members have pointed out to me for over a decade, that the organization has good intentions, but perhaps it's time to reconsider the selection and voting process, and use that good will in a more productive manner.
Photo of Tabi Bonney courtesy of Jan Keskinen.