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Winter Music Conference

South Beach during the Winter Music Conference is a futuristic scene with sci-fi elements galore: Newfangled illicit chemicals, glow sticks, and Vicks inhalers. Sexual energy threatening to combust at every turn. Vinyl, abandoned as antique by the rest of the recording industry, flourishes as the hard currency of the movement. Scandinavian languages rub up against Midwestern twangs, Scottish burrs, Spanish dialects, and Japanese whispers. Most scientific and fictional of all is the actual music: not based on instruments played in a traditional fashion but totally dependent on advancing technology to create and update its cybernetic self, minute by minute.

Too often this techno-obsession makes for a mechanical beast, raging with beats per minute but devoid of heart or soul. For example take the Astralwerks Showcase (last Sunday night at Level), which illustrated the downside to this music's facelessness. DJ "performances" from Fatboy Slim, Gearwhore, and QBurns Abstract Message were completely indistinguishable from the pumping between-set music, rendering them interchangeable and all but useless. The evening's best moments came courtesy of Überzone, an energetic duo who mixed clever turntable skills with drum machines and sequencers, making for a muscular, postindustrial kind of tension.

Performing that same night, Les Rythmes Digitales did nothing more than confirm the public's worst fears about French pop music. Cheesier than a vat of Velveeta, the Tinkertoy tapping and yapping was old from the start, and the silly dancers flanking the stage only strengthened the unintentional comedy. It got so bad we started pining for the glory days of the '80s. It's never good when you're wishing the Thompson Twins would make a comeback.

That wasn't the only peril at Level that night. A shakedown at the front door took more than one contraband-carrying badge-holder by surprise. Patrons anticipating an illicit burn session inside the cavernous club fell victim to the pat-down, finding themselves escorted to the men's room for a reefer-madness flush-down.

It was at a much lower-key event where we uncovered the fest's finest live show, early Tuesday morning at the Living Room. Tony Allen -- the former drummer for the late Nigerian superstar Fela Kuti's band -- and his entourage, Afrobeat 2000, transformed the SoBe space into a sweaty Lagos nightclub. The mesmerizing, Africanized grooves came off much stronger than anything a computer could have generated, with whip-crack precision. The band employed a turntablist, but he merely added a wash of color instead of dominating the proceedings with showoffy scratching.

Not that every DJ set was boring or predictable. Late Wednesday at the Mission, some excellent underground American acts held court, including Detroit's Dan Bell, who specializes in dense rhythms and spidery webs of darkness. It was disorienting and disturbing in all the right ways.

But in general the nighttime music showcases fared better than the majority of the workshops held during the day. At least folks made an effort to appear interested in the music.

One example was the poorly attended "Radio & the Urban Market" seminar on Sunday, hosted by record company maven Glenn Manko and radio programmer Cedric Hollywood. Most of the attendees were young male entrepreneurs trying to place product in a cutthroat, corporate world.

"Why can't I go meet with you and play you my stuff?" one attendee asked indignantly. "How can I get in a sit-down situation with one of you guys?"

"Uh… you've got to make an appointment," Manko replied sheepishly. "I'm not going to lie to you. Keep calling. You've got to be persistent."

"We're in the business to play hits," interjected Hollywood. "You make a hit, we'll play it."

Not surprisingly this kind of tail-chasing logic quieted the crowd, whose questions dried up while the seminar still had plenty of time left.

Another workshop on urban (read: black) music claimed to deal with every aspect of the scene, "from hip-hop to scripture." But -- and this was typical -- out of nine scheduled panelists, three bothered to attend. Moderator Alfonso Alvarez pleaded with the thinning ranks, "You paid your money and stuff. The floor is open. You don't have any questions?"

When no one did, panelist Neil Levine from Miami's Heat Music filled the dead zone with his own hot air. "We want hit records," he said matter-of-factly. "That's what pays the light bill."

With illuminating insights like that one, no wonder the conferences weren't the places anyone wanted to congregate. For most participants they just begged the question: Why would anyone want to listen to this crap when there's a swimming pool 50 feet away?

Even so, the business-oriented seminars may have been more helpful to participants than Wednesday's "Women in Music" gathering, the panelists of which evidently felt that Oprahesque platitudes could soothe the tempers of women feeling shortchanged by the male-dominated industry.

But California-based DJ Irene came to the rescue with advice and attitude to spare. "Wanna know what made me successful?" she shouted over applause. "I don't care if I have a dick or a pussy -- I'm keepin' it real!

The conference finally wrapped up on Wednesday with a packed seminar featuring eight well-known DJs from around the world, eventually turning to an unpleasant topic: how regimented, divisive, and exclusionary the dance-music community is at heart. There are fans who like trance but hate drum 'n' bass, or love techno but can't stand house, or dig hip-hop but loathe industrial. Some of the best advice of the week came from the mouth of Ali Shirazinia, one half of the DJ duo Deep Dish.

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