Selina Music Summit Serves Up a Bounty of Undiscovered Colombian Alternative Music

As recently as five years ago, the concept of an international music-business conference held at an Ace-style hotel in Medellin, Colombia (yes, the former base of murderous drug entrepreneur Pablo Escobar), would have seemed like a bizarre joke. But with the city and the country’s remarkable resurgence from Escobar’s reign and a decades-long civil war (for more on that, see this and this), many previously unimagined things have become possible.

Thus the inaugural version that conference — Selina International Music Summit, held at the brand-new hotel in the city’s upscale El Poblado neighborhood — took place over three days last week. The event was produced by Selina’s Ariel Levinsohn with Jeremy Hulsh, the latter of whom organized the similar Tune In Tel Aviv conference, with the goal that it will be the first of many for the Selina hotel chain, which has 22 locations throughout Latin America and is expanding rapidly there and into other continents; broadly speaking, the hotels combine a WeWork concept with a hostel model and a SoHo House/ Ace Hotel vibe, and music is a big component of their philosophy. “We have more than 200 shows a month at Selina locations and hope to have 500 by the end of the year, along with recording studios [in the hotels] and festival partnerships,” Levinsohn says. “So SIMS was the perfect vehicle to glue everything together.” And while there were growing pains with both the conference and the literally just-finished hotel, the event was a rousing success on many levels.

It also was a first on many levels. An unusual mixture of around three dozen American, European and Latin American music executives were brought in for panels and one-on-one meetings with artists and local executives, including Coldplay/Morrissey producer Danton Supple and his manager Adam Clough; dance music experts like DJ Mag editor Sarah Polonsky, Resident Advisor’s Kit MacDonald and ID&T’s Clayton Fredrik; Latin American touring specialists Devin Landau of Paradigm and Joe Howard of C3; and two rare executives with deep experience in both the Latin and rock worlds, Codiscos’ Dennis Murcia and ATO’s Paul Dryden (Head here for a full list of “conferencistas” — psst: More females next time!; disclosure: This writer was a speaker and panelist at the conference and was provided travel and board). Some 75-odd acts performed over three nights of showcases; local fans and non-performing artists were charged around $7 for entry. The artists — all of whom were Colombian or Colombia-based — were not paid, but a couple dozen from more distant regions were flown in.

The conference took place mostly at the hotel, which featured three performance areas (including the hotel’s parking garage) and a small but professional recording studio as well as many comfortable seated areas conducive to casual conversation, most of which, unsurprisingly, took place at the large bar. A key element of the hotel and the conference was Medellin’s wildly creative art scene: There’s (usually excellent) graffiti on nearly every block of the city and wall of the hotel, and local artists designed the stages and directed the lighting and video backdrops for the performances. Those included a giant video screen with eye-popping graphics behind the stage at the “Monastereo” (part of the building is a converted monastery) and in the garage, several rhythmically flashing boxes of lights wrapped around the concrete pillars and behind the stage, with the lights of the city — as well as a lovely breeze from the gentle March Medellin night — peeking through on the sides.

According to Hulsh and Levinsohn, the acts were chosen from a combination of recommendations from local industry and tastemakers and an online submission process; Hulsh said approximately one-third of the submitted acts ended up performing. The end result was a lot of rock, DJs and electronic acts with some funk and hip-hop thrown in as well. Yet what could the largely American executives and the mostly comparatively inexperienced local musicians and execs learn from each other, and what were the measurements of success in such a context?

Mabiland (Photo: RADS)

“The idea of bringing together major industry from Europe and North America with local talent was to inspire them to learn from each other — and to foster export-import and information exchange,” Hulsh says. At times the cultural gap was evident — particularly when U.S. execs discussed/complained about the habits of publicists or agents to a seemingly uncomprehending audience — but the panels provided a useful context and jumping-off points for the one-on-one conversations that followed, which were based around the usual universal topics: How can I attract a booking agent? What do you think of my video? What’s the best route for achieving more attention internationally? etc. (The video below is promotional but gives a sense of the event.)

Profetas (Photo: RADS)

Musically, there was less of a barrier, and the fact that this conference took place in Colombia — as opposed to South by Southwest or the New York-based Latin Alternative Music Conference, which feature acts with the means to perform in the U.S. — meant that some of the artists performing did not have many of the elements the music establishment considers mandatory: a website, social media accounts, easily find-able or representative YouTube videos or music posted on Spotify. Thus, there were dozens of artists performing that few people north of the border have ever heard of, let alone heard.

With 75 acts across five stages and three nights there’s only so much one can see, so what follows is a Gringo’s eye view of the best the conference had to offer. We may have gotten lucky but there was an impressively high percentage of very good acts — and several excellent ones — along with a number of pretty-good-to-just-ok. (Head here for the conference’s artists page, which includes links to music.)

The most interesting acts were the ones who merged contemporary sounds with indigenous music: Profetas, who fuse Latin, funk, reggae and African sounds into an irresistibly danceable stew; the trio Acido Pantera, who mix rock-tinged electronic music with a battery of South American percussion; duo Mitu (pronounced “meetoo”) combined Chemical Brothers-esque electronics with ferocious South American percussion; and hip-hop duo Doble Porcion (pictured top), who had hard beats and an exciting stage act and flow but unspectacular lyrics (at least according Spanish-speaking onlookers: Este reportero no habla español). Their best song of the night was an apparently unreleased one called “#KurtKovein”; it’s hard to say whether their vibe is provocative or borderline tasteless, but we were all talking about them the next day.

Acido Pantera (Photo: Jem Aswad)

Equally strong but less musically multicultural acts included Mabiland, a fiery pink-haired female rapper and visual artist from the country’s impoverished western region who on her recordings mixes intense rapping and singing that contrasts strikingly with the smooth ‘90s-style R&B musical backing (although at the conference she was backed by an ill-suited rock band); Mougli, who lay down lush, dreamy electronic with gently chanted or sung vocals; esoteric DJ act Human Error (who definitely had our favorite name of the conference); Solo Valencia, who mixes a sort of alt-rock/R&B sound with romantic melodies and singing (he did not perform but slipped us a CD); and reggaeton singer Juan Avila, who started off his performance by playing classical violin over beats, then did a synchronized routine with his two dancers, then launched into a ballad — all within the first five minutes. His performed was presided over by his mother, who stood at the side of the stage and looked on rather sternly while holding his violin or microphone.

Despite a wide range of styles, the two most prominent musical genres at the conference — rock and dance — served up the smallest amount of originality. While South America hosted enormous stadium shows during the ‘80s and ‘90s — starting with Queen and moving into the Rock in Rio slumber parties for royalty like Guns N’ Roses, Prince and Nirvana — major rock acts only began touring the continent extensively over the past 20 years. Thus, ‘90s rock came late to the continent, and its influence was overwhelming in the acts at the conference, which ranged from breezy indie-rock to rap-metal fusion to mid-period Cure-style gothery to, most prominently, Green Day inspired pop-punk. Jade Elefante has a strong lead singer with a prominent Alanis Morrisette influence; another band sounded remarkably like Mogwai. And while the DJs and electronic acts featured a refreshing amount of live percussion, much of it sounded like things that have been done before.

While the conference was an unqualified success creatively, the commercial aspect is a more challenging question. This was the first in what Selina and Hulsh hope will be an ongoing series with events staged at the company’s many hotels throughout Latin America and the Caribbean (and presumably at its soon-to-be-launched outlets in other continents). “Look, we’re not expecting these acts to get major label deals or a spot at Coachella,” Hulsh says. “But if one of these groups ends up recording with Danton or someone he knows, or an opening spot on a Latin American tour by a larger artist, or even some press that leads to more press, I think we’ll have accomplished what we set out to do.”