Africa In Your Cassette Decks: Awesome Tapes From Africa Interviewed

With his set at Field Day on the horizon, Brian Shimkovitz, the founder of the blog-turned-label, discusses dusting off forgotten musical gems from across the African continent and the ethics of reissuing with Annette Barlow

Photograph courtesy of Jaime Massieu

Awesome Tapes From Africa was always going to attract a cult following: ironically literal name and geeky ethnomusicologist founder aside, it was a site dedicated to unearthing and championing niche African cassette releases (additionally offering free downloads of featured tracks), positioning itself as the New York-based cousin of sites such as Sublime Frequencies and Analog Africa.

It was a model that beckoned success, and in the nine years since its inception, man-behind-the-charmingly-lo-fi-site Brian Shimkovitz has become synonymous with introducing the frantic drum bounce and poetic storytelling of Senegalese Taasu, the dancehall-inspired hip-hop of Ghanaian hiplife and the disco swagger of South African Tsonga electro to new (and notably keen) audiences.

It hasn’t, however, been without its detractors: in a now-familiar twist away from digital consumption (see the success of independent magazines such as Cereal and Printed Pages), Shimkovitz decided to launch a vinyl-only record label. Unsurprisingly, it has flourished, its reputation for quality quickly establishing it as a contender. And yet, questions – and eyebrows – were raised about the ethics of a white, American man commercially profiting from the music of black artists, most of whom were unable to make their living as musicians. Were the artists being financially remunerated for their releases? Was it ethical to offer free downloads via the website?

It is, perhaps, Shimkovitz’s tendency toward transparency that has managed to diffuse the criticisms levied at AFTA. A disclaimer on the site clearly states: "If you’re an artist and wish for me to remove your music, email me." It’s a contentious issue, and one that Shimkovitz has tackled in numerous interviews: in conversation with The Guardian in 2011, he said: "I imagine that a lot of the artists whose recordings have surfaced on Awesome Tapes From Africa never made a lot of money from them anyway – they’ve always been used to piracy. So the idea that someone somewhere else is bootlegging their material: it’s not new to them. But they’ll recognise the benefits of any exposure."

This may sound like a bitter pill to swallow for those who believe the nature of the site to be exploitative, but Shimkovitz’s assertion certainly rings true for one artist in particular: Ethiopian keyboardist Hailu Mergia. Featured early in the site’s genealogy, the exposure Mergia received has catapulted the musician back into the limelight, and in a beautiful twist of fate, both Shimkovitz and Mergia appear on this year’s Field Day bill – the former DJing, the latter performing live. We sat down with Brian Shimkovitz to talk tracking down contracts, notions of exploitation and his unique friendship with Hailu Mergia.

Over the years, you’ve featured a veritable smorgasbord of tapes on the site and releases on your label. Do any discoveries particularly stand out in your mind?

Brian Shimkovitz: I don’t know if I would call it a discovery, but when I got in touch with Hailu Mergia after finding an old tape of his in Ethiopia, I didn’t realise what would happen. It started a cool friendship and interesting relationship where we’ve been able to get his music to lots of people and get him touring. That recording – Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument – is one of my all-time favourite tapes. It sounds like no other Ethiopian music I’ve heard. Analogue synths, a simple drum machine and accordion (and no vocals) turned out to be a blend that people all over the world have responded positively to. The record has sold very well and relaunched Hailu’s international touring career. He is such a positive and honest guy. When I listened to his solo recording on tape after I came across it in Ethiopia, I freaked out completely. I listened to it twice in a row, Googled him and luckily found his mobile number. I called him and he was super friendly and interested in working with me. It worked out so well – we even released another Hailu recording this past autumn. It’s a full band instrumental album called Tche Belew, featuring his old Addis Ababa band the Walias.

There’s a romanticism to these stories that seems to really strike a chord with your readers: a folkloric quality to what is, essentially, a digital music portal. What has been your favourite journey to watch?

BS: The first tape I posted on the blog – which really inspired a lot of the early approach – is a recording by Ata Kak. He was unknown to any of my Ghanaian friends. I was super curious about him and grew even more so over the years. I looked around for him at the start, but very casually. I finally went to Hamburg to search for him, because I was told he would be there. He wasn’t. So another year or two later, I went to Toronto where the tape was apparently recorded (even though I found it in Ghana). After several days of running around the Ghanaian community there, I met his son. A BBC presenter helped me to track him down via Facebook. The whole thing was crazy! Ata Kak was so excited to find out people love his music – he had no idea.

Obviously, the first tapes you posted on the blog came via your trips to Africa. Nowadays, how do you go about finding new tapes and artists?

BS: I find tapes anyway I can! Many I bought in various places in Africa, and many I found in cities where there are large African expatriate communities. People have been sending me packages for years and I often get people coming up at DJ nights and offering me tapes. There’s a long wishlist of artists for the label: a blend of what I want in the collection and what feels like a surprise that would show people something new about music from various African locales. I want to work with full recordings and not do compilations in order to show a more detailed picture of the musicians and their worldview.

But it must be a logistical nightmare: tracking down historical contracts, seeking licensing permissions, paying artists.

BS: I spend most of my week trying to track down the artists I want to work with. Getting the contracts communicated can be difficult, but not as hard as you might imagine: many of the musicians I’m contacting are quite happy to have their songs distributed overseas. Paying them in advance is crucial, so they know I’m serious and not out to do anything shady. And following up with royalties statements and payments every six months creates a rapport and trust over time. MoneyGram is a very helpful service, Western Union not so much. PayPal hasn’t penetrated most parts of Africa enough yet, unfortunately.

How do you respond to criticisms that you, a white American, might be profiting from black musicians, some of whom will not be financially remunerated?

BS: The musicians on the label are all making money and I wish I could help distribute music of even more artists. The blog itself doesn’t generate money as there are no ads or donations. DJing is work you often get paid for and any given DJ should be able to select any kind of music without having to defend him/herself, I feel. There are power relationships at play with my blog, I am fully aware of that. I have lived in Ghana and I have seen the situation over there and other regions. If I wanted to make money, however, I’d be in a different business. The overall benefit of making older music that is otherwise not distributed available on the web outweighs the money that might be generated through paid spins/downloads. My inability to track down every single artist and reissue their records is my only regret. The label is self-sustaining, having no trust fund or other special hidden money behind it – it stays afloat entirely through sales. To make the blog like that would be the dream scenario, but I’m not there yet. I also think it’s important to note you will find many country-specific sites giving away African music illegally so I also don’t feel like ATFA is something altogether unique in that regard.

There’s been a resurgence of appetites for analogue modes of consuming content: indie print magazines, vinyl, cassettes. Do you think there’s longevity for labels with physical products?

BS: I think people are just doing the normal cycle of moving through cultural modes and methods and aesthetics, as they have throughout history. There’s a lot of talk about physical media these days, since it’s both slipping away and coming back to the fore in weird ways. I mean, how funny is it that kids who grew up after tapes died commercially are running tape-only labels? Time will tell whether this has been a fad but, for me, tapes have been relevant to the research I have been doing about music and I avoid treating them as fetishised objects of nerdom – although I am a major music nerd. Digital media is often more realistic – although I love listening to tapes and vinyl is just more fun and beautiful.

You’re Djing at Field Day – what are your go-to dancefloor fillers?

BS: Lately, I’ve loved playing bubblegum R&B tracks from early 80s South Africa. Nigerian fuji can get festival crowds pretty stoked. I don’t have any pure go-to tracks, but there’s a song by Georges Ouedraogo called ‘Cherie Coco’ I’ve been playing towards the beginning of sets the last couple years. I am into getting things going with songs from Mali, with a bit of n’goni (stringed lute-like instrument) and a driving beat. The simple things in life.

Hailu Mergia is also appearing on the Field Day bill. Will it be like a reunion?

BS: Hailu has become my good friend and we spend a lot of time on the phone chatting. He has come back to performing so organically and so naturally – it was no big deal to him to have his first US performance in 20 years get a rave review from The New York Times.

Head to Awesome Tapes From Africa’s website here. ATFA and Hailu Mergia play Field Day on June 6; head here for full details and tickets. Annette Barlow is the editor of The Girls Are

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