The Strange World Of… Awesome Tapes From Africa

Label founder Brian Shimkovitz talks to Richie Troughton about how his blog of obscure and rarely heard cassettes from Africa became a record label determined to locate artists and see them finally get the acclaim they deserve for their work

Live photograph by Tristan Fopma

Since 2006 the Awesome Tapes From Africa online blog has been responsible for opening up a window to a sonic world previously unknown to most. It has provided a welcome starting point for inquisitive listeners who may otherwise never had access to this music, given that most of it was only available decades ago from tape vendors in the region of origin, on runs as low as 50 cassettes…

During a Fulbright Scholarship in Ghana, ATFA founder Brian Shimkovitz became fascinated with discovering new sounds by collecting a vast number of cassettes and through the blog shared his finds to a wider audience eager to hear new music from the continent.

From 2011 he expanded on his original idea by starting the Awesome Tapes From Africa record label and reissuing some of his favourite cassettes (on vinyl, CD and download) by artists who were often either genuinely obscure or had been forgotten about, only to be discovered once again by new generation of listeners. The names include Ata Kak, Hailu Mergia, Dur Dur Band, Awa Poulo and Aby Ngana Diop to name a few.

I meet Shimkovitz at Atlas Electronic festival in Marrakech following his early evening DJ set at the festival’s Pool Stage. The playlist covered a wide spectrum of curious pop, funk, disco, Afrobeat and hi-life music, including ‘Zombie’ by Fela Kuti and the previously more obscure tracks released on his own label, like ‘Say You Love Me’ by ‘Om’ Alec Khaoli. Shimkovitz says: “Anything that I played people have been up for. It seems like the people who come here are pretty serious about music.”

He is in good spirits and generous with his time to discuss in great detail many aspects of the work and operations of Awesome Tapes From Africa. From beginnings as a blog bringing dozens of long forgotten or unknown artists to attention outside Africa, to the detective work carried out in finding artists and reissuing their work as the project metamorphosed into a record label, with many of the musicians resurrecting their careers or having a career full stop as a direct result.

The beginnings of Awesome Tapes From Africa during Fulbright Scholarship in Ghana

Brian Shimkovitz: In 2002 I was in college and studying ethnomusicology. I’d never travelled overseas before and my college gave me the opportunity to study abroad. I thought it would be very cool to really experience culture shock and go somewhere far away, or very different to what I was used to.

I had been exposed to Ghanaian music on cassettes, through a friend in college and I had this idea that it would be cool to dive into a really different culture and spend a semester there. I went back after five or six months having done independent research about the music industry in Ghana and some of my professors were really not encouraging. They inserted a lot of their values, into it, like, “Oh, you are interested in studying hip hop in Ghana? That’s not cool. The pop music in Ghana is not good. It’s low brow.” Or whatever. It’s crazy, looking back now, how clueless a few of those professors were.

However, there was one professor, the head of the department, and we had a meeting just to get ideas. She said, “You know what? There’s this one grant you can apply for. You don’t need a master’s degree, or a PHD.” This idea was distinctive, because at that time, around 2003, people weren’t doing a lot of academic scholarship about hip hop in other places, outside of Europe and America. My professor said, “Okay, you might have a fighting chance if you apply for this.” She backed me and helped me.

Then I finished school and had some nice professors who also helped write letters of recommendation and I used the initial research I had done in Ghana to apply for this grant and then somehow, by some miracle, they gave me this grant. I went to Ghana for a whole year, at which point I was able to travel around west Africa and collect a lot of tapes.

What inspired you to collect tapes?

BS: Just open-hearted interest. Genuine enthusiasm that just comes from a place of being interested in lots of different kinds of music. I know that people like to project a lot of ideas on who I am, or where I come from. I have seen people say things, like, “He’s some rich kid, parents gave him money and let him go around the world and do whatever he wants.” Let me tell you how broke I was for many, many, many years trying to make this project happen.

It was a musical search, the way that people look for records, or people hang out on Spotify, or go through Youtube. I was just very, very hungry for music that you weren’t hearing at home. At home we have world music, and this was all pre-Youtube, this was the MySpace period, and things were clicking in my head about how it would be cool to bring artists overseas. All the Ghanaian artists I was talking to when I was doing my research were asking, “How do we get our music on the radio in America,” or, “How do we sell records in America?”

I didn’t have any clue about that, because I was just a student who had just finished school. But at the same time, when I came back from Ghana, people were talking about MySpace, and the web 2.0 was starting up – people were blogging. I thought maybe there was a way to communicate some of the music I had come across and knew was not for sale at home. When I moved to New York after I came home from Ghana, I didn’t have any money and I was really bored and just living in this shitty basement apartment and I started working on a project in my house and Awesome Tapes From Africa is what it became.

When I started the project it was a blog. That was in 2006 and in a lot of places in Africa at that time, they were still using tapes and so my collection of music and my interest in contemporary music led me to collect a lot of cassettes. Over time cassettes kind of disappeared, but they’re still around, so I spend time looking for them.

Using Cassette Decks For DJ Sets

BS: When people started asking me to DJ, it made sense to do it with tapes. And as I started doing it, it was kind of weird and fun and interesting enough for me to keep trying to get better at it.

I never tried to be a DJ, I was never a kid who had decks/ turntables. A lot of my friends were DJs, but I never had much interest in it. But I’m obsessed with music and I grew up playing the drums, so I have an interest in rhythm and timekeeping, which helps with DJing on cassette decks, because you pitch control on both channels, to try to blend and match beats. It’s a little more difficult than just using the CDJ.

The Search For New And Different Sounds

BS: I spent a lot of time going to specific neighbourhoods, where I knew I could come across people from other parts of west Africa and to try to find out about different kinds of music. When I went to music shops around Ghana at that time, 2004, 2005, they still had physical music shops and CDs were not popular yet. They were still really expensive to produce. So there were a lot of cassettes and when you see all these covers, sometimes it’s the cover that sticks out, so you grab that.

They were all quite cheap, like maybe a dollar, and I was not going to be able to get these at home, so I bought a lot and I was able to ask a lot of questions, cause people are super friendly in Ghana, just incredibly warm and generous with their time.

I would go and say, “I’m looking for folk music,” or, “I’m looking for music in a specific language,” because Ghana has dozens of languages. Or, “I’m looking for music, do you have any music of this one kind of instrument I heard about?”

If you go to different regions of the country you hear totally different kinds of music and they have different stuff for sale. Over time, just being a nerdy collector type, as I always have been, since I was a kid, I got a lot stuff, and was sending lots of packages home to Chicago were my parents were living. I just wanted to check out a little bit of everything.

A lot of the music that I was buying, I knew that I wasn’t necessarily going to listen to it a lot, but I just wanted to know about it and have some kind of physical document of these artefacts, because I knew that it was popular on the radio, or that it was really indicative of a certain region or subculture. It wasn’t about finding something rare, or something I could DJ with. I didn’t even have an idea about a blog then. It was just for my own personal discovery. Being overseas with different music allowed me learn as much about it as possible.

How The Blog Became A Viable Medium To Share Music

BS: People weren’t streaming music at that point on the internet, people were mostly downloading music. There weren’t that many African-based download sites that I could find. When I came home and started to try and do research, I found a lot of the music was un-Google-able. It’s different these days. In most countries there are so many different Africa-based, different various regional-based websites where you can find music. Mostly illegal. But it’s there now and it’s all on Youtube as well, which was only just starting up when I started the blog in 2006.

I was trying to figure out how to upload the music and make it so people could click on it, stream it and download it. That is also illegal, but there was no way of buying this music at that time. I felt it made more sense to at least let people hear some, because I felt it deserved to be heard by more people and that maybe, just maybe, there would be some eventual market for some of this. Whereby money and acclaim could trickle back to the artist in a correct way.

Evolution Of The Awesome Tapes From Africa Blog Into A Record Label

BS: I was spending time in Ghana, with all these musicians, many of whom were not getting paid fairly for the work that they were doing locally, and many who were older musicians whose time had passed. They weren’t popular anymore and they weren’t getting booked for shows. I heard a lot of stories of hardship about the economics of music making in west Africa. I knew that if I was going to do a label I had to create a new paradigm, or a style where it wasn’t going to be coloured by all these white people who have stolen, or exploited, the music and the musicians. I wanted to find a way to do it, kind of punk rock style.

During the time I began the blog I started working at a music PR agency in New York City. I worked there for seven years with a lot of artists who were either from Africa, Cuba, or other parts of the world. I worked on a lot of projects including jazz, world music, experimental music, or even electronic music. The non-mainstream stuff. I got to know about how records were put out; the process, the timeline, and I got to learn how managers and marketing teams work.

All that time, as a hobby, for fun, I was doing the blog. More and more people around Brooklyn were finding out about it, and saying, “Oh, you’re the guy that does that thing, you should put some of that out on wax, we’d love to DJ that, or people should buy that.” Then of course people would comment on the blog, “Where can I buy this? I want to find this? How can I buy this? How can we support the artists?”

After a while, I got an email from a distribution company that I knew from the town where I went to university. They said, “If you ever want to ruin your life and start a record label, we’d love to help you.” I knew that to put out a record, and to actually get it in stores, takes more than one person and I didn’t want to do something small, because if you’re going to do it, you want to send money back and you want to come up with a way to pay people.

I was invited to work with their distribution company and it took a long time to get that started. Then I had to figure out which artists I wanted to try to work with and it made sense to find something that was a little bit well known, rather than something totally from left field that nobody had ever heard of.

Launching The Record Label

BS: I was able to get in touch with Na Hawa Doumbia, a wonderful singer from Mali, who has released many records over the years. There was a particular record of hers from the beginning of her career that not many people outside of Mali knew about. Luckily, she trusted me to work with her.

I do these 50/50 deals, where the artists get an advance of cash, and then if the record makes money, we split everything 50/50. I was able to use the PR background to get people to write about it in the media, which helped a lot. And the blog had a built in fanbase of people who wanted to support these artists. There just wasn’t a set up for this.

In the meantime, there were people who were criticising what I was doing, saying it was not fair to give away free music. As YouTube got bigger I really wanted to find a way to monetise their music so that it wasn’t just getting stolen online. I also started seeing people selling music by artists that I knew they didn’t own the rights to.

In particular, Na Hawa Doumbia’s album, La Grand Cantarice Malienne Vol 3, I knew of two other companies that did not have the rights to it that had put it up online and tried to sell it. It’s like a totally open field, especially with streaming and Amazon and Spotify, where a lot of catalogues from different parts of Africa are just being thrown up there without deals being done and a lot of people are being ripped off.

Looking For The Musicians Behind The Cassettes Featured On The Blog

BS: One of the main criteria for releasing a record on Awesome Tapes From Africa that prevents me from just putting out tons and tons of stuff that I love is that I need to find the people and make a deal with them. Sometime it’s difficult to locate the rights owner, or to communicate with them what you are trying to do, especially because I am never able to just jump on a plane and go somewhere. I am always just contacting people by Skype, or whatever, and sometimes it sounds a little weird or dodgy. Luckily, over the years, I have been able to prove through previous examples the kind of work that I do, so it is getting easier. But for the first 10 or 15 times trying to explain and get people to trust me was difficult.

The Hardest Thing Is Just Locating People

BS: There are so many other artists that I have never been able to contact, or that I got in contact with and talked to for a while. There are other artists that I’ve been in contact with for years. There’s one group that I’ve been in touch with since 2012 and I still can’t get something going with them. But I haven’t given up. I even flew to Washington DC a few months ago to meet them and they stood me up. I wasted all this time and money. I went there and they didn’t meet me through a variety of weird communications. But I am still going at it. I’m still going to try and make it happen.

Over the years with the blog, there are a lot of my favourite, favourite tapes, favourite music, most interesting, ear catching stuff. I am always going through the old blog posts for ideas for releases.

I keep trying, chipping away at the stones, to see who I can find, email random journalists, ask random friends from those countries if they know anybody that knows anybody and sometimes it just happens.

A record is coming out in January by an artist from Senegal, who lives in Paris, who I have always wanted to work with. I looked for him for a long time and I finally found and was able to contact the people who originally put out this tape and made a deal with them. But this is something that has been many, many years coming.

The record that just came out, Our Garden Needs Its Flowers, is another tape that was on the blog several years ago by Jess Sah Bi & Peter One, who are a country music duo from the Ivory Coast, that I searched for and never found. And then I started to find clues. One of them was in Delaware. One of them was in Philadelphia. Yet I still couldn’t find them. Eventually a friend pushed me to really go for it and I just stalked them and finally found them. Now we’re working together. They just played shows in Los Angeles and San Francisco and they have got shows coming up in New York and all over the East Coast. I’m getting them a booking agency in Paris and a lot of stuff is happening for them. Knowing them and hearing them play was something that I always dreamed about. They were big in the Ivory Coast, but then you never heard about them again.

The Search For Ata Kak

BS: I spent eight years searching for Ata Kak, because he wasn’t a famous person and his name wasn’t inside the cassette and nobody I knew in Ghana had ever heard of him. It was a needle in the haystack scenario.

I started losing sleep at night about it, because I was thinking, how can we not be able to find somebody in this day and age, with Google and everything? But I just couldn’t. I just had to ask a lot of people. Then I just bought a ticket for a flight to Toronto and I wasn’t going to leave until I found somebody.

Ata Kak wasn’t even into music when he lived in Ghana, but as a 20-something he and his wife went to Germany. He was working in a post office and some random guys came up to him and asked him to play in their reggae band. And he agreed, even though he didn’t actually know how to play. He just kind of figured it out, started to learn and had a knack for it.

Then when he went to Canada, in Ontario, there was a Ghanaian music scene and a lot of musicians coming from Ghana would come and play in Canada and use a local band to travel around. People found out that he could play music and would ask him to join their backing band, or hi-life group.

He played with different people and then gathered up his own equipment. By hook or by crook he managed to put together his own home studio in the early 90s, had these songs and he made this tape, Obaa Sima. He finished it and sent it to his twin brother in Kumasi to duplicate it and make something happen, although nothing really happened with it. When I did finally go to Kumasi to meet him a couple of years ago as we were cruising around and talking to people on the streets, I noticed there were a few people that remembered the music. It had been played on the radio, which was really cool and exciting to find out about.

Rediscovery of Hailu Mergia

BS: Hailu Mergia was a long time night club musician who played at the top spots for years throughout the 1970s and had a lot of fans and played on tons of records and had a lot of his own solo records. It’s just that he moved to America in the early ‘80s and slowed down his music career. Nobody in America was checking it out and people back in Ethiopia seemed to forget about it. But once we started working together and reissued one of his records (Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument: Shemonmuanaye), we kept moving forward and were able to get him touring.

The really cool thing is when someone is a lifelong musician, like Hailu Mergia. He’s such a consummate professional. He’s so good and just practices all the time. For all the years that he wasn’t performing and working as a taxi driver he was still practising all day, every day.

When he went on stage for that very first show in Brooklyn, people went mad for it, because he could just play. There was nothing weird to try to put over on people, he would just go up there and jam. That’s all he does. So yeah, it is super gratifying to see musicians shine and play in front of big audiences and make money and do their thing.

Challenges Faced Getting Artists On The Road

BS: My main job now with a lot of the artists is connecting them with booking agencies and concert promoters, helping them get visas for traveling and putting together bands that will work.

Let’s just say, getting visas for musicians can be very, very challenging. And when there are more musicians, the number of flights required just doesn’t add up. But my main thing with this whole concept of just getting artists to tour and play shows is that there is a really discriminatory visa and passport system that we have in this world. It’s really why I spend an enormous amount of time on it.

Without that visa, people can’t travel and work. I’ve had tons of visas denied, even when artists have had a complete tour schedule, with paying gigs at legitimate places. We’ve got contracts from every person and book all the flights and they still just say no. So many tours fall through.

When you are applying for this type of visa through the UK Border Agency, if somebody has a work contract that says they are an individual, that’s a sports or creative visa, who is doing something that nobody else is doing, they have contracts, where they are going to make money, people pick them up at the train station, take them to the hotel, feed them. Everything’s kosher, but they get denied all the time. It’s insane.

Impact of Brexit on touring groups

BS: It’s crazy. It’s really tough to watch. And for me too, because I have so much business in the UK.

The whole project is about opening up borders, mental, physical, national and as cheesy and cliché as that sounds, people with a progressive attitude in 2018 are up against a lot of static. With music and culture, we need to show people that everybody is doing the same thing. Everybody just wants to like be in love and feed their family and have a clean place to sleep. That’s what everybody wants. But for some reason, governments and whoever are dividing us and making us hate each other.

Atlas Electronic bringing artists from around the world to Morocco

BS: This is going to create new things because people will remember it. Young people who live here will say, “Atlas started bringing these artists that were never coming here before, playing avant garde techno and different kinds of things.” It should theoretically have some kind of creative ripple effect on the music makers here.

This festival is amazing because it’s bringing people from Europe, America and Canada and wherever into contact with the DJs based here and the electronic musicians based here that are doing really cool shit. Hopefully it leads to more Moroccan, Tunisian, Algerian, north African artists getting booked for European festivals and clubs.

That’s my whole thing. I’m out here DJing, meeting all these promoters and I just take my network and try to open it up to the artists on the label. It’s working really well, because there are a lot of people who have put on festivals and concerts who are paying attention pretty well and see that we can find a way to make this work. People take a lot of risks and can then be really, really fortunate that so many people raise their hands and say, “Yeah, that artist is going to come to Europe for the first time. We’ll put up the money and we’ll do it. We’ll go for it. We don’t know how many people are going to come exactly, but we are going to try.”

That is a really, really beautiful thing and I don’t think that promoters get props enough for the risks that they take.

Check out more from Awesome Tapes From Africa here

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