Ata Kak

Obaa Sima

Struggling artists looking for a break can take comfort in knowing that today it’s not just hard work and dedication that can get you heard. You might need a little patience though: over twenty years in the case of Yaw Atta-Owusu aka Ata Kak. He joins the ranks of the "Sugarmen", among them Detroit proto-punkers Death, soft-pop balladeer Lewis, and the original Sugarman, Sixto Rodriguez, who remained oblivious for many years to the roaring success of his ‘flop’ debut album Cold Fact in overseas South Africa.


Like all these artists, Atta-Owusu and his music laid in obscurity for decades, before finally being tracked down and re-released to an audience far vaster than could have previously been imagined. While phenomena like these are becoming increasingly common in the internet age, it seems each new discovery has its own story to tell.


Obaa Sima, whose title according to a friend with a conversational grasp of the Twi language could possibly mean ‘Perfect Woman’, was self-released in a limited run of just 50 cassettes back in 1994.

With little-to-no impact made at the time, it wouldn’t be until 2006 when collector and archivist Brian Shimkovitz happened upon a copy while visiting Ghana’s Cape Coast that Obaa Sima‘s fortunes would be reversed. The discovery of the tape would lead to the founding of Shimkovitz’s celebrated Awesome Tapes From Africa blog, along with a lengthy net-wide hunt for the originator of this obscure 7-track tape.


Now in 2015, with Atta-Owusu found alive and well in the world, Obaa Sima gets its first official global release. The Awesome Tapes blog was founded on this tape, and Shimkovitz’s blog has become an institution and record label in itself, releasing digitised versions of obscure recordings from around the continent. Better late than never, this couldn’t have come at a more opportune moment; the worldwide appetite for pan-African dance music being at an all-time high thanks to the growing popularity of the current afrobeats movement. But this is a far cry from the modernised hip-hop and dancehall influenced productions coming out of countries like Nigeria and Ghana today.


Obaa Sima represents a nascent, rugged form of Ghanian pop-dance. Built upon secondhand drum-machine rhythms and built-in synth sounds, Ata Kak’s original DAT had become so degraded over the years that Shimkovitz was forced to rely on his own cassette copy for the official release. It also turns out the original tracks had been sped up by Owusu in post-production, giving the music a giddy helium-like quality. If anything, these factors only add to the lo-fi strangeness of this short album.

"No one I know in Ghana listens to this frenetic leftfield rap madness," wrote Shimkovitz in his inaugural ATFA post. Indeed, Obaa Sima sounds very much apart from anything else, new or old. Ata-Owusu, an ex-pat in Canada at the time of recording, was largely unaware of the growing hiplife movement happening back home. Having been entranced by early forms of US rap and house music, Ata Kak’s music was conceived well away from the homegrown scene of his Ghanian would-be contemporaries emergent in these styles. As such, Obaa Sima stands alone as a unique artefact with very few contemporaneous touchstones. A Chicago house William Onyeabor? A rapping Francis Bebey? Comparisons like these seem lazy and Westernised, ultimately, and it would be more productive to avoid placing this curious release into any objective or comparative categories. To use a redundant phrase, it is what it is.


But that’s not to say that Ata Kak’s music can’t be enjoyed on a level beyond mere curiosity. A nine-year search for the man couldn’t have been predicated on novelty value alone. It is, as a piece, a hugely entertaining listen.


The opening title track sets the template with a blend of 80s and 90s dance beats; lo-tech and old skool even for 1994, overlayed with female backing chants (or possibly a sped-up Ata Kak himself) and scattershot rapping in Twi. The delivery is tremendously fast, with phrases repeating and twisting in an unfussy, freeform manner. Even more so on ‘Moma Yendodo’, a highlight for me, in which Ata’s freeform "scooby-dooby ah-scooby-dooby-doob" skat delivery mimics the vocal scratch technique of hip-hop’s golden age.

What’s most striking about these seven pieces is how catchy they are. Though the rhythms might be preset-generated, the palette relatively basic on a surface level, each song features an infectious choral hook and just enough sonic variation to keep interest levels working to capacity. The only outlier here is ‘Bome Nnwom’, the closing track, which features no rapping or singing at all, instead going for a style that comes remarkably close to the kind of rough’n’raw house typified by Chicago’s legendary Dancemania label.

The proliferation of new-old discoveries facilitated by dedicated music archaeologists like Brian Shimkovitz has to be applauded. It throws into sharp relief just how much amazing music must be wasting away under a mattress in some far-flung town right now, away from A&R execs and record labels looking in all the usual places for the next big thing. It’s heartening to think that we now have the technology to get these outliers, curios and genial home-producers out to the audiences they deserve. In an age where anyone with an internet connection can self-release their own music to a potentially huge online market, the mind boggles at how much is out there, neglected for only a handful of Soundcloud plays. Perhaps in 1994, no one might have deemed the music of Ata Kak as particularly remarkable. Maybe it’s only in the context of retrospect, with a growing international interest in all things African, dance and hip-hop-based can we now appreciate just what a prescient piece of work something like Obaa Sima really was. It was just a lonely cassette at a market stall, but it beggars the question: Who exactly is going to trawl through the rough of thousands upon thousands of demos, false starts and plain old trash found online until the next diamond in the rough is found?

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