Created and curated by Brian Shimkovitz, Awesome Tapes from Africa is an intriguing online collection of rare and obscure African cassette music. Shimkovitz began his collection during visits to Africa as part of his studies in ethnomusicology. Research initially drew him to the highlife and hiplife scenes of Ghana, leading to discoveries of endless genres and subcultures in Ghana and its surrounding countries. Having acquired knowledge and tapes along the way it seemed only right to share these findings upon his return to America, and in 2006 the Awesome Tapes from Africa blog was founded. Its popularity has since resulted in a career as an international cassette-DJ and most recently the founding of his own record label.
We caught up with Brian, fresh to Berlin, to discuss the impassioned blogger’s collection and the rare music that’s come to define his success.
Where were you based before your recent move to Berlin?
I’m originally from Chicago but I’ve been living in New York for the last seven years or so and now I’m based in Berlin since a week and a half ago. I’ve been doing so much DJing, coming back and forth every month that it made sense to be based in a central part of Europe. There seems to be a little more interest and funding for this kind of thing here.
Are the tapes you select for the blog often already popular and well-known to their home countries, or are you interested in the more unusual finds?
It’s a combination. On the one hand I want to present music that’s really super famous in specific regions, and on the other I want to present things that I think are really different and obscure in a good way, kind of left-field stuff that you wouldn’t expect. That’s why I started the blog in the first place; I had all these tapes that I brought back with me from these two trips to west Africa and I was sitting in my Brooklyn apartment thinking “what can I do with them apart from just playing them for a couple of friends?”, so I decided to put them online and let people hear just how diverse and how talented the music scene really can be in all of these different countries. I’ve always been really obsessed with popular music in an urban setting.
Am I right in thinking you now get sent tapes?
Yeah, it’s been a while since I’ve had the chance to go back to anywhere in Africa so I’ve been really lucky that since the blog started in 2006 I’ve been receiving a lot of emails from people all around the world and people have been really generous. I get stuff in the mail and sometimes I come across someone wanting to get rid of their entire tape collection. At almost every single show I play someone comes up and gives me one or two.
Is cassette the principle format for music releases in the places you’ve made your finds?
Well, it’s hard to say because there are so many countries. More and more people have access to CDs on a cheaper basis, using USB M-drives and Bluetooth on their mobile phones to trade music, but in certain countries tapes are still a main format. During the time I spent in Ghana a few years ago, the widest variety of music you could find was on tape and as I traveled to other parts of the region it seemed to be the same thing. Tapes have always been an interesting and fun thing for me both as a listener and a collector ever since I was a kid. I was pretty slow to get into CDs. I think it also keeps a nice limitation to what I do, if I were able to post music of all different kinds on the blog I think I’d just get overwhelmed.
Can you tell us a little about your new label?
Yes, the idea was to start a label to make commercial releases and have it distributed to record shops all over the world on vinyl, digital and CD. The first release came out in October by a singer from Mali called Nâ Hawa Doumbia. The next release comes out in early April by a guy named Bola from northern Ghana. Hopefully by the end of the year there’ll be a few more releases out, it’s moving slowly at the moment because I have no idea how to find a lot of the people I really want to work with. I want to cut a 50/50 deal with each of the artists, so I can’t release anything unless I make a contract with the artists themselves.
How do you find DJing with tapes?
For me it was just an organic thing when I was asked to DJ music from my blog. Doing it with the tapes is a little more work intensive because you have to rewind and fast-forward all the time. There are other cassette DJs, and I’m sure with the interest in tapes that seems to be growing around the world there’ll be more and more people doing it.
Do you DJ with the original tapes?
Yes, some of them start to get spoilt after a while but life’s too short to get too obsessed with that. The ones that I play a lot have a very diminished quality: warped and stretched-out, but I’ve always been heavily into the kind of imperfections that come with tapes. It’s something that goes all the way back to record labels from the north-west of America that have been really influential to a lot of people in music, people like K Records and Kill Rock Stars. I grew up listening to Free Jazz and experimental music so I’ve always been into nuances and imperfections like that.
When I went to Ghana I found that the music also doesn’t sound perfect and that became a part of the blog’s aim: to capture the way the music is often heard over there. It’s definitely an interesting tension, especially when I play at a party in Berlin for example, with Techno DJs who play very precise, clean-sounding minimal music. Sometimes people come up to me and say “why does this sound fucked up?”, but it’s something I’ve always had a high tolerance for.
What music are you most excited about at the moment?
Well, I was just in Switzerland DJing at an after-party for a new film about a fixed-gear biker riding across Eritrea, which I got really excited about because I’ve never had much contact with Eritrean music, so I’d like to explore that more. Also I’ve been on Youtube for the last several months going crazy for all the different kinds of Somalian music, which is really hard to find outside of the country. And then the other thing I’m into is just hip hop in all of its various forms across the board, because in every region there are so many different movements existing in parallel.
What would you say has been your most unusual find so far?
The first tape I ever posted on the blog, which has sort of become the manifesto for what I’m trying to accomplish. It was this cassette by Ata Kak, a singer from Ghana that I don’t know a whole lot about, and I’m still putting a lot of work into searching for him. It reminds me of early ’80s Chicago house, but he raps and sings over it and it’s just really unhinged and crazy-sounding. It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard from Ghana and it’s always been a bit like my muse. It’s one of the most popular things on the blog and ever since, I’ve been trying to find things that make me feel how I felt the first time I heard that tape.
And your favourite cassette artwork?
There are so many. One of the ones I really like is a tape called Hamdawa, which is gnawa music from Morocco. Also the cover for this tape from Mali by a guy called Souley Kante.
A lot of the music on the blog is available for free, have you had any problems with the artists?
No, not yet. I think part of that is because the artists aren’t necessarily aware of it, and that makes me feel a little bit awkward. But overall when I really think about it I know the music that I’m putting up there is almost impossible for most people to find. I feel like any harm that’s being done is offset by the amount of exposure that the artists are gaining from being on a website that gets so much traffic.
What’s next for you?
The second label release is due for April 2nd or 3rd (depending what continent you’re on) by Bola. It’s essentially a modern approach to a traditional instrument and song style, which has a lot to do with praising God and praising the people in the audience. It’s super dance-floor heavy bass that I became really conscious of and excited about on my trips to Ghana, and Bola’s stuff is a very stripped-down and powerful version of this. Also, I’ll be supporting this great band you’ve probably heard of from the Congo called Kanono No. 1 at Gretchen at the end of the month.