Discover: Awesome Tapes From Africa

Richard Gehr

By Richard Gehr

on 11.15.13 in Collections

The humble and formerly ubiquitous cassette tape turned 50 years old in August 2013. But every day is Cassette Store Day for Brian Shimkovitz, whose Awesome Tapes From Africa blog and record label have been throwing open the aural windows to African music, scenes and subgenres the West would never have learned about otherwise.

“My whole mission has been to show people what African music sounds like in Africa,” says Los Angeles-based Shimkovitz, whose fascination with Africana exploded during the he spent researching the hip-hop scene in Ghana with the help of a Fulbright grant. Back then, a locally produced cassette cost a fraction of what a Europe-pressed CD went for. “Cassette technology has been conducive to the decentralization, diversification and marked expansion of recording industries,” wrote ethnomusicologist Peter Manuel in 1993, noting that Ghana then boasted more than 2,700 dubbing shops and yearly sales of some 2 million bootleg cassettes.

Home to some of the world’s most beautiful and diverse sounds, Mali’s huge capital city, Bamako, turned out to be especially fertile territory for Shimkovitz’s cassette fever. “It’s not like crate digging,” he says of his shopping expeditions, “because you’re buying the same things anyone else could find. They’re often pieces of art in their own way, but they’re not necessarily as rare as the vinyl people dig for in garages and basements. Which is part of the fun, because it’s accessible to everybody and quite cheap.”

Back from Ghana and living in New York, Shimkovitz found work in music publicity. Figuring that the boxes of tapes he returned with deserved a wider hearing, he started the Awesome Tapes From Africa blog in 2006 as a weekend hobby. “At the very least, I thought nerdy people like us would be into it,” he says, “and I was surprised at how many people I didn’t know personally got into it.” His first post, a track by the enigmatic Ghanaian rapper known as Ata Tak, inspired numerous remixes and videos. Shimkovitz has subsequently posted hundreds of consistently remarkable tapes from Zaire, Morocco, Tanzania, Senegal, Guinea, and his two most recent passions, Ethiopia and Somali, among other places. Most of it sounds unlike anything you’ve heard before and will likely make you a better person for the exposure.

Encouraged by his friend DJ /rupture (aka Jace Clayton), Shimkovitz’s first impromptu cassettes-only DJ gig evolved into what for a time became a full-time job, leading him to relocate to Berlin. He unspools his tapes on two decks and a mixer, a procedure somewhat slower than spinning vinyl. There’s a lot more fast-forwarding and rewinding, of course; but the specialized nature of the music, along with the clientele, lets him play out tracks at length, unconstrained by having to precisely match beats-per-minute. “The audience is more forgiving with tapes,” he says. “And this music is so weird that you can create phased-out cross-rhythms, like Steve Reich stuff.” Dropouts can be a problem, however. “I’ve had people come up to me at parties and say, ‘Yo, I think there’s something wrong with the PA.’ And I’m like, ‘No, I’m just playing super-old tapes.’”

In 2011, Shimkovitz inaugurated the Awesome Tapes From Africa label with an enthralling reissue of a 1982 album by Mali star Nâ Hawa Doumbia. “I started the label to get the artists more directly involved, expand their revenue, and find ways for them to tour,” he says. Where other labels repackage their reissues for contemporary consumers, Shimkovitz replicates the original package’s art, language and sequencing faithfully — which led, coincidentally, to his first three releases being titled with seemingly random volume numbers, like Ghanaian singer Bola’s prosaically titled Volume 7. Which is to say that great African music still arrives in deceptively modest formats.

Here’s Shimkovitz on his first five Awesome Tapes From Africa releases.

I heard an amazing vinyl copy of this at a friend's house. I've known her music a long time. She's a well-known big deal to people into Mali's music, but this 1982 album is completely surprising — beautiful, stark and acoustic. I actually mastered it from vinyl because it sounded so nice. I thought it would introduce her perfectly to the wider audience I'm trying to reach with the Awesome Tapes label. Working with her was really easy because I have a friend in Bamako who's friends with her. I send her royalties every six months through Western Union. We're trying to organize a tour, but it's been difficult because of the problems in Mali. Also, artists like her who've been around a long time remember when they could go to Europe and get $6,000 a night or whatever. She's a household name and still doing her thing, but the business is harder now.

A friend gave me this cassette after his trip to Ghana. I'd spent a lot of time in northern Ghana and was really fascinated by the kologo, a two-stringed banjo-like instrument with a gourd resonator. A few people were combining music in the local Frafra dialect with club and hip-hop beats. It's just him and a producer putting together piano lines and heavy bass. It's really danceable, and people seem to either really like it or really not. It's a specific style rarely heard outside of Ghana, and I wanted to show that even a country as relatively small as Ghana has so much stuff going on. We were going to organize a tour for Bola, but he was denied a visa, unfortunately. This was like his seventh or eighth record, so he already has a lot of work and music videos out there. A lot of his records come out on video CD, with videos for every track. He makes a living playing private events and ceremonies specific to his region. Bola's not famous outside his region, and he hasn't had crossover success on mainstream radio, but maybe it'll happen.

I wanted to do something with Somali music because I'd been admiring it for so long on YouTube, although I couldn't get my hands on much of it. I spent many months cold-calling and emailing Somali grocery stores and journalists around the world, asking them, "Do you know so-and-so?" I got very few responses but was finally able to find one of the groups I was looking for. Dur-Dur Band is so important to the history of Somali pop that it just had to be the first Somali thing on Awesome Tapes, and I intend to do more. The band lives in Columbus, Ohio; London; and maybe even Melbourne, Australia. It's an 11-piece group whose personnel changed over the years. It's definitely the most funky and mainstream of the Somali stuff I've been checking out, but I thought it would be the best introduction to Somali sounds. It's special stuff if you're into music from Ethiopia, Sudan or Southern Egypt. It's my understanding that it was all recorded at the same time at Radio Mogadishu and got repackaged into different releases on the street because so much of it is bootlegged.

The best shit ever and I am so into it! I found this in a cassette shop in Bahir Dar, north of Addis Ababa. I made my girlfriend stand with me there for about an hour a half while I listened to two-minute snippets of 50 or 60 tapes. I brought home more than a hundred tapes from Ethiopia, and this one didn't necessarily stand out visually. I just happened to put it on late one Saturday night and thought it was the greatest thing ever and that I had to find this guy. I started Googling and, funnily enough, he had his own little Blogspot site with his cell-phone number. I called him up right then and there and he said, "Yeah, man, that sounds great. Let's do this." Hailu's the nicest guy and super-easy to work with. He's been living in Washington, D.C., since 1981, when he came over with the Walia's Band from Ethiopia. A brutal military dictatorship was ruling Ethiopia, so half the band remained in D.C. They tried to make it as musicians, but things got kind of rough, so Hailu's been driving a taxi to Dulles airport for many years, making a nice living, and just playing music on his own. Shemonmuanaye means "my well-dressed, beautiful woman." We've booked a European tour for him, but he hasn't played live since 1991. People had been trying to contact him, but nobody had contacted him about this record, which he released on cassette in 1985. He was into working with me because I expressed interest in putting him on the road again, both alone and with a band. I haven't heard much other accordion music in Ethiopia, especially with analog synthesizer, Rhodes piano and a drum machine.

My friends Wills and Tshepang (who's the drummer for BLK JKS) gave me with this tape after they traveled in South Africa together. I had been listening to it for several years, loving it more and more as time went by. I posted it on the Awesome Tapes blog and even played it many times as a DJ. Penny Penny's style of house-inspired South African dance music is so deep and distinctive yet worldly.