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Awesome Tapes from Africa brings obscure musicians to a wider audience

Awesome Tapes From Africa founder Brian Shimkovitz.
Awesome Tapes From Africa founder Brian Shimkovitz.
Courtesy Brian Shimkovitz

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Ethnomusicologist Brian Shimkovitz started the blog Awesome Tapes From Africa in 2006, after spending time in Ghana both as a college student and later as a Fulbright scholar. 

Shimkovitz needed an outlet for the hundreds of cassette tapes he collected from his travels, so he decided to upload them to the blog so others could hear them. 

Nearly a decade later — with an extensive archive of music from all over the continent —  Awesome Tapes from Africa is also a record label. Shimkovitz tracks down the original artists and gets their music pressed onto vinyl for resale. He shares the profits 50/50 with the artists. 

It’s a great deal for them ... typically free money because it’s a record that they’ve already made. So the artists get paid every six months and all the records, except for one, are making money at this point.

Shimkovitz stopped by The Frame to talk about turning the blog into a record label, what makes African music unique, and his plans for the future. 

Interview Highlights 

At what point did your academic interest transfer into something where you would bring music back and share it with a broader audience?

That happened naturally... I got back to Brooklyn, I was working in music publicity, I wanted a hobby. I also had tons and tons of tapes from these trips. And I thought, This is music that people aren’t hearing at the record stores or on the radio — I should put this on a blog.

What do you find first, the music or the musician?

Oh god. Definitely finding the music is much easier. Everywhere I go I’m coming across African tapes. Just last week I was walking down the road in Brooklyn with my bicycle, looking for a bike pump. And I came across a shop that had a huge crate of Nigerian gospel tapes on the floor. I don’t know how this happens to me, but I was really fortunate. And then suddenly I had a bike and a suit over my shoulder and a huge box of, like, 75 tapes.

But then you try to find the artists themselves right?

Yeah, that’s the hardest part. Because stalking people over Facebook and Google and Skype is kind of a full-time job for me.

And how did you track down Ata Kak?

Well, that was a long-winded thing that took several years, but I made a lot of phone calls, went to Hamburg because someone in Ghana had told me he was there. He wasn’t in Hamburg. [I] went to Toronto... I found his son in Toronto by chance, so it led me to him. And I finally met him a couple months ago in Ghana.

We have this image of musicians in the U.S. — they’re in these elaborate, padded studios with massive digital mixing boards, synthesizers, probably lots of liquor and snacks, auto-tune machines. Can you describe how some of the artists whose work you’re sharing actually recorded their work in Africa?

Well, it runs the gamut of things that are recorded in a fancy studio in a capital city, to things that are recorded outdoors, to things that are recorded in a small room with very bad acoustics and a single microphone. And kind of everything in between. And also things are mastered a little bit differently, or not mastered at all. We in America are used to music that is highly, kind of flawless. They put it through a lot of machines before you hear it on the radio. But I am listening to music that comes from the '70s or '80s or '90s or even now, so there’s a different way of making it. So, for example, some of the newer stuff that’s on the label and on the blog is done with laptops, just like the music that’s made here in L.A. And because of laptops and the digital age, we’re able to make music any way we want, at home. And it’s a lot easier now.

You say on your website, “If you are an artist, etc., and wish for me to remove your music, email me.” So does that mean that you sometimes don’t have the rights to the music you’re posting? You don’t know who created it? What does that mean?

Well, the blog kind of exists in a gray area because it’s music that isn’t available for sale anywhere. But I also haven’t been given permission to post it. So I’m trying to get the music out there, get it promoted, get people to hear it. But if somebody is upset with that, I’m happy to take it down.

I guess the next step in that equation was actually releasing some of this music on a label.

Yeah. It was an organic progression to this point where I felt like it would be possible to release the records if I could just find some folks, get approval and put it out on vinyl. There are a lot of people contacting me and saying they’d love to buy [the music] if they could. So it made sense to try and find a way to send money to the artists. So the label consists of tracking down the musicians, making a deal with them, doing a 50/50 split of any profits that happen. And then I do the work of getting it manufactured and distributed and promoted. It’s a great deal for them  ... typically free money because it’s a record that they’ve already made. So the artists get paid every six months and all the records, except for one, are making money at this point.

Who is the first artist you officially re-released?

An album from a singer from Mali named Na Hawa Doumbia, who has been well-known for many years now. But this is her second recording and it’s from 1982. And she is playing with her husband on guitar and a couple percussionists. The scraping sound is like a metal scraper that’s popular in Africa with certain types of music. Especially in Southern Mali and Northern Ivory Coast. It’s like a little scratchy, scraper sound.

What does it take, in your mind, for an album to be considered an "awesome tape"?

There are certain things that jump out at you when you listen to something that just sounds astounding. I’m really into music that’s surprising. I’m really into music from Africa that explodes common notions of what African music is supposed to sound like. And I’m really into showcasing artists who are household names within their region, but are not well-known outside.

And how do those notions get established — of what African music is supposed to sound like?

Well, I guess through years and years of consuming popular culture and not spending time actually in the place. The first time that I went to Ghana, it just blew my mind ... Just seeing what Africa is really like and meeting people and spending a ton of time just hanging out and realizing the majority of what we actually hear and see is not actually what’s going on there.

Your next release on your label is from the artist SK Kakraba, who is a traditional Ghanaian xylophone player?

SK comes from Northwest Ghana, from the Lobi community. And the Lobis, when people die, have a very elaborate set of funeral rites that they perform that involve music. The xylophone players — they call the instrument the gyil —  are heavily involved from the time that the people realize that the person has passed away, all the way through the funeral services and into the dancing that [indicates] the funeral is over.

And how did you come across SK Kakraba?

The first time I went to Ghana, in 2002, I was on this student study abroad trip. We spent a lot of time in Ghana and there were musicians there who were teaching and performing and doing different projects. And he was heavily involved with a band we were seeing play around town a lot. And he eventually moved to Los Angeles. We kept in touch over the years and we’ve been hanging out ... And then it occurred to me that, because I have a label dealing with African music, maybe we should work together.

Now that you have your own label and your own artists, what do you see in the future for Awesome Tapes?

I’m really happy and fortunate to be doing this and working with these artists who I admire. And I just hope that I can keep doing that and find ways to help them benefit from getting their music heard by people outside of where they come from. I’m trying to make a bigger space in the marketplace for African music and find ways to get African artists on the road and an easier way of getting them visas.

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