Interview: blogger and label boss Brian Shimkovitz discusses his Awesome Tapes From Africa
The blog/label highlights music inspired and made by King Sunny Adé, Fela Kuti, Hailu Mergia and more
Awesome Tapes From Africa began when ethnomusicology student Brian Shimkovitz decided to share the music he'd collected on his travels. The blog, and now label, has become a portal to obscure and amazing sounds from across the continent: hip-hop to juju, griot to ethiojazz, gospel to house. As Shimkovitz gets ready to bring his awesome tapes to Scotland this summer, The List's world music critic Stewart Smith spoke to him about his love of African music and the pitfalls of DJing with cassettes.
When did your passion for African music begin?
I think I first got excited about African music when a friend in college showed me tapes he brought back from Ghana. I had recently purchased a King Sunny Adé tape and had been listening to Fela [Kuti], which completely floored me. But when I realised there were tons of great musicians active across Africa, as evidenced by this stack of fascinating tapes my friend shared, I got very interested in visiting as soon as possible.
What attracted you to tapes in particular?
I’ve always been a tapes guy. But I think the fact that when I first went to West Africa in 2002 there was almost nothing but tapes in the markets, when I heard something cool on the radio and searched for it, it was always on tape. But it wasn’t a big deal to me, because I had always been listening to tapes. Full disclosure: I am a massive, life-long Grateful Dead fan, which, in the 1990s and earlier, involved a vibrant live show tape-trading scene.
How did the blog begin and what were your aims? Did you imagine it becoming so successful?
After spending a year in 2004–2005 doing research on hip-hop in Ghana, I moved to Brooklyn where I was working from home and had all these tapes. I wanted to do some kind of project. Williamsburg during that time was really happening, a lot of people had their thing and I knew that I wanted to be busy when I wasn’t working. I was sitting in my apartment one day with my roommate looking at these hundreds of tapes I’d brought back from West Africa and I just said, 'I am gonna start a blog called Awesome Tapes From Africa.'
You have a background in ethnomusicology. Do you see the blog as an ethnomusicological project, documenting particular aspects of African music, or is it less formal than that?
Awesome Tapes From Africa was started in part as an anti-ethnomusicology thing. I was too deep in scholarly writing and jargon and realized I would reach more people by speaking readable English! Also, I couldn’t find information about most of the tapes I had, apart from the hiplife ones I’d been using for research purposes. Since most of the tapes were not Google-able I found it necessary to talk about the music in general listeners' terms instead of getting all deep and encyclopedic about it.
You post an extraordinary range of music on the blog, from acoustic to electric, traditional to modern. Which kinds of African music (old and new) particularly excite you?
Oh, that’s a hard question but bottom-line for me is that I love music that has this indescribable energy. It can be acoustic or electronic or modern or traditional. But my focus on posting tapes revolves around these questions: Is this music famous where it comes from? Does this music sound completely different from what we normally get on our record store shelves outside the continent? Things like that.
Do you think the internet has changed peoples' perceptions of so-called world music, opening it up to different audiences and making different styles available?
Yeah, I think in some ways the old concept of ‘world music’ has changed in that people realise things that fall into that category – created by the music industry – is mostly music made for Western audiences. The Internet has changed how we consume music, and it has also changed our perception of how exotic or foreign something feels. That is also due in part to the changing landscape of our cities and towns, where in America – and, I think, in the UK – we have tons more people from different countries living together. We are closer these days! I have found the most amazing Nigerian tapes by taking the subway from my old house in Brooklyn about ten stops.
You reissued legendary Ethiopian bandleader Hailu Mergia's solo debut last year, which has led to him returning to the stage, having worked as a taxi driver in Philadelphia for several years. Can you tell us how that came about?
I found his tape in a great shop in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia in February last year and just called him up from Berlin when I got home (his phone number I found online!). I told him I definitely want to get him playing shows again and from there he trusted me and I tried my best to connect him with the right people to make it happen. I am very lucky to be working with such a chilled and brilliant gentleman.
You DJ with cassettes, which I imagine causes logistical and technical problems. Would you ever consider just playing off a laptop or are tapes worth the effort?
I used to bring a laptop as a sort of safety device in case anything failed or I had some song I needed to play that I didn’t bring on tape. Now I play 100% on tapes, and whilst it’s a pain sometimes to get good decks at clubs, it’s super fun! It is definitely a pain in the neck, though: the tapes wear out, the sound quality can pose a challenge and I think it sometimes limits me in terms of what I can play. I can only bring about 75–100 tapes on tour and if the shows are very different contexts then sometimes I can feel trapped by what I chose to bring.
The last time you played Scotland was for the Optimo New Year's party. How was that? Are you looking forward to the upcoming shows in Glasgow and Edinburgh?
OH MAN, the Optimo New Year’s party was unreal. So many nice people, everyone was happy and friendly and dancing like crazy. I guess that’s New Year but it’s also Glasgow and Scotland from what I can tell… So, I have a feeling Edinburgh and Glasgow this time around will be pretty exciting. And now I have friends in Scotland so I am very much looking forward to it.
Awesome Tapes From Africa plays at Saramago Cafe, CCA Glasgow on Thurs 31 July and
with Golden Teacher and David Barbarossa at Summerhall, Edinburgh on Fri 1 August.