Thrilling music from the cassette deck of Brian Shimkovitz.
There are worse ways to wile away an afternoon than scrolling through the Awesome Tapes From Africa blog. It was started ten years ago by Brian Shimkovitz, an ethnomusicologist whose obsession with collecting African tapes began after a trip to Ghana. Since then he's been travelling regularly to Africa, hitting up market stalls and secondhand shops to dig up cassette curios. The blog's simple layout makes it easy to admire the cover art—the sleeves are usually beautiful and evocative, like this or this or this. Every post is a glimpse into a different corner of the vast African musical diaspora, be it South African synth pop, praise music from Northern Ghana or vocal and string music from Ethiopia.
The Awesome Tapes From Africa record label was launched in 2011, with Shimkovitz often going to great lengths to track down musicians. Importantly, these releases have sparked newfound interest in many artists—the likes of Hailu Mergia, Nahawa Doumbia and SK Kakraba have all toured Europe following ATFA releases. Shimkovitz himself has become a festival regular as a DJ, mixing his cassettes using a tape deck and a mixer. Tape-mixing may just seem like a cute USP in 2016, but you can see it's born from a deep passion. It's a passion that's apparent on Shimkovitz's RA podcast, which showcases the African music that's currently exciting him the most.
What have you been up to recently?
I have been going through thousands of tapes trying to decide which ones to bring overseas for this upcoming tour. Lately I've been working on several releases for the label—Awalom Gebremariam (Eritrea), DJ Katapila (Ghana) and a just-announced Hailu Mergia reissue.
How and where was the mix recorded?
I DJ with tape decks only, ideally ones that have pitch control for easier mixing. I recorded this in my apartment, at my desk with one of my favourite types of tape decks for DJing. I try to use these studio-friendly dual decks with separate outs so I can DJ using just one device and a mixer.
Can you tell us about the idea behind the mix?
I usually play sets that start off slow and acoustic, working their way into heavier, electronic zones. The past year I've played many of these songs in sets and there are a few I haven't played anywhere. Which is how it usually goes when I play parties or festivals or whatever. I wanted to capture that. I hardly ever record mixes like this and I don't even have a mixer at home. So the idea was to play a cross-section of the types of music that I am excited about these days. Tempo- and genre-wise, I am into varying things often within a set. I play music from as many regions and movements as the mood and night allow.
You're celebrating ten years of ATFA. What are your proudest achievements in that time?
I started the blog in 2006 as a sort of hobby. The idea was that maybe a bunch of people out there don't get the chance to hear African music that's only available locally. So I was posting cassettes consistently for a long time just to stay mellow on the weekends.
The mission has grown and I am proud of the work being done by the artists whose records we've reissued. Most of them have done shows overseas or are planning them in the aftermath of these releases. Finally tracking down and hanging with Ata Kak feels like a massive life achievement, and his forthcoming EU/UK tour is super exciting. Working with Hailu Mergia, the Ethiopian keyboardist who lives in DC, has also been a remarkable experience. His shows keep getting better and bigger and the next reissue we are doing comes out in June, it's my favourite so far.
DJ Katapila's recent reissue got him an interview in the New York Times, which, to me, is a super big deal and I am proud of that. I loved seeing photos of Penny Penny playing the Sydney Opera House as well. I recently visited the family of Aby Ngana Diop in Senegal and they are enormously stoked about their deceased mother's legacy expanding beyond West Africa.
I definitely appreciate all the help everyone has given to these artists along the way. Many friends and strangers assisted.
What kind of challenges have you faced running ATFA?
One of the hardest things has been tracking down the artists I am interested in. I spend a ton of time searching for people through every means you can imagine, from emailing dozens of strangers and organizations and journalists in a particular region or cold-calling people on Skype or just showing up places and asking around for a while. Sometimes it is very easy, like with Hailu Mergia, who had his phone number on his blogspot page. But you'd be surprised how difficult it can be. It took about eight years to finally find Ata Kak.
What are you up to next?
This year I am planning ATFA events that will include artists from the label, in several cities all over the world. Looking forward to fun times on the dance floor on tour in Europe and North America this summer as well. Hopefully make time to visit South Africa and Nigeria, both major goals this year.