Brian Shimkovitz aka Awesome Tapes From Africa spoke to Marko Kutlesa about his blog, music from the continent and life as a label manager.
Last updated: 6th Sep 2016
New Yorker Brian Shimkovitz was studying ethnomusicology when he first visited Ghana in west Africa in 2002. He returned in 2005 on a Fulbright scholarship in order to look more closely at the country's hip hop scene although his interest in music stretched much further than hip hop, Ghana, west Africa or the continent itself.
Simultaneous to his focused studies he dove head first into the local cassette music scene, the cheapest, most accessible and most widely available medium for selling music in the region. Returning to New York with a substantial collection, Shimkovitz started a blog Awesome Tapes From Africa on which he shone the spotlight on the best complete albums that he had found on cassette, enabling some of the music to be heard for the first time outside of west Africa.
Since that time Brian has increased his collection of cassettes substantially at specialist marketplaces in the US, on repeated trips to Africa and from contacts who send things to him for his consideration.
Awesome Tapes From Africa's focus has extended beyond the music of west Africa and has now evolved into a record label. Shimkovitz's efforts have resulted in several musicians embarking on a new chapter of their musical careers, which in some cases were long finished. He has enabled many others to receive artist royalties from music sales or simply just raised the profile of those selected for the blog. He has also evolved himself, his specialist knowledge now called upon by clubs, festivals and events in the role of DJ.
We caught up with Brian Shimkovitz to ask him about his new found career as a label manager and DJ, the initial Awesome Tapes From Africa blog, music from the continent and American musical institution Grateful Dead who were Shimkovitz's first introduction to cassette tape culture.
Do you find yourself in the position now that you're the go-to world music DJ at certain events?
Sometimes, at things like art museums but I've stopped trying to do those because the sound is usually bad and so they're not much fun. But this event was done by someone who knows what they're doing, they're known for doing tropical type DJ events. But sometimes it can get like that. I have played a lot of techno parties where I think maybe they want a change of flavour for one of the rooms, which makes sense because dance music can get repetitive, if it's the same kind of stuff on a night.
Now that almost the entire live catalogue of Grateful Dead is available to listen to online, in hindsight do you think that the efforts of the tapers scene were wasted energies?
No, of course not because you wouldn't have the nucleus, the foundation of that tradition for 30+ years. Even in the early 70s people were taping Dead shows and that helped make the movement so strong all through the 80s and into the 90s.
I discovered the Dead through tapes, people are still trading tapes, I still have tapes and I still listen to them. And I still stream it on my iPhone when I'm going to the grocery store. Now that it's online it just brings it to everybody. Part of the Awesome Tapes From Africa blog, for me, was wanting to similarly document what I thought was seminal for that region, that language or movement.
The thing about the Dead being online is that it's too much. Like Youtube. You can watch everything on Youtube, but where do you start?
What's your favourite period of live Dead?
A lot of people are into that 77/78 era and that's a classic for me, but I've been listening to a lot of 72/73 stuff recently because I like the songs they were playing in that period. I also love the period when they were doing acoustic sets in 70. I even get super into 81/82 type stuff from time to time. It depends on what song I'm interested in hearing. Are you a Dead head? Is there a British Dead scene?
I do like them, yeah. There are much fewer fans here because they didn't tour as much here, although they did play in a village really close to where I grew up, but that was before I was born. My older cousins went.
Was it the Wigan show?
That 72 tour was great. They just had Billy on drums and so it had a jazzier, lighter vibe and it was pretty much the last of the shows with Pigpen. He could hardly handle being on stage at that point. It's early Donna and it's before Keith got too fucked up on drugs and was playing so well. I love that tour. I bit torrented that entire 72 tour and for two years I absorbed the whole thing. You couldn't do that when I was a kid in the 90s.
My first real concert was a Grateful Dead show, the day before St Patricks Day in Chicago in 1994. That was the beginning of my obsession with live music and improvisation and probably started me on the road to being excited by the kinds of music you can find in Africa.
Grateful Dead shared the stage with many musicians. Which African musician would you really like to have heard them play with?
There are dream scenarios that couldn't have existed with the timing, then there are ones that are more realistic that could have or should have existed like Babatunde Olatunji who was a Nigerian drummer who was putting out records on major labels that were distributed worldwide. In fact, I think they might actually have played together (they did – Ed). They played with Hamza El Din when they played in Egypt.
But dream scenario? I think of Fela's band, because they played these 20 minutes jams, but that's kinda obvious. It would have been amazing to hear Jerry sit down with Boubacar Traore from Mali, who's one of my favourite singer/songwriter/acoustic guitar maestros. He plays really sensitive, deep roots of the blues. Those two doing an acoustic duo would have been insane or with him sitting in with the acoustic band.
Also Toumani Diabate, the kora player, because he's so good at collaborating with people I'm sure he would have swum with the Dead perfectly.
When you were digitizing tape music to put on the blog it was a fairly simple process. Now that you're releasing vinyl and CDs is the process as simple or do you make efforts to track down masters?
I have have to track down the artists first and foremost in order to get permission to reissue the record, do it legally, pay them in advance and pay them 50/50 royalties on any profits. That takes some efforts. Tracking them down is often the hardest part.
In the States we have the Yellow Pages, the White Pages, there are ways you can search for people who are on the grid. Depending on languages it can be difficult to get a full biographical background on some of the records. Also sourcing good audios is pretty tricky. That can be a stumbling block.
I might find a tape or a record, or a musician and then the music just isn't there. It can take a long time to restore it, because I often don't get master tapes. They just don't exist depending on which region and era you're talking about, so you're sourcing it from a cassette or vinyl. I have a wonderful mastering person, Jessica Thompson, who does every release and she's really good at restoring these tapes.
Given the amount of music you've tried to absorb and the mindset of a DJ which you've been developing, why with the label have you concentrated on releasing stand alone albums by artists instead of compilations?
That's an interesting question in context with the DJing thing, because DJs are so the opposite of that, right? Well, the DJing came by accident and the main focus for me has always been complete albums because I studied ethno-musicology and I'm really interested in the ethnographic and anthropological background, where this music is coming from and why this musician made this music.
I think all that stuff is important and I think it makes a record more interesting, it makes people want to follow the artist. Furthermore, a big part of the project is getting the artist the opportunity to go out on tour and make money. If you don't make the story of the artist it's just some disembodied track, track 15 on a triple LP compilation that tries to put an entire movement in a nutshell just seems firstly like anti ethno-musicology and secondly it doesn't seem to serve the artist well.
They get a one time payment and a bit of royalties, but they're not really getting their foot in the door of the global music market.
So, basically with each album you put out you'd have to fall in love with every track in order to warrant putting it out on vinyl?
Are there not albums that you've come across where you've thought it has two or three killer tracks but the rest of it perhaps lets it down? Are you willing to just let that music go?
Yeah, because the blog has always focussed on things that are interesting in their complete format. I think it sets the project apart. You know, the artist put together a whole record, it's good to get a picture of that person.
I love disco, I collect a lot and there's a whole bunch of pop and jazz artists who made irrelevant music but who had one amazing track, something legendary and you could listen to it forever. That doesn't mean they should have a 13 song reissue for that audience who loves disco, because they don't care about all that other stuff. I have done some 12”s and I probably will do some that are disembodied, but basically the blog was the influence in me wanting to do the label and I want them to do the same thing.
From the initial blog the project has grown in several different directions. What are the best parts and the least enjoyable parts for you in terms of how it's evolved?
The best parts? Working with the artists, people that I've admired, getting to know them personally, watch them develop into doing new things. That's been the most rewarding. Like Ata Kak, whose music was the first post on the blog, he flies into Heathrow tomorrow to start his tour. That's just the hugest miracle because it took me eight years just to find him. He's been unemployed for a long time, now he's gonna make money.
Also Djing is very rewarding, bringing the music alive rather than just sitting on your laptop by yourself, making it a communal experience. Getting a lot of different people, from all kinds of backgrounds, into some different music. People's ears have been expending for a long time, but I think it's good to be able to show them African music that people in Africa listen to.
One of the most annoying things is flying in aeroplanes. Managing the money part of it too. It's hard to make money selling records. It's working out, I'm just keeping overheads super, super low.
You've previously concentrated on giving exposure to music that wouldn't necessarily otherwise be heard by many western listeners. So how does the release of remix projects, mostly undertaken by western remixers, fit into that ethos?
I just thought that it would be fun. People were always contacting me and saying it would be cool to do. I have a lot of friends who are producers. I thought that it could help build a bridge and let the artist reach a few more people.
I was really happy to be able to do one for Penny Penny with all South African producers. There's such a lively electronic music scene happening there right now, it was pretty easy to get in touch with some fun people and get them to do some pretty distinct remixes.
My main focus though in development is finding booking agents for these artists, if they're able to tour and figuring how to get them visas.
Even before the digital distribution of music via the internet really took off the most popular music in many parts of sub Saharan Africa was reggae, with hip hop coming a close second. Now that house music has become very popular in South Africa and western music is a lot more accessible do you think there is a danger that the pursuit of traditional African musics is something that might become obliterated?
That's a very interesting question, especially with globalisation and our electronic, digitised world. It's a two way street. Sometimes, as we see in many other walks of life, the street is really busy in the direction of Africa rather than from Africa, unless you're talking about oil or natural resources.
I don't think traditional music, folk music risks dying. I worry that in some areas languages are becoming extinct or extremely small, where they do risk songs and some elements of folk traditions being lost. But, to generalise, which is difficult to do in this case, I can see that in most African countries there's a lot of government and not for profit people trying to protect culture like that. They realise that it produces a lot of foreign exchange in terms of students and tourists. And national pride too.
People are interested in protecting it and everywhere I go I see young people who are learning traditional musical instruments. It's obviously not as huge as it used to be, but there's definitely a niche, in universities for instance. I'm mostly speaking about cities there, but once you go out into the village, so many parts of the life cycle are still accompanied by traditional music. I hope that a lot of the older folks that are teaching it to younger people are able to continue those traditions before they pass on.
This is an issue everywhere. I mean, I'm constantly worried about stuff in America disappearing. I guess as you get older you get more nostalgic for older stuff. But I think, in general, when you meet young people from Africa they are quite knowledgeable and proud of the things that come from the local traditions. At the same time, I did my research in Ghana on hip hop and there was such an obsession with overseas culture so, yeah, there is a challenge.
A lot of previously released “world music” often has a certain gloss, in its western production sounds, as essentially it is often music released by western labels for western audiences. A lot of your stuff doesn't have that gloss, thankfully, but you are a westerner. Isn't there a danger that your own releases might be restricted by your own enthusiasm for wild and, for want of a better word, exotic sounds?
Theoretically, but I'm not super worried about it. The catalogue that I'm putting together spans a lot of stuff, there are a few that sound on a par with how records sound these days. I do think the sheen of world music inhibited some people's interest over the long haul. A lot of that stuff sounds super dated unfortunately.
The main thing I've worried about since starting Awesome Tapes From Africa is I didn't want people to think that Africa is this backwards place where people only listen to tapes. I think most people are smart enough to pick up on that and I think they also realise that music from Africa doesn't begin and end with the stuff on Awesome Tapes From Africa.
I think it's fair to say that the more you become engrossed in music, the more picky you become. Would you agree?
Hmm. I don't know. I'm like a weird person because I quite open. If I'm in a place like Dakar and someone says I have a whole bunch of tapes, I'm open to checking them all, even if they're of genres I think I don't like or by artists I haven't liked in the past.
So, I guess the tape collecting thing has made me different. I can't just sit on Discogs waiting for this cassette from the Congo that I've been waiting for to show up, because it's not going to happen. I have to take what I can get and it's always been like that. That's why I have such a large collection of tapes, most of which will never be played in my DJ sets or get released on the label or blog. Not all of them are awesome in my opinion.
Well, thinking about my own immediate critical response to music, my liking of a song that has English language vocals is not only dependent on the song's musical construction but of my appreciation of the poetry contained in the lyrics. If you're of a similar ilk, can you ever apply such strict critical listening standards to musics that are presented in a language you don't understand?
No, of course you can't and that's part of the problem. It's hard to be critical about music when you don't understand what they're talking about. It's also hard for me to market certain releases for similar reasons.
If you don't speak the language there's so much of it you're missing out on and it's really hard to get journalists to write reviews of these releases because critics feel like they don't know enough about it to talk about it. So, I think that this is a huge barrier, but it's impossible for us all to know every language and so it's cool that someone can listen to music that they don't understand lyrically, but still react to it in a good or positive way.
Catch Awesome Tapes From Africa at Hidden in Manchester on Friday 14th October. Tickets are available from the box below.
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