Awesome Tapes from Africa: An Appreciation of African Music

Molly Langley introduces us to Brian Shimkovitz, a man who uses his Western platform to spotlight and uncover African music.

Music can be described as a gateway to various cultures. This idea certainly precedes the notion of music as storytelling; through it, we are able to dive into lives of individuals around the world. One continent whose music – due to being less economically developed – has remained somewhat a mystery, is Africa. Consequently, few musicians are able to have their music heard outside of this continent and often the music African people listen to at parties, on the radio and in clubs is overlooked.

Ethnomusicologist, blogger and record label owner Brian Shimkovitz is the founder of Awesome Tapes From Africa. Starting off as a blog, Shimkovitz now tours under the aforementioned name and with a suitcase full of cassettes, plays hidden African treasures to his audiences.

Shimkovitz’s passion began after a yearlong trip to Ghana, in 2006, where he was studying hip-hop music on a University scholarship. This trip led to him returning to the US with a trunk full of cassettes, sparking a desire to uncover African music. Fast-forward to today and Shimkovitz has created a solid name for himself in the global club scene, appearing at the likes of Field Day, Lost Village and Berghain.

Image credit: The Independent

Purchasing cassettes wasn’t necessarily a medium of choice for Shimkovitz. The nature of the places he was visiting meant that these were the main option available in music shops, and from street vendors. Yet, this was a blessing in disguise as it meant there was more musical variety. This retro aspect of music purchase only lends more uniqueness to the work that Shimkovitz is doing.    However, introducing the music to fresh audiences is not without its difficulties. The fact that cassette tapes are easily copied and distributed means that the origins of the original label it was produced under get lost, and the artist of the tracks remain as obscure as the tracks themselves. A lot of Shimkovitz’s job involves tracking down the rightful owners of the songs, and when he manages to hunt down the music’s producers, he splits the revenue from the records 50/50. The records are available to purchase on his blog, and are re-released under his record label, Awesome Tapes From Africa.

The unique idea behind this blog has changed Shimkovitz’s passion into his full-time job. A quick scroll on Awesome Tapes and you will immediately be presented with an eclectic mix of genres from all over Africa. It is like scrolling into a new world and your eyes are battling with which tape to listen to; the album covers alone are enough to spark curiosity. The colloquial way in which Shimkovitz describes each record draws the audience in further, as he is able to construct a friendly atmosphere, and you are driven to explore more of the musical wonders that the site presents. 

One notable story comes from Shimkovitz’s first upload to the blog, a song by Ata Kak that gained a lot of interest from his listeners. Ata Kak was unaware of how popular his music had become until Shimkovitz was able to, finally, track him down. In an interview with Red Bull, Shimkovitz

noted that no-one in Ata’s neighbourhood in Kumasi knew that he had a former life as a musician or that he reissued his tape worldwide. From this discovery, Ata was able to celebrate his music with wider audiences and his songs are firm favourites for Shimkovitz to play in his DJ sets.

Shimkovitz has even been able to build friendly relationships with the musicians he promotes. Hailu Mergia was keyboardist in Ethiopian jazz band Walias Band, producing popular jazz and funk beats in the 1970s to 1990s.  Shimkovitz was able to reach out to Mergia after discovering an old tape he had solo-produced – Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instruments – which he notes as one of his favourites. The record was so well received online that it helped to re-launch Mergia’s musical career, and since, Shimkovitz has released more of his music online.

Whether is it Nigerian hip-hop, local Sudanese pop, Senegalese mbalax – the national popular dance music of Senegal and the Gambia – or Ethiopian jazz, Shimkovitz creates unique and fun performances, celebrating the rich history from the extensive variety of African music: ‘One of the things I’ve been trying to do with Awesome Tapes is to try and surprise people and expand the concept of what a lot of people think African music is.’ The aesthetic quality of the cassettes creates a lo-fi sound, emulating a raw attribute to the music, tending to a more personal feel to the song and subsequently the DJ performance. Brian connects to the audience and allows them to celebrate African music and black history. The obscurity of the songs he unveils lends for a unique clubbing experience as the audience is guided on a musical tour through Morocco, Ethiopia, Somalia and many more.

What better way to celebrate black history than listening to a unique collection of songs by attending one of Shimkovitz’s gig’s or simply by browsing his blog where all the music he finds is uploaded, ready for free download or purchase.

Molly Langley

(Image credit: World Headquarters)