The blog Awesome Tapes From Africa delivers on the promise of its name. Founder Brian Shimkovitz launched it as a way to share with his friends some of the cheap cassettes he found while in Ghana (on a Fulbright Scholarship for ethnomusicology), and in the years since it began its audience has since grown beyond his pals; it now attracts tens of thousands of visitors a month.
The premise is simple: Find a tape, post the music online, let the listening party ensue. Pertinent details beyond who the artist is—where he or she lives, who plays the instruments, when it was recorded—may or may not be provided. Shimkovitz is refreshingly ego-free, sometimes weighing in with some background info but just as likely to say something along the lines of, “I have no idea who this artist is, but I like it.”
Recently he’s moved beyond cyberspace to do DJ gigs where he mixes his sets using those very same cassettes. (He’ll DJ at this weekend’s All Tomorrow’s Parties-produced I’ll Be Your Mirror Festival in Asbury Park, and on Sunday he’ll DJ at Tandem in Brooklyn with Portland’s Sahel Sounds and Brooklyn-based Bird & Whale.) He’s also on the verge of launching a reissue label; its first release will be Nâ Hawa Doumbia’s 1982 album La Grande Cantatrice Malienne, Vol. 3. Sound of the City spoke with him about what it’s like to put together DJ sets on cassette, launching his label, and where he finds tapes in New York.
What was the initial inspiration for doing this?
After spending a year in Ghana in 2005, which was the second trip I took there, I brought back just a ton of tapes. And I was sitting there in my Brooklyn apartment trying to figure out what to do with them—it just seemed that it was a lot of stuff that people wouldn’t normally get a chance to hear about. I thought that I should just start sharing them, and a blog was a new quick and free format at the time. And I thought it’d be good to do just a simple concept. It was a bit selfish because I just wanted to show my friends what I had brought back, but it really quickly became something that a lot of people were looking to for introducing themselves to or going deeper into African music.
There is a lot of interest in African music these days. It seems that each week sees another reissue of cool African stuff.
Do you think this is a trend? I’ve been so immersed in it for so long that it is hard for me to gauge. But it seems like it. That’s why I started this new label. I feel like there are millions great compilations coming out, but I’m going to really take a closer look at the artist rather than a disembodied track with a break beat to it. My thing is that I’m going to put out complete records, basically doing what the blog is doing, but in a commercial release format.
Why focus on cassettes?
When I went to Ghana I wanted to collect as many different kinds of music as I could. There just weren’t a lot of opportunities to buy CDs and there weren’t that many MP3s at the time. Now people are trading MP3s on their mobile phones, but the widest variety of stuff in West Africa is still on tape.
Also, tapes just seemed pretty natural. I was a pretty late guy to CDs in high school. And I always listened to a lot of tapes because I’m a huge Dead fan. So it seemed pretty natural to me to have a box full of tapes. I’ve always had a cassette deck and have about 4,000 tapes in my apartment.
And you DJ with cassettes too, right? This would seem to be challenging, to say the least.
It seemed like a natural thing as well. If you are playing all this music on cassette, making it available from cassette on the blog, it seemed to make sense to just have a couple of tape decks instead of playing on turntables.
I remember cassettes breaking or getting eaten. Does this happen during the set?
Yeah. Two weeks ago at a festival in Latvia one of my favorite tapes broke. A few months ago in Germany they had three cassette players for me and they all broke before the end of the show. At SXSW last year I just picked up these crappy Walkmen that I bought at Kmart for 15 bucks. By the end of the five sets I did, there they were all broken. I was just on Craigslist before you called looking for a tape deck.
Where do you shop for cassettes?
It started out with the blog just being stuff that I picked up in Africa, but now I find people’s collections in the States and absorb them. Every week I get packages from people all over the world who send me tapes they’ve collected from various trips. I’ll get an email from some guy saying: “I was in Senegal in 1989 with the Peace Corps and I have this box of tapes that’s been sitting under my bed. Do you want them?” There are some places in Brooklyn that I know, grocery stores and Rasta shops where I can buy select tapes from Mali. There are places up in the Bronx where I can get Ghanan tapes.
Where does one find the tapes in Africa?
There will random shops in neighborhoods amongst a bunch of other things. Then there are markets where there is an entire row of shops with 20-30 guys that are all selling stuff. Unlike crate diggers who have specific labels or artists that they are looking for, I have certain things that I look for, but a lot of times I’m at the whim of what’s available. The thing is that they all have a tape deck, even the guys traveling around, and they’ll open up the cassettes and play them for you. I always show a lot of interest and ask a lot of questions and try and use the local languages. I try and learn as much as I can from the various retail guys on the street.
Where does this interest in African music come from?
I studied ethnomusicology in college and got really deep into traditional music. If you look at the people who study this stuff, it’s a really insular community. I wanted to do something that reached more people. I wanted to present it in a way that was not encyclopedic. This allows me to go deeper and put stuff up there and post whatever, even if I know nothing about it. This in turn allows people who may not know a lot about the music to learn about it without being intimidated. One of my prime missions when I traveled to Africa and came back was get these people’s music to audiences outside the region, which is hard to do even for bands with major labels behind them. Another aspect is that I feel that we are all connected and none of us are experts.
And the cassettes don’t exactly provide a lot of information, either.
The cool thing is that a lot of stuff I put up on my site doesn’t get any hits on Google. Until I put it up, there is no information on the label or anything. In 2011, it’s cool that you can put something up on the web that people can’t find any information on it.
The fact that it is being archived or “saved” is better than not being available. I feel that if I don’t do it probably no else will do it and it will be lost.
Have any musicians ever reached out with a cease and desist?
No, never. One rap artist from a compilation from Burkina Faso reached out last year and said: “My life has changed a lot, so the stuff that I rap about in that song doesn’t really reflect me now. Would you mind taking that track down? I appreciate what you are doing, but take that track down.” I mostly post stuff that you can’t even buy over here anyway, so it’s been pretty positive. The people who represent the artists or the artists themselves tend to be pretty excited about it because of the promotional possibilities.
How does the label work?
I’m partnering with the artist and making sure they get 50% after expenses have been covered and I’m trying to keep the expenditures low. It being 2011, you can’t make any money selling records anyway. The goal of putting these records out is to allow these people to maybe have a career outside their hometown.
Any fun stories?
I’m tracking down the very first artist I posted on the blog. His name is Ata Kak and none of my friends in Ghana know who he is. It wasn’t a popular tape at the time, but it is one of the most popular ones on the blog. It’s kind of part of the mission statement for me to find these left-field artists. He does this crazy kind of electronic-influenced, rap-oriented pop music that at once feels really familiar because it has a lot of connections to what we hear here, but at the same time it feels really foreign like something that you’ve never heard before. When I play his stuff DJ-ing people go nuts.
So I’m been searching for this guy for years because there is not much information inside the tape and what was there came up dry, phone numbers, etc. So finally after calling random people on Skype I’ve got some small clues as to where I can find him. I found the guy who did the packaging and he steered me to the artist, so I know where he is on the globe now. I didn’t know if he was alive or what. So now I’m trying to reach out to him and see if we can work together. If you Google his name now, he’s become internet famous because of the cassette post from the blog.