Brian Shimkovitz interview: how the blogger turned 'Awesome Tapes from Africa' into a record company

World music blogger Brian Shimkovitz is finally paying back the African artists who made him famous, with his own record label.

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The Independent Culture

An unlikely highlight of next week’s Field Day festival will be a DJ performance by an ethnomusicologist. Back in 2001, Brian Shimkovitz, 34, was studying ethnomusicology at Indiana University on a Fulbright scholarship, when his research sent him to Ghana.

There, he discovered some amazing music, from brightly flowing hip-hop-influenced pop and Highlife to traditional music with funky names like Gyil, Wa and Lawra. The music was very raw and mostly produced on cassettes, which are prone to warping, so no two were totally identical. He saw that his dry academic papers were not getting the word out about the vibrancy and excitement of these sounds.

“I realised my course wasn’t a way to do a whole lot,” he says. His blog, launched five years later, was called Awesome Tapes from Africa.

“It all started because I wanted to show they are so conceptually different, yet here in the music is just one thread that people might relate to enough to be impressed and inspired by.”

Now on the blog there are hundreds of tapes to download with unique descriptions of the music written by Shimkovitz. Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey and his Miliki Sound is a collection of samba-like tunes, which Shimkovitz describes as “Nigerian juju soup for the soul” and La Grande Vedette Malienne Kandja Kouyaté et l’Ensemble Instrumental du Mali “makes me want to drop acid and burn incense or something, it’s so smoky and dark and surreal. Like late Coltrane.”

“The blog was a way to reach people in an unacademic way,” says the bespectacled New Yorker. With the quick rise of the internet, it really caught on. “I was quickly inspired by posts by people who grew up hearing it or people who had just discovered it. I still get comments saying ‘Yo, I’m from Nebraska  and I never heard about this stuff and it’s dope and amazing’.”

Shimkovitz’s blog has since evolved into a record label in its own right. One of the difficulties of showcasing obscure artists from Africa is that they aren’t always easily contactable and so sometimes he shares their music without their consent. A note on the site states: “This is music you won’t easily find anywhere else except, perhaps in its region of origin. But if you are an artist/etc and wish for me to remove your music, email me.”

Shimkovitz tries very hard to track the artists down. A recent acquisition, Hailu Mergia, whose music Shimkovitz describes as “completely sublime music from one of the seminal bands of a funk-laced era of Ethiojazz and soul”, was the easiest to locate. “No-one puts their cell phone number on the internet these days,” Shimkovitz laughs, “but he did, he was just down with anyone contacting him!” Since making contact, Shimkovitz has taken Mergia on tour: “He is completely awesome, people are in love with him when he performs.”

Others on the label proved harder to track down, most notably an artist called Ata Kak, real name Yaw Atta-Owusu, whose 1994 tape Obaa Sima only went out on a run of 50 copies. Shimkovitz’s search for Ata Kak spanned several years and continents, becoming the subject of a Radio 4 documentary. Shimkovitz finally tracked down Ata Kak, who was living “off the grid” back in Ghana, and his cassette was re-released in March this year with Ata Kak’s blessing. The original cover image of Ata Kak, looking very cool, was the first thing that attracted Shimkovitz to the tape. “Ata Kak was living in Toronto and went to the local photo shop and put on this cool jacket and sunglasses, and he had the microphone in his back pocket and that became the cassette cover.”

The new re-release, on CD, retains that same brightly-coloured original photo. “It would be nice to do really fancy album designs,” he says, “but people do a lot of corny stuff with African music and I just want to present it as I see it...  I don’t want to put my fingerprints all over it.”

 

Shimkovitz now operates as part A&R manager, part detective, hunting down and representing his artists. He gets sent tonnes of old tapes from friends and fans and travels to markets in “Brussels, Peckham and the Bronx”, trawling for inspiration. “It starts with finding a cassette that is totally astounding .I look on the web to see if any local journalists have interviewed them, then I call them up, if that doesn’t provide any leads, I try cold calling on Skype or call up local stores, like when I wanted to contact a Somalian artist, I called up all the Somalian grocery stores and eventually I got to one that knew him.”

The new task for Shimkovitz is making money for these artists, and he’s starting to succeed. One source of income is from DJing. He DJs using old tape decks that often disintegrate by the end of his set, and he’s toured various festivals across the world with the label’s music, sometimes bringing selected artists along to perform as well.

“The beautiful thing is that I’ve never had to borrow a huge sum of money or do Kickstarter,” he says, instead, after a decade of work, the site is starting to pay for itself. Since October last year, the tapes have been available for sale on the site.“These artists are funding this and it’s split 50/50 and the rest of my money goes back into promo and helping them tour. It’s nice to see it’s finally working, like with Nahawa Doumbia [a Malian singer] her last royalty payment was as much if not more than the month before.”

Brian Shimkovitz performs at London’s Field Day festival as Awesome Tapes from Africa on Saturday 6 June; fielddayfestivals.com/

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