An Interview with Awesome Tapes from Africa’s Brian Shimkovitz
It has been an exciting year for ethnomusicologist/blogger/label owner Brian Shimkovitz. His blog Awesome Tapes from Africa has spread like wildfire among music enthusiasts intoxicated by the heady mix of cassette music from across the continent, salvaged from obscurity and presented as full-length streamable albums. Off the back of the blog’s success, which he is proud to say has become more of a ‘public project’, Brian has started a label, reissuing whole albums (rather than compilations) on vinyl, the first of which La Grande Cantatrice Malienne Vol. 3 by Malian singer Nâ Hawa Doumbia came out in late 2011 to widespread critical acclaim. With a second release, Bola – Vol. 7, hitting the shelves as we speak, we caught up with Brian to get deep into what lies behind this incredible project.
How did you first get into the whole scene?When I went to college I had the chance to study abroad. I was interested in African music and rhythm and jazz and I knew a little bit about Ghana and I saw that there was a chance to do an arts and culture project there, so I spent 4 or 5 months there the first time in 2002. It was studying hip-life and youth culture and the way that globalization and technology have made it possible for this new movement to happen and how the youth are doing to it to make jobs and to do their thing and to express themselves. I went back second time in 2004/5 and I stayed for a year and just did tons of interviews with rappers, DJ’s and record producers. I collected tons of tapes and asked a lot of questions and went to a lot of different places around Ghana and I also had the chance to also travel to Mali and Togo and Burkina Faso.
Where would you get the tapes from?
It’s a combination. In Accra, the capital of Ghana you have everything from a wooden kiosk on the corner of a street lined with tapes, or massive markets. Or you just have a guy with a bicycle with a wooden thing attached to the back and he’s got 30 or 40 tapes. Sometimes people would give me stuff, or you’d be on a trip in a public bus and a guy would be playing music he’d show you where you could go to find these kinds of things.
Were people interested in what you were doing?
Well it’s weird, because I wasn’t doing this Awesome Tapes From Africa thing – I didn’t start doing that until after I moved to Brooklyn. What I was doing was learning how to speak Twi, the main lingua-franca there, and I was learning about Ghanaian music and so if you’re a foreigner and you’re really interested in the Ghanaian music then most of the people were just really excited that you were interested, so they wanted to share things with you.
Why do you think tape culture has persisted so much? Is it an economic question?
It was at first. It was also a means to an end, of sort of just getting the music out there. Initially tapes are really helpful in piracy, which is not a good thing, but also piracy also helps the music spread further because not everyone was buying tapes. When CD’s and mp3’s came into play they still just weren’t as accessible and the prices were kinda high.
The tapes also persisted because of the environment. You have a lot of second hand buses and cars that still have tape decks and tapes seem to last a while in that environment so long as you keep them a little bit out of the sun. A CD can get scratched up with all the dust and all the passing around, because things get shared a lot within the household or within the neighborhood.
I know that everyone is trading music with their bluetooth links and stuff like that even out in the Sahara Dessert these days but I also know that cassettes are still being made for almost every release that comes out.
How many tapes do you own?
I own more than 4000 tapes. I have a storage space in Brooklyn. I was living in Manhattan for a few months and my apartment had boxes and boxes almost to the ceiling on one side.
And this is older stuff as well as new releases?
It’s everything. I wanted to find old stuff because I initially came to Ghana interested in highlife music, but then I found out on the very first day I arrived there in 2002 that highlife was almost dead, in the form that we know it as with acoustic instruments and what not. So everything, the brand new stuff and also certain reissues where you can sometimes hear the crackle of the record and someones just set the tape record next to the record player.
How do you recognize something potentially interesting?
Coming from Chicago, I was already familiar with the concept of digging [vinyl] like that and going to all the record fairs. If I came to a town that I hadn’t been to before I would ask around my friends or I would go into a shop and I would just ask. And then also there was a lot of that thing that people do when they digging in foreign countries and you just see a crazy cover and you say “I have to see this”. It’s the same thing with record collecting though; sometimes the most amazing cover is a tape that’s not so interesting.
Where do you get your new tapes from now?
These days I get them from neighborhoods in Paris, places in New York where they have them, and I’ve been really lucky because people email me a lot and say “hey I got some tapes, I’ll send them to you”. I think it’s all part of the sort of public project the blog has become.
In what way has it become a public project?
You’ve probably seen on the blog – and this is the thing that I’m almost the most proud of in terms of the blog itself – is that when I post something that I know nothing about after several comments there is this whole crowd source story of information and links and this is what the internet is all about.
Do you also use the internet to archive the tapes?
I’m not archiving stuff apart from just what you see on the blog. The longer term plan is to make some sort of archive – maybe partner with a museum or some kind of institute, but copyright is an issue and I am giving away peoples music for free, which is a complex thing. So what I feel at the very least is that what you see on the blog is being “saved” in a certain way.
I don’t wanna say, “I’m this foreign guy who is adding value to this music by saving it.” The reality is that a lot of these recordings, especially the ones that people have given me that they’ve bought in the 80’s or the early 90’s, you can’t really find them anymore in that place, some of them are quite rare there. I feel like it’s a good idea to digitize them and put them online.
Are you in contact with the artists you showcase on the blog?
I’m not in contact with the artists. Most of the people whose music is on my blog don’t even know that it is there, for a variety of reasons. Be it shortage of bandwidth or maybe they are not even alive any more or maybe when they go to the internet cafe like most of my friends in Ghana, they’re not looking for African music, they are going on Facebook and they looking at stuff from other places, because the web is a portal for these folks who live in remote areas to really be connected with stuff.
The negative thing that has come up over the years is that people sometimes either explicitly or implicitly express that they want Africans to stay in their little box and make the music the way that they have always made it and [for us not to] “don’t pollute what’s going on there” and that just seems lame.
Having studied ethnomusicology, where do you stand in relation to the debate about cultural colonialism? Even though Awesome Tapes presents the music in a very pluralistic and unpretentious way, how do you avoid this accusation?
Historically, a lot of white people have gone down to Africa and done sketchy things with the music. A lot of African musicians who I have spoken with have felt that in the past they’ve been exploited. In the digital age with blogs the way they are, every band wants to get big and to get big they send music up promotionally through the mp3 blogs. I feel that if the playing field has been leveled technologically and globally – it’s still not level, but it’s getting closer – then the amount of promotion that an artist can get through being featured on the blog which reaches more than 30,000 unique visitors every month can outweigh a lot of the other complexities that come into play.
But I do realize that it is a bit of a catch-22. As an ethnomusicologist you feel like you are taking, because people spend a lot of time and share a lot of stuff with you and at the very least, I wanted to find a way to give back, to show people what Africa can really be like, filled with talent not just war and famine and trouble.
In parts of Ghana different communities are distinguished by their drum rhythms. I was wondering whether there are political tensions between these groups and whether this is reflected in the music?
It’s really hard to generalize even within a specific genre. For example hip-life; some of it can get a little bit political, or it makes oblique references to stuff that’s happening in parliament or amongst the people in society. But a whole bunch of it is just about love and relationships and growing up and being cool, the way that a lot of American hip hop can be.
In other types of popular music, highlife has often been very political but in a really artful way using proverbs. There is a lot of internal tension all over the continent from what I can gather which has a lot to do with the way that colonialism divided up the nations into these bits where communities that have different languages and different customs are forced to be part of the same nation-state.
With this split in languages and customs in mind, and aware that talking even about West Africa is to generalize hugely, what are the repercussions of calling the blog Awesome Tapes From “Africa”?
I know I feel really lame about that, because I don’t even like to say the words “in Africa this or that”. I’m really glad you mention that because I think it’s really important to be sensitive to the fact that Africa is not this monolithic thing, and even Ghana I have a difficult time speaking about because there are 100 language groups in that one relatively small country. And dudes in Mali aren’t listening to records from South Africa in large part.
There are certain musical genres in Africa that have currency across several nations, especially amongst the Francophone countries, for example like Soukous music. There’s very few artists in Africa that are famous or well known or listened to in each country. But it’s not because there is tension I think it’s just to do with language and distribution systems.
The influence of the internet probably also means that musical influence goes both ways – that we are interested in music coming from Ghana, but that Ghanaian’s are both interested and heavily influenced by music coming from America or the UK – especially with regards to hip hop for example.
Yeh, that’s a really important thing to point out. What happened really in the early 90’s in Ghana was that they privatized the airwaves which allowed less restrictions on what percentage of foreign music could be played. So ever since then every young guy in Ghana loves Tupac and loves Biggie. Hip hop there is ubiquitous.
Why do you think there has been such a boom in compilations [Shangaan, Ethiopiques, Soundway Records, Sublime Frequencies, Strut Records] from specific African regions over the last few years?
Mainly it’s that we as listeners have opened our ears, we as listeners want to keep finding new stuff, we as listeners are constantly looking for inspiration, we as listeners can just go on Google and find a lot of other stuff. So it just makes sense that intrepid diggers would make their way into corners of the world to try and find micro-movements and subcultures. This proliferation of compilations is only going to continue.
The thing that is a little bit annoying to me sometimes is that a lot of the compilations just take one or two really crazy tracks from a record that don’t really sound like what the rest of the artist was actually doing. They put those in a compilation and then it creates this image, when maybe it wasn’t really quite like that. My approach is to show what the music would sound like if you were in this particular place at that particular time.
And that is pretty much the idea behind the label isn’t it, putting out full albums rather than compilations?
Absolutely, that’s a huge part of what I do, from almost the very beginning on the blog. I don’t want to select, I don’t want to decontextualize or disembody these statements.
But you are in contact with the artists whose records you are bringing out?
Yes. My ideological, lofty goal is to hopefully take inspiration from the great labels like World Circuit from London who work together closely with the artists and do everything legitimately. I’m licensing recordings, so this is an economic boost in a small way for an artist who has already spent the money on the record that they made. “Here’s some more money upfront to show that I’m serious and you’re going to get this distributed worldwide in an efficient way and any money that I make back, you’re going to get 50% of after the costs are fulfilled”.
What’s the reaction been to the first release by Nâ Hawa Doumbia?
The reaction has been very very positive. I fell in love with this record immediately. Here’s a really great artist who is super accomplished, she’s been around for several decades and this is a really great snapshot of what she was doing pretty early in her career and the production sounds really rich and organic and beautiful.
It’s out on vinyl, it’s out on limited edition tape and it’s on CD – the dying format. If you put out really great music, people are going to respond to it, and this an album that is just absolutely amazing and so it’s gotten the attention it’s deserved.
You also DJ with tapes. How does that work out for you?
It’s been really fun, it keeps me busy on stage and it works out fine for the most part. Every once in a while a tape gets a little funky in the middle and starts to fuck up but I don’t plan the stuff in advance. I typically go with whatever the vibe is and what I feel like playing. You know there is a bit of beat matching, more and more because I know the tapes better and better.
Do you have a box of pencils at the ready to wind them back up in emergencies?
No, you see there’s a misconception that the tapes get chewed up a lot, it’s not even that, I think it just gets worn out play after play. But I feel like life is too short. I can’t go around Europe playing copies of tapes. The tapes themselves sound shitty enough. If I made copies of them it would sound pretty bad.
How many tapes would you take on tour with you?
Around 75 or so, and then I always also have my laptop set up so I can play mp3’s of tapes, but I’ve always kept it limited to tapes because there is just too much music out there. You have to give a limitation somewhere.