Dec 24, 2013

Collect and Disseminate: An Interview with Brian Shimkovitz

Originally published @ 

I met Brian Shimkovitz, the charming founder of Awesome Tapes from Africa (ATFA), a couple of summers ago. He was an agent at the PR firm where I was the summer intern. After his departure, we got coffee at a Ukrainian diner and he told me of his impending move to Germany and his plan to tour as a DJ and spin Awesome Tapes into a proper label. Nearly two years later, Brian is still touring the world playing cassettes through large speakers, with new releases pending. We sat down over Skype to chat about the collector impulse, charges of exoticism, and why academics forget just how good music can feel.

The Independent: You were in Africa on a Fulbright when the Awesome Tapes from Africa project began. What’s the story here?

Brian Shimkovitz:  I started ATFA in 2006, shortly after moving to NYC after a year doing ethnomusicology fieldwork in Ghana. I moved to NYC to get a job in PR because I realized after doing fieldwork that academia wasn’t going to help me communicate about what I’d learned in a very useful or efficient way.

I grew up playing music, being obsessed with music, and wondered how I could make a career out of my interests. So when I found out Indiana University had one of the best ethnomusicology programs in the country I had a total epiphany. I spent my final year taking all grad courses in ethnomusicology so I was able to get a sense of what the field would entail if went for a PhD.

Indy:  That’s cool. Turning to the moment when you first started collecting tapes­—what was that about?

BS:  I was always a tape guy, even before I visited West Africa. But when I went to Ghana the first time I saw that the widest selection of music was available on tape. So I started going to the shops and areas of the big outdoor markets where tapes are sold. I searched for parts of town where foreigners lived, so I could find music from other regions. I was sending packages home to Chicago so I could collect as much as possible while I was there.

Indy: Who were these tapes originally meant for? What is their original market?

BS: They are generally commercially available sounds, everything from local radio pop highlife to rap of all kinds to traditional music. Many of the things I bought I heard first on the radio.

Once I learned to speak Twi, one of the local languages, I was able to impress people and show them how serious I am.

It’s the language of the Ashanti people. It’s not the indigenous language of the capital where I was based, but it’s the lingua franca.

Indy:  Cool. Glad to learn that. Awesome Tapes became a thing in your life largely because it met blog success. What’s the story here?

BS:  After bringing home so many tapes I thought it would be cool to do something with them.  When I started Googling some of the more obscure or exciting recordings, I realized there wasn’t much info, and this sparked excitement in me. It felt like a nice way to relieve the stress of my PR job during the weekends.
So as I started posting this stuff and sharing it with my friends it somehow got popular, largely from other blogs including it in their blogrolls. Not quite sure how it happened but I suddenly felt encouraged by other peoples’ interest and feedback. I realized I was doing what I wanted to learn about toward the end of school, “public ethnomusicology”, although in a much less dense, much more fun and accessible way.

Indy: On the topic of “public ethnomusicology,” could you speak more about the relationship between Awesome Tapes and academia?

BS: Scholarly pursuits related to cultural practices in general tend to be narrow in their impact beyond journals and libraries and conferences. ATFA was a reaction to the boredom I felt existing in this theoretical realm where music is over-analyzed to the point where it loses the power it holds among the people who make it.

Broadening the definition of ethnomusicology is something that sort of makes me cringe though I don’t wish to denigrate the deep and important work social and cultural scientists are doing worldwide. Nonetheless, the artists whose music I’ve made available to more diverse ears than otherwise imaginable would probably find the blog more useful and vital than scholarly journal articles few people will read or remember.

Indy: It seems to me that there is a strange and populous community of blogs all engaged in some kind of unprecedentedly specific collector effort. I’m thinking of the blogs that feature vinyl rips of Kollywood electronica, old cassettes of Nigerian funk, or South American Psych Rock. What do you think? Do you feel like Awesome Tapes fulfills some sort of collector impulse writ large? Or is this an over-intellectualization?

BS: Personally, I have always been a collector. And I think the Internet and blogging is ripe for showing off one’s collection. Further, the Internet and blogs have helped give a voice to esoteric things of all kinds.
Many of these tapes may no longer be in print and almost all are nearly impossible to find in shops outside Africa, in NYC, Paris, Brussels, etc. Many African expats I meet who know about the site are excited to find old recordings that they can’t find any more ring featured on ATFA.

That said, this is no exclusivity claim. Quite the contrary. I am fascinated by the mass produced nature of this as opposed to the vinyl nerd mentality we see among many DJs and music tastemakers.

Indy: Recently, upon seeing me wearing my Awesome Tapes shirt, a peer of mine said that the blog sounds exoticizing. Thoughts?

BS: Well, listen. This blog is for people who haven’t experienced this music and won’t be able to go to Africa. If people interpret the blog and use it as their own way to…what does it even mean to exoticize something? I’m treating the music in a respectful way.

There are probably a lot of people who have gotten that reaction. But people who check it out realize it’s not there. When you look at early ethnomusicology and anthropology, there is a view of inhabitants of non-western cultures as savages. I am not doing this.

There are definitely people who think African music is involved in some sort of hipster trend. They think we’re trying to co-opt something to garner some semblance of authenticity in our lives because we are ostensibly upper-middle class white kids from the suburbs. I am friends with a lot of people who think this.
Ultimately, if you look at the blog, it becomes pretty clear what my intentions are. This blog is meant to pull away all of the attachments and baggage surrounding this stuff that we talk about in relating to Africa and instead focus on how great the music is. I’m specifically trying not to be the douchey guy who exoticizes something and puts it on his mantle. I remember what it means to be in university and look at the world with a lot of skepticism. I might have said the same thing. People are haters.

Indy: So who do you think is the blog’s audience?

BS: I am writing for my friends and other people who like the music. When I look at the traffic statistics of my blog I see people coming from Pitchfork, Polish hardcore metal message boards, Greek art magazines, and Jazz message boards. A wide variety of people, or whatever.

Indy: On the Awesome Tapes from Africa blog, the music has always been available for free download. How do you think about and manage ownership of the music, especially now that Awesome Tapes from Africa has become a record label?

BS: I am not posting ads on the site so there is no direct profit coming from these downloads. I launched the label to find a way to generate an extra revenue stream for some of my favorite artists. As all profits are split 50/50 and I take on significant risk in terms of investing money and time in the manufacturing and promotion of these commercial releases, I feel the label is quite fair. Following the research I did on the music industry in West Africa, it is apparent to me that this deal is better than what the majority of musicians received when they first made these records. My hope is that further profits will go to the artists by way of touring and licensing opportunities.

Ultimately my goal is get people to hear and enjoy this music. The fact that I am white and the music is made by mostly black African musicians should not make a difference. The criticisms I have received for my perceived profiting through this project have come from a mixture of ignorance about the music distribution process across Africa and misplaced white guilt. Yes, this digitized way of distributing the music isn’t as accessible to the musicians themselves but assuming that Africans don’t hear music via globalized, mediated formats is condescending. Most people I know in Africa aren’t listening to or downloading music they can hear locally when they go online. They are accessing music from outside their countries. Are they exoticizing Jay-Z or does this process only move in one direction?

Indy: Do you see a difference between what you do with Awesome Tapes and with labels like Soundway? Correct me if I’m wrong here but it seems to me that Soundway has guys who pretty much go in to abandoned major label studio catalogues in places like Lagos or Accra and mine the archives for new songs for their compilations. What do you think about their work? How does it relate to Awesome Tapes?

BS: They are going out and finding music that sounds like certain things: Funk, Garage Rock, etc., whereas I’m more interested in the music people there are into:  specific micro-musics, subcultural delicacies. Compilations necessarily disembody the track from the context it came from. Many of these funk tracks are really good but they miscommunicate what an artist was going for. From day one I didn’t want to post a track here or a track there. I wanted to post the whole recordings. I wanted people to hear it the way you’d hear it in Africa.

I see this preference as furthering the mission the blog has had from its beginning which is to make people realize how much cool talent and diversity and creativity there is in every corner of Africa. The message can be garbled by whatever generalizations. What is Africa? It means a lot of different things!
But at the end of the day it’s pretty rewarding for me and the people who have had doors opened up for their music. When I was doing my research, everybody asked me how to get their music to North America. I’ve been able to apply what I know to putting the music out there.

Interview conducted by Houston Davidson.

Dec 20, 2013

From Cote D'Ivoire: The Sumo Brothers

Fantastic rare funk and disco LP from CoteD'Ivoire - check the disco cut "Money be King" and the tough afro funk on "I love Music", great dancefloor LP.


A1 Kwey
A2 I Love Music
B1 Money Be King
B2 Ngue Pandjap
B3 Ngueu 

Dec 18, 2013

Punk in Africa!

 Punk in Africa

This immensly interesting documentary about the often overlooked punk scene in Southern Africa from the 1970s onward is now screening at various film festivals across the continent and in Europe.
Watch the trailer below and see the full list of screenings on the film website:


The striking story of a hidden, underground, even secret and banned movement. Bands with both black and white musicians broke the law. In the apartheid era, punk rock was comparable to worshipping the devil. Rediscover the real punk. Anarchy in SA.

While young people in the West started to free themselves from traditional authoritarian power relations in the early 1960s and to make the acquaintance of rock ‘n’ roll and later long hair and punk, in South Africa the institutionalised racism of Apartheid still existed. With the advent of punk music in the mid-1970s, for the first time there was a home-grown youth culture and an opportunity to resist oppressive regimes.

Punk in Africa tells the story of punk in South Africa and how it spread to Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Kenya and played a role there in the political struggle. We get to see the most important bands and the legendary venues where they played, but also the evolution of punk music and the influence it had on modern South African bands. In the wings of the many tumultuous concerts, the documentary tells an alternative history of South Africa in the last 40 years, a story unknown to many.

Programmer Note by Gertjan Zuilhof:

A special film that does not immediately look special. At first sight (but not at first hearing) you could think it is a skilled but ordinary music documentary. It provides a summary of a specific period (the 1970s in South Africa), lets people speak who played a role back then and shows clips of performances. A television documentary, you could say.

There are however several elements that make the film special. To start with - the music. If you are now fifty and were living in a town in South Africa thirty years ago, then you have never heard the music before and never seen the fragments before. The fragments of music are all unique and have been specially tracked down - not the stock material that so often represents this genre - and themselves provide enough reason to see the film.

You could conclude that the film is not primarily a music film. It is a committed political document. A belated pamphlet maybe. The anarchistic music in the film and the multiracial bands that play the music, were in fact banned under the apartheid regime. It was literally underground music.
Anyway, what really makes a film special is not how special the subject is (even though punk in apartheid South Africa was pretty special), but the passion of the filmmaker for his subject. And only then can you conclude: Punk in Africa rocks!


“… bursting with the heyday of the multiracial punk scene … a loving emphasis on the surprising — and often overlooked — role that punk music played in Africa …” — NAT GEO MUSIC

“An interesting if accidental companion piece to recent docu hit ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ … ‘Punk in Africa’ chronicles the more overtly rebellious influence of punk music in that nation (and some neighboring ones) a few years later.” — Variety 

Dec 13, 2013

The Sounds - Super Soul (1974) (by electricjive) (get it!)

The Number One label marketed by EMI Music for Pleasure seemed to produce mostly low-price instrumental albums targeted at the urban township market. This particular album still has its "Checkers" super-market price tag of R1.99.

While the marketing may have been cut-price, lovers of this early seventies funky-soul, slightly psychedelic genre will be very pleasantly surprised at this offering. Buried in this here album are some juicy samples just itching and waiting patiently to be lifted and re-worked.

Other than listing composers (see back cover) there is no further information provided on the who the musicians might be. Do Enjoy!

Dec 11, 2013

Brian Shimkovitz (Awesome Tapes from Africa)

Collateral Damage: Awesome Tapes From Africa's Brian Shimkovitz

Digital transparency has revealed dimensions to African music beyond Western received ideas. But how to market it sympathetically, asks Brian Shimkovitz.

I started Awesome Tapes From Africa (ATFA) as a way to make artefacts available from the cassette based music economy I have encountered around Africa. Something that began quite innocently as a means of filling the wide gaps in international music distribution – nearly every musician and producer I’ve met in West Africa wants to find a way to get their music beyond their borders – has become a spark in the often fiery debates surrounding suspected post-colonial tendencies of the Western music industry vis-à-vis the developing world.

My fascination with tape culture in West Africa led to the rather ironic activity of spreading analogue recordings via digital technology. It’s a pursuit that adds to outsiders’ appreciation of the breadth of musical subcultures in myriad African regions, many of which have been passed over by the otherwise excellent labels which have released music from the continent.

Cassette technology has made a massive impact on music distribution in Africa since its introduction in the early 1980s. The movement has been characterised by a difficult duality from the start. The popularity of tapes coincided with an explosion of piracy, which helped bring an end to vinyl LP manufacturing across the continent – it was no longer commercially viable for international record labels like Decca and Philips. At the same time, it created a situation where recorded music of all kinds – not limited to local movements – became available to anyone through the ubiquitous stereos found in markets, shops and vehicles. The portability and durability of the medium contributed a large part of this transformation.

However, the aftertaste of the historically exploitative roles of Westerners in African music industries is still palpable. In evolving ATFA from a blog into a commercial record label over the last year, there have been risks. The artists featured on my site, whose music has been freely downloadable, have gained pockets of fans outside Africa. A crucial thing for me has always been finding a way to promote the music among people who would not normally have access to it. ATFA has thus far been efficient in achieving this goal.
Digitization can be liberating for African musicians. It has given rise to numerous fascinating and vital new music movements within Africa – bongo flava, hiplife, kuduro, coupé-decalé, etc – and has helped African music reach further into clubs, living rooms and festivals around the world. The influx of non-African music into the ears of African youth has been a catalyst for change among musicians there, and shaken the core of what Westerners expect African music to sound like. Giving away free music by African artists has helped create a fanbase that was not previously there for an untold number of creators.

How to take my enterprise to the commercial level and provide some of the artists with career-enhancing opportunities through selling the music, while maintaining a free-for-all approach to the under-distributed sounds still yet to appear on the blog? Would people pay for what they’ve already grown accustomed to grabbing for free? This part brings up many issues. Is the enterprise merely a post-colonial thievery corporation hiding behind the thin veil of millennial digital exploration? I know my mission comes from a place of wanting to provide a global promotional window to listeners who yearn for more flavours.
In the same way that young artists from Bristol to Brooklyn to Brisbane are making their music available for free as a means of injecting spurts of visibility in an over-saturated marketplace, I see African artists making major headway with their localised approach to using the web and digitized media. Not only are young people in Africa making beats in their bedrooms and posting them on Facebook and Soundcloud. Not only are elder statesmen of African music finding new revenue streams via CD and MP3 reissues and digital-only recataloguing of their songs. Not only are African urbanites even more connected to the world’s music scenes through the internet, thereby continuing the circle of influence and inspiration that has been critical to music’s evolution since humans began singing songs. Not only are nomadic peoples trading tracks on mobile phones via Bluetooth technology (see Chris Kirkley’s magnificent Music For Saharan Cellphones series). I view the overall digitization of African music as a facet of globalisation, a process from which I now believe it is completely unfair and quasi-racist to shield African art and music.

The difficulty of most African regional musics in making it to neighbouring countries (let alone a record shop in Nebraska) has as much to do with the stunted system of physical distribution as it does with differences in language and creative sensibilities among varying culture groups. Bola, a musician from northern Ghana whose record just came out on ATFA, has had to take the bus down-country eight hours or more to singlehandedly distribute his music to shops that might consider carrying music sung in a language of a faraway region. Even if language wasn’t a stumbling block, there is no real national music distribution company in Ghana to handle such pursuits. It is done piecemeal for the most part, by individual musicians and their colleagues.

Regardless of whether it’s heard outside Africa, wonderful recordings are being made every day across the continent. Digitized music is already breaking down geographical barriers that once made regional music forms so damn… regional. Which, of course, is good and bad. In any event, Nigerians are rocking to Ghanaian music. Ghanaians are even more conscious of what’s happening in Côte D’Ivoire than ever before. And the connection between Congolese rappers and the latest sounds from Paris is tightening. One could go on and on.

I want to find a way to give a nominal fee to each artist whose tracks have been downloaded on ATFA. Anyone who has been to Africa knows this is nearly, if not entirely, impossible. In the meantime, should we, due to post-colonial guilt, not include African music in the global process of discovery taking place on screens and MP3 players around the world? Those who have never travelled to Africa feel rightly concerned about technology-fuelled (un)fairness. It’s something I think about daily. However, the marginal push to make sure music gets paid for has not done anything to stop digital sharing. And the people who see the issue as black and white often wear a damaging paternalist badge on their sleeves, as if we (the non-Africans) have a responsibility to protect the ‘helpless’ musicians. Rather, musicians growing up in Africa are aware of what is happening and deserve to be a part of it. As ATFA grows into something larger, I grapple with the future of marketing the current and back catalogue of sublime sounds in a fair way, without losing the power within that physical piece of vinyl or plastic cassette.


Dec 8, 2013

Africa High-Tech: Christopher Kirkley


In 2008, Christopher Kirkley went to Africa in hopes of capturing sounds rarely heard by the rest of the world. Traveling southwest from Morocco, carrying little more than a backpack, an acoustic guitar and a digital recorder, the shaven-headed Portland native, then in his late 20s, recorded every form of regional music he encountered, from urban dance bands to nomadic Tuareg singers. As he pushed into the Sahara, though, a trend developed. At night, Kirkley would frequently sit around a fire, drinking tea with other young musicians. He’d strum a tune for the locals, then hand the guitar over and ask them to show him a song from their own culture. Often, they’d put the instrument aside, pull out a cellphone, and play him a tinny MP3—usually by an artist they couldn’t identify, and featuring elements of Western-style production, such as drum machines and Auto-Tuned vocals.

“It was really annoying,” Kirkley says. “My first thought was, ‘These cellphones have ruined everything.’”
But as he continued to explore the Sahel—a vast geographic belt covering parts of Senegal, Mali, Mauritania and Niger—Kirkley began to hear many of those same songs emanating from phones all over the region. It soon dawned on him that he had stumbled upon precisely what he’d come to Africa to find: a rich, self-contained, largely undiscovered musical tradition. Only, instead of an old, possibly fading tradition like he expected, he’d come across a new, wholly modern one.

While other technological advancements, such as personal computers, have been slow to arrive in West Africa, cellphones, specifically of the cheap, off-brand variety, are even more integral to everyday life than they are in America, Kirkley observed, functioning less as communication devices than as pocket-size storage units containing photos, videos and, especially, eclectic music libraries. As in other parts of the world, the digital music collections of those living in the Sahara are built primarily through file sharing, except instead of taking place anonymously in cyberspace, the exchange happens face-to-face via Bluetooth. In a region without reliable Internet connections, the people there had, inadvertently, created a kind of ambulatory, regionalized peer-to-peer network. “Instead of fiber-optic cables,” Kirkley says, “you have highways, and people on buses with phones.”

Five years later, Kirkley, 32, is an internationally recognized authority, not just on contemporary African pop but on the role of cellphones in West African society. Since returning to the United States in 2010, he’s put together two compilations of songs copied from SD cards during the year he spent in Mali. Initially available only as a cassette and through his blog, the online popularity of Music From Saharan Cellphones—wildly divergent mixes showcasing everything from Malian hip-hop to Mauritanian synth music—inspired Kirkley to start a label, Sahelsounds, through which he’s released several more albums of rare African music. He’s been interviewed by the Guardian and the BBC, and gave presentations at the Time Based Arts Festival and the WW-sponsored Portland Digital eXperience. Recently he flew to France to speak at a tech conference in Paris. He’s even been contacted by phone companies looking for advice on opening up the Saharan market. And all for uncovering a thoroughly offline culture and bringing it online.
“It’s crazy how things happen on the Internet,” he says.

For his first four months in Africa, Kirkley lived in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, where he recorded primarily vaguely bluesy, amplified wedding bands. It wasn’t until he got to Kidal, in northern Mali, that Kirkley became aware of the crucial role cellphones play in disseminating a broad variety of music throughout the Sahel. A small, dusty border town miles from the nearest paved road, Kidal’s proximity to both Algeria and Niger nonetheless makes it a well-traveled “desert port” of sorts. As such, the phones in Kidal offer especially dynamic surveys of West African popular music, the result of MP3 trading between the local population and the truckers, drug smugglers and sub-Saharan migrants passing through on their way elsewhere. Along with outdated rock and pop hits from the United States and Europe, the collections Kirkley gained access to ran a spectacularly wide gamut, from the Ivory Coast’s stuttering dance genre coupé décalé to electronic updates of the Algerian folk style of raï to the entrancing, psychedelic assouf music made globally popular by Mali’s own Tinariwen.

Kirkley was especially drawn to music born seemingly from odd cross-cultural exchanges, such as that of Mdou Moctar, a guitarist from Niger whose self-recordings feature the prominent use of Auto-Tune. But as Kirkley explains, “He wasn’t, like, this Tuareg kid who heard T-Pain.” Rather, he went to Nigeria and became exposed to the country’s Bollywood-obsessed film industry, in which producers utilize pitch-correcting technology in an attempt to mimic Indian movie soundtracks. So Moctar is, in fact, a kid filtering Tuareg guitar through Indian-influenced Nigerian film music with distant, unintended echoes of current American pop radio. “It’s a very weird web,” Kirkley says.

Of course, the image of a white man going into Africa and emerging with a trove of uncopyrighted music carries some negative connotations, and Kirkley’s had to deal with them from the moment he made his first compilation available for download. A few blogs misreported that Kirkley had scavenged the songs from discarded SD cards. In truth, he traded for them directly, usually in exchange for a Townes Van Zandt or Elliott Smith album. And when he decided to press Music From Saharan Cellphones to vinyl and sell it, Kirkley burned through international phone cards trying to track down each artist and sign them to a contract, agreeing to split the revenues evenly. Besides, just because the musicians come from impoverished countries doesn’t mean they lack business sense. After all, they’re the ones who took the technology available to them and turned it into a distribution model, which some have used to build lucrative touring careers. Some even turned down Kirkley’s contract offer, considering the money too paltry. In a way, Kirkley says, the artists of the Sahel understand the current music economy better than a lot of record executives do.

“Music wasn’t always a recorded thing that was commercialized,” he says. “Recorded music is pretty new in the history of music. So it’s not like music is going to stop being made. It was made before there were commercial recordings, and it’ll be made after. And I think these kids are more on top of it than people are here.”

But the phenomenon Kirkley observed may have been a fleeting one. In the five years since he first visited the Sahara, things are already starting to change. On return visits to the region, Kirkley found Internet speeds, once grindingly slow, gradually improving, along with the speed of culture: Formerly enthralled by the likes of the Scorpions and Dire Straits, people in West Africa are catching on to au courant pop stars almost as soon as they break here. Even though he knows firsthand the way the Web can transform lives, Kirkley regards the encroachment of the Internet in the Sahel—with its tendency to absorb everything it touches into a homogenous monoculture—with trepidation.

“The whole landscape is going to change drastically,” he says. “The idea of this closed network—once Internet speeds are quick enough to allow uploading songs, and kids can make their own websites and have their own version of SoundCloud, it’ll change everything. So the Internet’s coming there. It’s just taking its time.”

Dec 4, 2013

The Cassette Archaeologist: Kidus Berhanu

Curiosity and frustration can take you far. It has for Kidus Berhanu. Better known as DJ Mitmitta or Vemund Hareide as he is titled in his Norwegian passport, these virtues have taken him all the way from Oslo to the Ethiopian countryside. For Kidus, it all started with a frustration with the uniformity of Western music. A frustration that fed his curiosity to discover the yet undiscovered musical treasures of Ethiopia and led to a commitment to archive and spread the joy of Ethiopian music. This has since materialized in countless travels across the country to collect cassettes with traditional Ethiopian music and the Ethiojazz of the 60s and 70s, and in the founding of Mitmitta Music Shop in 2010 (The shop is currently closed but Kidus is hoping to reopen in a few months at a new location in town.)

This is a journey not unlike others. Awesome Tapes’ Brian Shimkovitz, Sahels Sounds’ Christopher Kirkley and labels such as Soundway, Analog Africa and Sublime Frequencies have embarked on similar voyages. But what distinguish the musical odyssey of Kidus is not only its East African focus. It is also its material character and the focus on the local market opposed to international distribution. For Kidus, the modus operandi has not been spreading the music through a blog nor through reissuing old vinyl records. Not yet. The approach has instead been one of collecting, cataloguing and digitalizing.

The Archaeology of Cassettes 

More than anything, Kidus’ project is an endeavor into musical archaeology and ethnography. And it’s a project focused on and redeemed through tapes (his cassette collection now numbers more than a thousand different Ethiopian tapes). As he explains: “Vinyl is hyped. And tapes are still a popular format. In Ethiopia, a lot of the good old music was never issued on vinyl or on CD.”  However, the predominance of cassettes also makes Kidus’ point to one of several caveats in the music industry and to an irony in his own project. Because while the cassette is his preferred format, it was exactly the spread of the cassette in the late 70’s and onwards that exterminated numerous record labels in Ethiopia and on the rest of continent and gave way for cheaper productions and musicians being replaced by a single synthesizer.

In Ethiopia, the record producers and music shop owners could buy one master tape and then easily duplicate this via cheap blank tapes. An early form of musical piracy that resulted in low quality recordings, unduly low prices and a situation where great Ethiopian artists such as Tilahun Gessesse or Mahmoud Ahmed received only a one-off payment and no benefits of potential future distributions. This however can possibly change with the introduction of a new copyright law in Ethiopia in 2010 that led to many music-shop owners being jailed for copying music for piracy purposes.

Ethiopian Music as off-limit for Ethiopians

Another and somewhat bizarre consequence of the functioning of the Ethiopian music industry prior to the 2010 copyright legislation is that today only very few Ethiopians have access to legal copies of the old Ethiopian recordings. Alemayehu Eshete, Muluken Mellese, Getachew Kassa and other of the artist that have become globally renowned through the Ethiopiques series are simply not legally accessible for the majority of Ethiopians.

Kidus is hoping this will change. He spends lots of time nagging the distributors to re-distribute their old releases, trying to convince them that these records will sell again. The problem is often that the covers are out of print and to make it profitable for distributors they would need to reprint at least 1-2000 covers. But his mission of making Ethiopian music available for both the foreign and the Ethiopian music audience does not stop here. He will soon be releasing a recording of Amharic wedding music from 1973 on both cassette AND vinyl. At the same time he dreams of expanding the geographical focus of his work by collecting, sustaining and distributing old Eritrean, Somali and Sudanese music.

The Regionalization of Ethiopian music
While music from the rest of Africa has a strong appeal to Kidus, there is and will probably never be something quite like the tunes of Ethiopia for him. After spending part of his childhood in Ethiopia, he returned to Addis briefly as a teenager. The past few years he has spent travelling back and forth between Norway and Ethiopia, between studies, work and cassette hunting. He now spends most of his time in Ethiopia and is fluent in Amharic, the official Ethiopian language. His fascination of Ethiopian music has several roots, as he describes: “The Ethiopians really value their music and even today Ethiopian music is closely linked to the cultural traditions of the country. In addition, the great variation in the music of Ethiopia’s different regions really appeals to me.”

The vast regional difference in Ethiopian musical tradition is something that also poses a challenge to his ethno-musical investigations. The best music of Tigray or Oromiya is not found in Addis but in the music shops in provincial Ethiopia. Kidus highlights the Tzeta music shop in Dessie and the Negarit shop in Dire Dawa as the best music shops outside and the places to find respectively old Tigray, Amhara and Oromo music. He further explains the initial reception of the old music shop owners when a young pale Scandinavian walks into their domain and asks for cassettes with old – and for many Ethiopian also forgotten – artists: “At first they are quite suspicious. But quickly suspicion turns into excitement and appreciation. Mutual appreciation of and gratitude for a joint effort to preserve an important heritage.”

The Faranji Connoisseur
Many of these grand old men of Ethiopian music – collectors, producers and music shop owners – have since become close friends of Kidus. And Kidus himself has become a renowned connoisseur of Ethiopian music. The go-to-guy for advice and expertise on the music and the music scene of Ethiopia. A position very few faranjis (meaning foreigners in Amharic) can credibly claim. And not an easy position to achieve taking into consideration the relative isolation of Ethiopia and its music during the past century. Nevertheless, Kidus still sees himself as a foreigner in Ethiopia and its music industry and he is aware of the challenges that this poses to him.

Although the emphasis in Kidus’ efforts has mainly on the Ethiopian artists of the past, he has also witnessed on first-hand the changes in the contemporary music scene in Addis (link to Jazzamba article). Changes of both the encouraging and less positive kind. The revival of Ethiojazz has led to an explosion of live music in Addis the last few years: “All clubs want their own band now and there is a lot of talent out there, which is good. Unfortunately, many of the new bands are afraid of experimenting. This is also the case for many of the European or American bands that have started playing Ethiojazz. Many of them are simply trying to copy the success of Mulatu Astatke.” 

 There are of course exemptions to this trend and Kidus points to the Nubian Arc as one of the most experimental and forward-looking bands around (see further recommendations from Kidus below).
Kidus concludes by highlighting a more remarkable effect of the renewed interest in Ethiopian music. According to Kidus the new golden era of Ethiopian music has substantially changed the image of Ethiopia and provided the outside world with a new impression of what Ethiopia is in cultural terms. And Kidus is here to make sure that the insight of foreigners and Ethiopians into the unique musical treasures of Ethiopia will grow and proliferate for years to come.

Kidus recommends
3 old artists yet to receive deserved recognition

3 fusions between Ethiopian and Western musicians that work

3 new Ethiopian artists
  • Gennet Masresha (New traditional music, great voice)
  • Samuel Yirga (Solo piano album, also member of Nubian Ark)
  • Omar Suleeyman (Oromo singer from the 90s-00s, 10 albums vol.1-10)
By Andreas Hansen;Photos by Kidus Berhanu

Dec 1, 2013

Disco Blaze - Jump Back!


Difficult to find more or less full information on this album and its interpreters , except its origin , Nigeria , their names, and almost nothing else, not worth above the year that was recorded , and is given as a probable date , the mid- 70s , so all often talk about 1975. Very few circulating copies of this album, and it is said that in 2008, a copy on Ebay for $ 800 is sold , but we also know that in 2010, a record company , specializing in reissues, put it on sale.

The musicians seem are a city in western Nigeria, Ibadan called , from which also come the singer Sade , and musician Tunde Nightingale.

But let the record and music contained .

The style is markedly " Funk" , but let notice the afro -rock imprint , mostly instrumental with hypnotic guitars, bass heavy , leaden , just percussion, wah wah, fuzz , although there even a female voice in a song , singing in English . 


A1 Hear The Musik
A2 Plastic Feelings
A3 Lead Me Thro'
B1 Jump Back (Comm' Of The Fireballs)
B2 Medley/Solitude/Weariness
B3 Come Show Me The Way

Nov 28, 2013

Rare Nigerian: Heads Funk Band & Akwassa

The heady funk of Akwassa is as infectious as it is rare. Actually, it is so potent that it couldn’t be contained within just one group:

The Akwassa band were born out of the groups The Founders (later to become the Foundars 15) and an obscure group called Red House. The duo of Felix Day (guitar, vocals) and Kevin Coburn (keyboards, synths, vocals)  are listed as the core of Akwassa, with guest musicians rounding out the ensemble. It turns out, however, that the duo and these guest musicians are in fact the group Heads Funk (or Headzfunk). Or, actually, all of them were both bands. The duo of Akwassa were signed to Afrodisia with the rest of the band listed as guest musicians, while Heads Funk were signed to EMI with the Day/Coburn duo listed as guest and the others front and center. Clever!


Under this system, Heads Funk recorded 3 albums and Akwassa recorded 2, La’ila (1975) and In the Groove (1977). Featured here are two tracks from In the Groove, a most apt title for music that conspires to keep your head nodding and your bell-bottoms swaying. As with other Afro-funk releases of the time, In the Groove showcases more than just straight funk numbers, but of course, it is the funk numbers that get my attention.


Everybody Is Getting On has got an Ohio Players-like groove, accentuated with wah-wah guitar and synth effects, with typical late 70s lyrics about everyone realizing their get-down partying credentials at the same glorious time for an euphoric booty shakin’ time on the dance floor!

Jam All Night takes this theme into the wee hours of the morning with an all out instrumental jam, a bedrock of afro-funk allowing ample room for synth experimentation and screaming guitar solos!

Price @ Heads Funks Band: Check out here!

Price @ Akwassa: Check out here!

For more info on Akwassa/Heads Funk and its individual members, check here.

Nov 25, 2013

Record diggin' in Africa ...

The trend of DJs from ”the West” travelling to Africa to (re)discover old vinyl gems has been going on for years and has now started to receive a fair share of criticism. DJ Chief Boima is one of the critical voices who has compared the new scramble for vinyl to the 19th century colonial scramble by the European powers. However, an important difference is that while the project of the colonial powers generally was one of change and exploitation, many of the vinyl diggers around are doing their best to preserve what’s currently being lost.

Spurred on by the rise of sampling in Hip Hop and electronic music and despite a downturn in vinyl production, in the 80′s and 90′s a rich vinyl collecting culture exploded in places like the U.S., Europe, and Japan. For years young hip DJs from the city, travelled to forgotten about record shops in backwater towns, the dusty basements of aging record collectors, or the back rows of an inner-city record shop looking for rarities that seemed to pop out of thin air. Collectors scoured their neighbors backyards for rare jazz, rock, and funk, motivated by unnamed sample sources, hoping to find that illusive breakbeat. The best DJs were the ones with the deepest crates. Around the early 00′s, Hip Hop stopped using samples and turned back towards synthesizers, the Internet started a deeper collective crate, and a vital source of inspiration dried up. For collectors, all the stones seemed to be overturned, the market had too many buyers, and people, starting to realize the value of what they had, turned to E-bay to make money off of their collections. With much of the rare vinyl being plundered locally, a few intrepid explorers decided to try their luck in uncharted territory. Of course, they made their way to Africa.  This map (that has been circulating on Facebook and other social media) and scenario may both be a little hyperbolic, but it does seem that the current mad-dash for rare African vinyl could be analogous to Europe’s 19th Century Scramble for Africa, a mad-dash for rare African minerals. There is a trend among rare-groove DJs to “find fortune” in the (re)discovery of musical gems in places where the value of vinyl and recorded music from the past has diminished. Just go to your local record shop (if one still exists) and peruse the display shelves to encounter dozens of new releases celebrating the recently uncovered recordings of Africa’s unknown musical heritage. The image of these guys as plundering opportunists isn’t helped by their reception in “The West”. As one music writer puts it,”Frank Gossner’s DJ sets burst with exclusive tracks that are so rare that they can’t be heard anywhere else on this planet” (from Rare music from planet Africa!?! Who wouldn’t want to get a piece of that?

On the other hand, vinyl culture has been long dead in most African countries. Perhaps these diggers are doing a service by restoring historical and cultural memory. Much of the music they are interested in is music from the Independence era, an important and optimistic time period. Many of the artists they are tracking down have been retired for years and some enjoy a revival. T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo, Orchestra Baobab, Mulatu Astatke, are all touring and enjoying popularity with a young hip crowd. For various reasons in places like Benin, Senegal, and Ethiopia (and also the U.S.) younger generations don’t know the previous generation’s contribution to the popular musical landscape. The DJs are engaging in a pop culture archeology to teach the masses about their own history, and at the same time are showing Europeans and Americans that our shared tastes and desires prove that we’re not that different after all. The European powers of the 19th century, sought to change the face of the continent through the colonial project. In contrast, the boldest vinyl diggers amongst us are trying to preserve what’s being lost.

Perhaps then, what we have to question is for who’s value is it being preserved? My biggest criticism is not that they are going to Africa to shed light on these “lost” recordings and forgotten about artists. I’m instead worried that they concentrate too much on those forms of music that fit nicely into the story that they, the DJs, want to tell about the music. The cataloging tendency tends to be a colonial one. Also, many of the DJs and label owners, perhaps because of its shared lineage with Hip Hop, have concentrated on Afro-Beat, or have given more weight to genres that are popular in the west like Rock and Funk. For African artists, these are generally styles that artists often used as tools, or influences to fuse with their own popular local styles. The reissue train has been slow to recognize larger genres in Africa like Soukous, Highlife, or Benga, unless they find an artist that has an added funk or rock influence. In the past the tendency was to look for “authentic” music that sounded more “traditional.” Are they now shying away from things that sound too … African?

If you’re interested in discovering more about the history of African pop, now is a better time than ever. While the blogging world may at times suffer from its own imperial tendencies, there have been some great free sources of information on African pop music history like Benn Loxo du Taccu, Likembe, with Comb and Razor, and Africolombia.*

For a nice visual on the typical digging journey, check out the trailer for Frank Gossner’s yet to be released documentary, Take me Away Fast.

The 2011 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival ended last week Sunday. On the scene at the festival's North Carolina location was Shadow And Act woman-about-town, Ms Alece Oxendine.
While there, she saw a film called Take Me Away Fast, a title I profiled on the old S&A site in March, and which I expressed some concerns about, given the subject matter. In short, the film follows successful German DJ Frank Gossner on his journeys through West Africa (Nigeria, Ghana, and Benin, specifically) in search of rare 1970s funk and Afrobeat records, which he buys, and takes these these cultural artifacts back to Germany to play for his European and American audiences.

I haven't seen the film yet, but, thankfully, Alece has, and she confirms some of my initial concerns in her review which follows below:

A couple weeks back, Tambay posted an entry profiling Take Me Away Fast and I had the chance to see it at Full Frame.

If you’re not familiar with Full Frame, it is a documentary film festival that premieres major documentaries from around the world and it just so happens to be in my hometown of Durham, NC :)
Take Me Away Fast screened after another short documentary about music called Sound Underground, a moving essay about musical performers on subway platforms. There are several other documentaries about these performers (one as recent as 2007 and with a suspiciously similar name) but none shot as beautiful as this one. The documentary captured these performers at their best-clean, perfect pitched and a sound that could as easily been produced in a studio (and probably was).

Sound Underground got up close and personal with the performers while still giving some distance; we do not know where they come from or why they perform, we just hear them and life moves on. This is evident with the constant passing of the trains that constantly interrupt the performances to remind us that we are on a subway platform and not in a symphony hall.

To New Yorkers who are familiar with, and sometimes annoyed with, the sounds of the underground, this piece attempts to romanticize these performers when we just tune them out. But there is always that one performer who we actually take the time to listen because they’re that good.

For me, in this film it was the Trombone Man’s solo; just sublime! If this film comes your way, it’s definitely worth seeing and listening to. Sound Underground invites you to take off your headphones and listen to the sounds we sometimes take for granted.

Before watching Take Me Away Fast, I tried to keep an open mind regardless of Tambay concerns about the film. The film focuses on a German DJ named Frank Gossner and his mission/life’s goal to find the best in Afrobeat and African funk music on vinyl, mix it, and play it in clubs.
Sounds harmless doesn’t it? The premise of this short documentary is interesting but it unfortunately comes off as pretentious.

Frank ventures to West Africa specially Ghana and Benin and is determined to find a long lost record by the African Brothers Band. He claimed he needed to find that record and the audience did not take him seriously. When expressing his concern about finding it, the audience, mostly white, laughed at him.

There was no arch, major discovery or climax to the film. Frank’s discovery of the long lost record became anti-climatic because we knew all along he would. Take Me Away Fast lacked substance and depth to convince an audience to feel something for the subject of the film. Most audiences do not relate with someone who comes off as arrogant, and I think this is where the documentary fails.

Overall, the documentary was well-intentioned but not well executed. Throughout the film, Frank claims that he wants to re-discover this wonderful music and spread the love of it in discos around the world. What’s so unfortunate is that he honestly thinks he is doing some good for the music and the people of Africa. But Frank’s arrogance stunk up the film, compromising what could have been a very interesting and compelling documentary about Afrobeat and African funk music.

Quite frankly he was not that interesting but I found the African musicians he interviewed such as Gustave Bentho of Orchestre Poly-Rythmo. The best parts of the films were when the musicians spoke about rediscovering their music.

On the technical side, there were several inconsistencies especially with the editing, camerawork and sound. I’ve learned not to really pay attention to technical stuff in documentaries because my focus is usually on the subject. But I did not have anything else to pay attention to besides the music in the film.

The music he found was nothing short of amazing so I cannot blame him; the music moves the soul. It’s just the way he comes about them that can rub most audiences the wrong way.
Frank does acknowledge how it can be seen as “cultural imperialism” but justifies himself by claiming he paid good money for those records. My main issue was not the alleged cultural imperialism, but rather that some of these people who made this beautiful music are still living and need more recognition. But let’s face it, Frank is not a cultural anthropologist, he’s definitely not a filmmaker and he’s not that interesting. At the end of the day, he’s just a DJ and we should not expect more from him or this film. He’s not trying to change the world; he’s just trying to throw one helluva party.

Nov 20, 2013

Ogassa - Ogassa Original Volume 1

Ultra rare 2nd album recorded in 1978 in Nigeria by a band of 6 band members from Porto Novo, a city based in the east part of Benin.

Information about the band remained really hard to find, sadly all the musicians died, as did the lead singer in a tragic car accident.

After its 1st album in 1976, Ogassa (“Oga” means master in Nigerian dialect) was touring a lot in all West-Africa, thanks to radio hits such as "Segbele-Gbele" or "Ajimevi". They were also very close to the famous Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou, with whom they worked together once in a few.

Most of these songs were only pressed once on vinyl by the famous Albarika label in Cotonou and have remained unreleased famous Albarika label in Cotonou and have remained unreleased ever since.


The Ogassa story is a short one, given that the group only issued a handful of recordings – one of which is this really unique Nigerian album! Ogassa have a style that's much more deeply soulful than some of their contemporaries – as equally committed to sad-tinged lyrics as they are to a groove, which means that there's some real standout moments of blueness that you'd not likely to find on other records like this from the time! Rhythms slow down at a few points on the record – which gives plenty of space to the wonderful vocals that echo out with this plaintive quality – lead singer then matched by the group, as guitar and thin organ lines trip out nicely when given a chance to solo. All tracks are nice and long – and the album's nicely balanced between the groovers "Gbe We Gnin Wa Bio" and "Ogassa Story", and mellower cuts "Avale" and "Production Vido Tche". (Very cool deluxe pressing – super-heavy cover and vinyl!) 


A1 : Avale      
A2: Ogassa Story      
B1 : Production Vido Tche      
B2: Gbe We Gnin Wa Bio   

Nov 13, 2013

From Mr. Voodoofunk: Christy Azuma & Uppers International

High-quality reissue of holy grail 70s Ghana Funk LP available for the first time in 30 years. Totally unique sound, a rare Funk attempt by African female singer backed bu the legendary Uppers International, 3 massive Afro Funk tunes + some deep Highlife of the highest caliber. One of the nicest and rarest African records ever made in our opinion. Includes a nice insert with some treasurable vintage photoss. Strictly limited to 1000 copies, don't sleep!



A1 Di Ya Sugri 7:01
A2 Asullamani 5:53
A3 Kypaa 4:07
A4 Ja Wenle 3:17
B1 Eye Kyerew 4:22
B2 Ba Mai Ayikin 3:35
B3 Mu Banda Girma 3:34
B4 Naam 4:38
B5 Aja Wondo 3:54

Nov 8, 2013

From Ivory Coast: François Lougah

François Lougah (above) was one of the first Ivoirien musicians to have an international impact. He was born in 1942 in Lakota in the southern central region of Côte d'Ivoire, and had varied careers as a mason, football player and actor before hitting the music scene. His first hit was "Pekoussa" in 1973. Countless chart successes, a brief marriage to Tshala Muana and numerous tours throughout Africa and the world followed until his untimely death in 1997.




A1 Bravo Sotra 9:18
A2 Zazou 9:30
B1 Gnazoua 6:22
B2 Bonheur Perdu 6:12
B3 Dehiminke 6:20

Nov 5, 2013

The Martin Brothers - Money

Soon to be released on Voodoo Funk Records

The Martin Brothers are pioneers of the Nigerian Funk and Afrobeat scene. Besides many releases under their own name, as the Tabansi Studio Band they lit up innumerable recoding sessions — it's them on Pax Nicholas' Na Teef album, for example; and the same team is behind the legendary Saxon Lee & The Shadows International LP.

Money is the Martins at their deepest and heaviest — tearing, wailing, mid-seventies funk, heady with spirituality. Superbad from start to finish with no let-up.  

Original copies are amongst the most sought-after of all African and funk records on the international collectors' scene. It seems there is just a tiny handful of copies at large.

The tracks were originally laid down at Ginger Baker's ARC recording studio in Lagos and later mixed down at London's Tin Pan Alley Studios. The audio restoration and remastering for this re-issue was done at Abbey Road.