When Brian Shimkovitz first went to Ghana in 2002 he just wanted to explore the local music scene during a scholarship. Soon he found out that there is much more to explore than just music from Ghana and that the best of it was distributed on tape recordings. He bought himself mountains of them and sent them back to his home in the USA. When he came back he has been surrounded by a vast amount of tapes full of music that not many people outside Africa ever heard. To make it accessible to the public he launched his blog Awesome Tapes From Africa in 2006 and posted music that ranges from Hiplife Gyil and Highlife sounds to African traditionals, Pop, and electronic music. All played and sung by such artists like Ensemble Instrumental National du Mali, Ata Kak, BouBou Tounkara, Hamado Kanazoe, Madiodio Gning, Tafese Tesfaye, and countless other unknown musicians. Very soon his blog developed a cult following and Shimkovitz got booked as a cassette tape DJ all around the globe. In 2011 he decided to launch a re-release record label too and since then he produced limited editions of records by African artists such as Nâ Hawa Doumbia, Bola, Dur-Dur Band, or Hailu Mergia. For Carhartt Radio Brian Shimkovitz compiled some of the music he released beside lots of undiscovered sounds from Africa. To accompany his mix we sent him some questions to take a look behind the curtain of Awesome Tapes From Africa.
( Brian Shimkovitz )
Hi Brian, can you introduce yourself and your work a bit for us?
Brian Shimkovitz: Hi there, I do this blog called Awesome Tapes From Africa, which has also turned into a DJ project and a record label. I am into sharing African music that you would not easily hear on the radio or find in a record shop in Europe.
What is your musical background and what are your biggest musical influences?
Brian Shimkovitz: I grew up playing the drums and I was into Jazz. But my listening has always been diverse, as I collect a lot of Disco records and I listen to tons of Rap, dance music, avant-garde Classical music, and a bit of everything else.
What was the initial idea of doing Awesome Tapes From Africa?
Brian Shimkovitz: I had been studying in Ghana and I went back for a research grant and while I was there I collected hundreds of tapes from around West Africa. When I came back and moved to NYC I had all this music I wanted my friends to hear somehow. Posting it on this simple blog, ATFA, became a very immediate way to get the music heard by people who might love it but might not know where to find it. It felt like a way to make connections between all the great talent in Africa and the people who are hungry for interesting music in America, Europe, and elsewhere.
What do you find most challenging about the work you do and what fascinates you about the tape culture of Africa?
Brian Shimkovitz: The tape culture is changing and perhaps in many places dying now but what is still amazing to me is the array of subcultures across the continent. How each country contains hundreds of languages and dialects and each group creates music with different sounds, thoughts, and histories involved. A big part of the challenge is not being too overwhelmed and figuring out how to make sense of all this without getting lost. Especially since so much of it is not well documented in English online. Many of the tapes I post on the blog have no info on the web and I always want to know more.
What do you want to accomplish with the music you re-release?
Brian Shimkovitz: I am interested in making African music a bigger thing in the global marketplace, so the artists have more chances to tour the world and make more money. There is so much talent and there are brilliant artists who deserve more recognition and more avenues to make a living from the work they do.
On what future projects are you working on?
Brian Shimkovitz: I am planning to release more CDs in collaboration with my favorite musicians from Africa in the coming months. The ATFA record label is a big priority for me now and I plan to push out as many releases as I can. I also plan to DJ some more shows this year in America, Europe, and Australia.
What was your biggest hit so far?
Brian Shimkovitz: The blog began in 2006 with a post about a mysterious artist from Ghana, who I still have not been able to locate, named Ata Kak. That tape has been the most popular, and I hope to find him so we can officially re-release his recording of amazing left-field Highlife/Hip-House music.
What advice would you give to people who plan to re-release old forgotten music?
Brian Shimkovitz: Well, I think the most important thing might be to work with the musicians and/or the original team of producers to help keep their vision and concept a part of the reissue. So that what you do is not completely de-contextualizing the recording and pays tribute to the vibe that made that record so special in the first place.
How did you select the tracks for your Carhartt Radio show?
Brian Shimkovitz: For the Carhartt Radio show I wanted to include lots of things I don't always play live when I DJ parties.
What can music do which all other art forms can not?
Brian Shimkovitz: Music can make you dance!
Do you have any idols when it comes to music?
Brian Shimkovitz: I have always been obsessed with Prince. He is a master of songwriting and his style is so ground-breaking and recognizable. I like his music which is on the radio non-stop in LA.
What are three albums that you'll absolutely never get tired of listening to?
Brian Shimkovitz: Boubacar Traore--self-titled; Hailu Mergia--Hailu Mergia and his Classical Instrument; Fever Ray--self-titled
What kind of music would you like to listen to in a world without electricity?
Brian Shimkovitz: Indonesian bamboo gamelan orchestra would be fine for the rest of my days in a world without electricity. I could chill to that forever.
Any musical guilty pleasures?
Brian Shimkovitz: I love early smooth Jazz.
Can you name us people that should collaborate for a better world?
Brian Shimkovitz: Nokia and the UN should figure out a way to use mobile phones to get aid money directly to people in the developing world so it doesn't get stolen by politicians.
Your favorite heroes/heroines in real life?
Brian Shimkovitz: I am a big fan of Witold Pilecki who was a Polish spy and brilliant hero during World War II.
If you could spend a night partying with any of your icons, who would it be?
Brian Shimkovitz: I would give anything to party for one night with Sun Ra. I bet he was a fun dancer.
You are located in Los Angeles. What are your favorite spots and secrets that you would recommend somebody that comes around for a visit?
Brian Shimkovitz: Los Angeles is a great place for food. I live near Thai Town so we go to many great spots. Recently starting going to this insane Northern Thai cuisine spot called Spicy BBQ Restaurant. I am a bit new here so I don't know all the hidden spots but I like this bar that's only open on certain nights called Hyperion Tavern, it's dark and woody and usually crowded with chill people.
Awesome Tapes From Africa Discography