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Awesome Tapes from Africa « DressLab : clothes+music+art
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Awesome Tapes from Africa

Author: Lluís Panadés Julià

Section: MUSIC

Date: 09.2013


Awesome Tapes from Africa l DRESSLAB


Brian Shimkovitz is the interesting person who started the blog Awesome Tapes from Africa in 2006, a unique and innovative way to bring music from the African continent to the rest of the world, from the real to the virtual, from the analogue to the digital. He also does dj sets using his collection of awesome African music cassettes tapes, not the most common way to dj either. We had the chance to talk with him about his blog, his trips to Africa and other things via Skype Rotterdam- Los Angeles in a summer, hot and peaceful evening.


How, when and where the idea of creating the blog came from?
At the end of 2005 I moved to New York after living in Ghana before that, so I had been collecting a lot of cassettes during my research trips in West Africa and in 2006 I began to post some of these cassettes on my new blog. I thought that was going to be a cool way to share music with some of my friends and also kind of make people aware of what African music really sounds like in Africa. And I had a lot of cassettes because cassettes were the popular media at the time and when I came back I realised that none of this music was available and most people didn’t know that there was such a diversity of amazing music. So I started posting these tapes and it wasn’t for a few years until, you know, people were paying attention to the blog. I ran into people around New York city who were like – oh yeah, I know that blog cool yeah – but like after a few years somebody contacted me from Berlin and asked to me to do a panel discussion and then they also said – can you dj? – I had never dj before but my friend told me – Yeah, tell them you’re dj, they don’t have to know that you have never dj before, just do it – and so I started djing with that trip to Berlin and then I was doing it in New York and other places in the States for a little while just for fun, but then people kept inviting me to do more stuff like at festivals and DIY spaces and stuff like that, I even got to play in Barcelona in like a museum. CCCB? Yeah, that’s the one!


You have studied ethnomusicology, which is or was your research as ethnomusicologist?
Yes, so when I started doing ethnomusicology I didn’t really know what I wanted to study I was just interested in the concept of the field this of anthropology of music and my university had a very strong program in it and so I spent a lot of time in the library learning about the field and uhm I was interested in Africa because a friend shared with me some African tapes he got from Ghana and I was always interested in popular music and always interested in culture and urban aesthetic. I went back to Ghana after my student trip there and stayed for a year because I managed to get the American government to give me this for buck grants and these for bucks grant are used in like in a year if you are doing research like if you are a phd or something like that but I wasn’t a phd so I so Iwas just able like to spend a year doing tones of interviews with rappers and people like that cause I was specifically looking at hip hop in West Africa. In Ghana, you know what the youth are doing with this American rap culture and making it their own, rapping in local languages and stuff like that.


Can you remember the first cassette tape you bought in Africa?
Actually the first time I started buying tapes I was up in Kumasi, the second largest city in Ghana and I remember exactly which shop and you know the corner of the road where it was and a few of the tapes I got, I don’t remember exactly what the very first tape was but definitely some of the first tapes that I was buying were these reggae tapes you could get there because I had never, you know I wasn’t into reggae music but they had these complete albums from like the 80’s, things that I didn’t really see very much in record stores in America. I was buying reggae tapes and a couple of hip life tapes and stuff like that, unfortunately I don’t remember what the very first tape was but I do remember who sold it to me and a couple of years later when I was back in Ghana I went back to that same shop in the centre of Kumasi and the guy who sold me the tape recognised me and we were talking and everything so it was kind of funny.


Were you carrying a Walkman during your trips to Africa?
Yeah, I was listening the tapes everywhere I went on the Walkman for sure and also every time I was in a shop up in Mali, Burkina Faso, any of these places the guys were really cool and they would play the tapes for you so you could test out which one you like before you even buy them. So I would spend long time talking to each shop owner.


Can you give us a visual idea from your experience about how is the music involved in the African everyday life?
Music is a huge part of daily life in West Africa. Everywhere you go walking down the street you can hear music coming out from houses or shops. Every time you take a public vehicle, a car or bus or taxi or anything like that there is music playing. Everywhere you are the houses in urban Africa are close together, every time there is a wedding or a funeral or something everyone who is in the neighbourhood hears it, it is very public and very shared. When people have a cd or a cassette or an ipod they share it with the neighbours and family. All the big families living in a house, there can be twenty people living in one little house and everybody is passing the stuff around. Music is definitely a very communal thing, if I can generalize, but is difficult to generalize because every ethnic group within each of these countries is so different.


When listening to music, do you prefer analogue or digital?
Well, you know I think they are used for various things. I just thing that analogue is so fun and so warm and natural, maybe is just an old like a feeling that I grew up with, and is the mechanic that I grew up with and the comfort of that kind of sound. I just think that there are a lot of changes happening in the world technologically and that we shouldn’t completely discard, we shouldn’t throw away some of the older things that worked for a while for us if they worked well.


Can you notice any good or bad changes in the sound of the tapes once you have digitized them?
I just want people to be able to hear this music and if there was a way for everybody to have the chance to listen the actual original tape that would be great but you know many of these original tapes are not in very good condition to begin with, many of the cassettes you can buy in markets of the west Africa are pirated cassettes so they don’t have a good sound quality, some of them were recorded in certain ways that they don’t have the fanciest sound quality either. I am not a perfectionist when it comes to sound quality, because I really think that the music is the most important thing and sometimes there might be some people that think tapes are inferior to cds or to vinyl, yeah I can see there are some problems with cassettes and they degrade over time, so if we digitize the cassettes I think is a good way to enjoy them a little bit longer.


Is there any funny or curious story or situation collecting tapes in your trips that you could share with us?
Ok if you are foreigner and you are visiting a place that is entirely different and you physically look different, like I am just this white guy that looks quite different from what people expects over there, you have a lot of interesting experiences. There have been situations traveling around small towns where I was chatting with the people in their local language which is Twi, so they were very impressed and excited because they just haven’t seen a lot of foreigners come around, specially foreigners speaking their language, so yeah there were funny times, you know I cant remember now an specific story but there have been a lot of times where people have found very interesting to see this American guy asking details and questions about their music. But yeah I mean I had a lot of interesting times, like if you go deep into that market place I used to go in Ghana, I would go deep into one of the really intense busy market places where they have this sort of, its like a Mecca for music lovers because its just shop after shop, literally forty or fifty shops all just music and videos, so I would have a lot of fun going through guy to guy, lady to lady, you know flirting with the old ladies chatting or with the old men, taking pictures and just having a lot of interaction with the local people.


You are from Chicago, the birthplace of house music. Among your findings, there are some awesome rare 90´s tapes that sound really like house music… As an ethnomusicologist born in Chicago, do you find any similarities or influences between American house and these tapes and vice versa?
Ok, in the 90´s there was some American popular music that had elements of house music that some people drag into popular in various parts of Africa and people did encored the house rhythm to their music. There is also other music from various parts that naturally has a beat similar to house music. So sometimes people in a scene would find ways to fuse together international sounds with what they were doing vocally. Sometimes that was very easy to do like you know, if you look at the Shangaan electro music there is something in Shangaan music originally that kind of has that beat and then when you think about it from our perspective where we are used to hear house music and techno, all that sounds a lot like what we were doing. In other cases people has actually taken those rhythms to house music rhythms and intentionally use them to try to have a more international sound. But in Africa there is not the same kind of scene that we have where people are buying records of different types of dance music and remixes, and white labels and going up to parties and dancing specifically to a sort of non vocal electronic music, there isn’t so much of an scene for that kind of thing over there. But there is music that your ears and my ears might think, wow, this sounds a lot like house music, but there has not been really a point where like straight up techno or minimal or anything like that has really been popular, unless in certain parts of South Africa where there is more of a international dance music scene.



Are you planning to do a research in music from another continents, Awesome Tapes from Asia maybe?
Yeah, maybe eventually but there is just so much stuff in Africa and I’ve barely scratched the surface, so there is just so much stuff for me to check out. So maybe eventually, I mean I talked about that with people but you know I know nothing about African music and I still have so much more to learn, so maybe it would be fun to do that eventually, awesome tapes from America, south America, whatever, but there is too much grounds to cover, to many shops to go, I would need a partner to help me.


Which is the main goal of ATFA both as blog and label?
The main goal is to try to open people’s ears to new kinds of music and to make possible stronger careers for musicians that they can sell records and tour eventually and find opportunities outside of their hometown.


When and which is the next release?
The next release is going to come out in a thought, I am not ready to announce it yet, so I will have to keep you guessing for a little bit longer. The newest release just came out last month is by a gentleman from Ethiopia named Hailu Mergia and he plays the keyboard and the accordion and his music is very lovely and that record is doing it very well and he will be touring in Europe.


Awesome Tapes from Africa l DRESSLAB



Would you like to use this medium to say anything else?
One thing that I would say and one thing that the blog is really trying to say to people is that you can be very very interested in African music or you can have very very little knowledge or interest in African music and be a casual listener but if you come across the website, everybody is welcome and everybody can find something that kind of connects to their listening needs. I think that there is a lot of connections between the music that we like to listen to and the music that is being made or has been made across Africa. And I think a lot of people are a little intimidated about trying out or listening to for the first time specific music that doesn’t has their language or has a different kind of rhythm.


Watch the video of Brian djing for Boiler Room last June. You can also listen and download the session here.
You will hopefully find something in this extraordinary and diverse mix-tape that connects to your listening needs.



+ info_ Awesome Tapes from Africa

Text_ Lluís Panadés Julià



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