ESSENTIAL: AWESOME TAPES FROM AFRICA

‘Ethnomusicologist turned DJ’ is a strange badge to wear, but Brian Shimkovitz aka Awesome Tapes from Africa, is exactly that. Back in 2001 during a stint at Indiana University, his studies into hiplife, a new type of Ghanaian rap, sent him to Western Africa, where he found himself frequenting colourful street markets where traders sold cassette tapes of traditional music. As climates soared the tapes would warp, meaning no two ever sounded the same.

Swiftly realising that the academic papers he submitted to his course masters were no way of disseminating the news of these vibrant new sounds, in 2006 he launched a blog – Awesome Tapes from Africa. “During that time,” he says “I just collected a tonne of tapes, just getting super deep into all the different types of music I could find." He made it his mission to expose these underground and street-level sounds to a wider audience of crate diggers.

Here you can hear the raw sounds of African hip-hop influenced pop, funk, soul, house and techno alongside harder to conceive categories like ‘Senegalise mbalax’, ‘Yoruba-language praise music’, ‘Zulu soul melodies’ and so on. In this day and age of copy and paste emulation and appropriation, it’s rare to hear entirely new genres, yet Shimkovitz says to the Independent - “I was quickly inspired by posts of 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 now turned the blog into a record label, paying back the artists that made him famous with 50% of all proceeds going directly to them. Well, the ones he can track down, that is! Some tapes come without any contact details, others with outdated cell numbers or the addresses of self-employed ‘production companies’ acting as a banner for multiple artists.

Recent releases come from SK Kakraba, a Ghanaian student and gyil (xylophone) enthusiast now based in LA and DJ Katapila, whose production borrows from Chicago house and Detroit techno. But one of the label’s biggest success stories was featured in the blog’s inaugural post - Ata Kak’s Obaa Sima.

Awesome Tapes describes Ata Kak as: “A Ghanaian highlife singer gone horribly right, [he] is a visionary. He spits serious rhymes, waxes romantic, and issues lo-fi digital quick-shrieks - It sounds so home-made funky yet spooky, like a warped Prince protege from Africa by way of 1986 Chicago.” After years of searching, the artist finally emerged - Yaw Atta-Owusu, a self-taught musician who was living in Toronto. Living out his own Sugarman moments, he now plays across the world – his upcoming shows include Manchester, Amsterdam, Tromso, Lisbon.

Praise be to Shimkovitz for spreading the good word and opening our eyes to such crazy underground sounds – Awesome Tapes From Africa is truly a cultural miracle.

Ata Kak plays at Patterns in Brighton on October 19.



Full event information here