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Media Partnership / Miscellaneous

“You have to hear this”: Brian Shimkovitz tells us the story of Awesome Tapes From Africa

It’s Nice That returns to Field Day this year, partnering with the London-based music festival on its Moth Club stage. In the first article of our coverage of the two-day event in Brockwell Park, we tell the story of record label Awesome Tapes From Africa, whose artist Hailu Mergia will play on our partnering stage. Visit the Field Day website to get tickets for the weekend on 1–2 June.

Brian Shimkovitz, the founder of Awesome Tapes From Africa, thinks of himself as a very lucky guy. In person, he repeats this sentiment often, usually at the end of describing a particular success of the blog, turned DJ project, turned record label. However as the story of Brian’s career starts to unfold over our conversation, it becomes very clear that it isn’t luck that has got him where he is today but sheer hard work. Hard work that is driven by a want to share the creative ephemera he has gathered over the past decade, and a journey that fascinatingly begins with a university study abroad programme.

During the early 2000s, Chicago-born Brian was studying ethnomusicology in Indiana. Living in a conservative state he was eager to travel elsewhere, he’d never left the US and grabbed the opportunity of a year abroad in west Africa. It was a way to stay somewhere for a long time, to live with families and garner a true understanding of Africa’s music industry. “It was completely eye-opening,” he reflects fondly, “and life-changing obviously.”

In the years that have followed since the euphoric and shareable quality of African music has shaped Brian’s life and subsequent career. As a result, he’s returned the favour in how it changed his life by elevating the lives of so many others. This could be by giving an older African musician’s career a deserved leg-up or introducing thousands to a genre of music that is pure joy. This hasn’t been an easy task, scouring the globe for sometimes years to find one musician whose tape is constantly replaying in his head, or dealing with the nitty-gritty business stuff, acting as a manager and sorting visas so musicians get the opportunity to play for us.

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Following on from his year abroad Brian was hooked. He decided to return for a full year of research on hip-hop in Ghana, and in the process, his suitcases became full of tapes. Tapes, probably the most unused musical format today, were fascinating to Brian as “a mass produced piece of art commerce,” and from an ethnomusicology outlook. “It costs the equivalent of less than a £1 so it was something everybody could get and pass around,” he explains. “It’s very durable. Play it in the car, play it in the village, play it anywhere. The cassette itself democratised access to a point of music to a lot smaller language groups… The cassette in that regard, from an ethnomusicology perspective — and from a person who is just very interested in the world and how culture moves — is this crazy revolution for music. And it sounds great.”

Upon returning to the States Brian moved to New York to start a job in public relations. New to the city, Brian admits “I wasn’t being very social at the time, just hanging out at my house,” he says. “I was really broke, just going through all these tapes that I’d brought back, so I started Googling things.” This research phase began in 2006, a time where Google was an internet staple but streaming sites were just starting, even YouTube was in its earliest days. “I would Google artists and it would say zero results sometimes, which was just fascinating to me. I thought if there’s nothing online, either people from those countries who are expats are going to eventually come across and be happy. Or, the nerdy music people like my friends are going to be like wow, isn’t that fun, because we were just always looking for different stuff.”

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Awesome Tapes From Africa as a blog has always been curated and considered, but not overly selective in its output. “It was just a really fun way to focus on something other than work at the weekends,” says Brian. “I found so much music when I was in Ghana and other places, and I knew I would just never hear it in America. I thought at the very least, some other people should hear this. I didn’t want to be selective about stuff, to be some sort of voice really, I just wanted to put it there exactly as it is. Just to kind of say, this is interesting, I like this.”

This approach is a direct influence of studying ethnomusicology, resulting in an ethical point of view that runs at the forefront of Awesome Tapes From Africa’s alternate incarnations. “Because of my background in research, they always pounded it into our skull that when you’re doing field work, you’re affecting things by just being there,” Brian explains. His approach, in turn, is to “try to record it from your perspective and your worldview, but the least amount of fingerprints you can put on stuff the better.” After all, as he points out, “Who am I to fuck with a great artist’s art?”

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Consequently, everything Awesome Tapes From Africa (ATFA) puts out is kept exactly as Brian found it. The blog and label put out records in full for instance, and artwork is never tidied or altered to appear more contemporary. “I like presenting it as it is,” Brian points out, “letting the music speak for itself if you pardon the cliche. But I think it’s important to showcase the art as it was made, and not reinterpret it through my American perspective. That type of stuff is really dangerous when you’re a non-African working with African music I think personally, ethically and creatively… I love using the original cover art because it’s so fun and so interesting, so characteristic of what people’s artistic sensibilities were in that scene of that place.” This has created a great sense of discovery for the label’s customers. It evokes the same feeling of physically finding something you’ve been looking for, as if you’ve stumbled across the record just as Brian did in a kiosk or the back of someone’s motorbike, but by clicking on a website.

With its beginnings as a blog, social media has had its part to play in AFTA’s success. Yet due to its pre-Twitter and Instagram existence, its digital community formed from discussions on forum sites rather than followers. The conversations that began to surround ATFA resulted in Brian being asked to DJ, and why he continues to play sets globally today. “With the music that I’m into, it’s meant to be enjoyed with people around,” he says. The inclusiveness of Brian’s attitude and DJ sets have created a sense of community between ATFA fans across the world. Take Glasgow for instance, the friendships formed from Brian DJing in smaller venues has grown and grown. So much so that when a recent artist of his, Hailu Mergia, played his first show in the city, it sold out. “This network, social media is important, but the person to person network, is super crucial and people remember that.”

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Enabling ATFA artists to play live is a key concern of Brian’s. It’s an attitude that separates him from other labels of this ilk, it’s more of a rejuvenation than a reissue. “I have an interest in seeing them perform because I’m such a big fan, that’s why I’m stalking them to find out more and to work with them,” he says. “It makes the relationship so much stronger, we’re not just in a business relationship. Music in a live format is part of the reason why, despite the digitisation of the music experience and the disembodiment of the physical aspects of it, is why music is going to carry on. I’ve been at shows of the artists and they’re big shows, lots of people, people singing lyrics or just being happy. As a long time fan of music, African music in particular, and in just being a nerd, it’s cool to be involved.”

Stalking is quite a funny term to use when describing how Brian begins his relationship with artists, but it’s not far off. No example of Brian’s discoveries is apter than his relationship with Ghanian highlife singer Ata Kak. The first tape Brian ever posted on ATFA, “This is it,” he wrote in 2006, “You may never hear anything like this elsewhere.” In 2011 when ATFA morphed from blog to label, Ata Kak, however, didn’t appear on the release list. Brian still couldn’t find him, five years after his first post on the blog. “It’s completely surreal, to be honest,” Brian begins to explain of that time. “I was so curious about who this guy is and the longer it took to find him the more I was like is he still alive? Who is this guy!”

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The search continued. Brian returned to Ghana to look for him, continually asked around while DJing in Europe too, but time after time the answer was always no. Ten years in, Brian asked a Ghanian shopkeeper in Toronto, (the details of which you can watch in this short), “who knew someone, who knew someone, who knew someone, who knew Ata Kak’s son,” and the musicians catapult into contemporary success began. “It’s hard to say,” Brian begins to explain when I ask what that first in-person meeting was like. “It’s cool in life when you have a long-term interest to see it through I guess. I already knew him a little bit because by then we had talked so much on the phone. I didn’t feel like he was so mysterious anymore, and I didn’t feel such an intense pressure, but it was truly exciting and, of course, like a total bookend for a very long process.”

Brian’s desire to meet Ata Kak was, of course, to release his record Obaa Sima, but also just to tell him the following he had gathered globally for a record that had initially been dismissed. This journey sums up Brian and ATFA entirely; it’s just to share the joy he’s found in the music and personalities he’s discovered. “We’re not selling tens of thousands of records, or even thousands sometimes, we’re sometimes even losing money on these records,” he says. “But I’m really interested in putting out a variety of stuff, and not just stuff that’s part of a micro-trend that sells well. I just want to reach the people who are down with this specific approach.”

This unique ethos, one that has encouraged Brian to leave his findings intact and honest is why ATFA has proved so fruitful, for both him and the artists who it champions. It’s not about clicks and likes, downloads and sales or charts and awards, “maybe that’s where I have a different philosophy,” as he puts it. “I’m trying to build relationships.”

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