Cassette tapes may be disdained by many for their low fidelity and inability to shuffle, but a new generation of tape lovers has embraced the medium for those very reasons. Brian Shimkovitz isn’t one of those people.
After studying abroad in Ghana as a young ethnomusicologist and realizing how big a thing hip hop is in West Africa, he decided to share all the rare music he’d collected with the rest of the world. In 2006, right around the time the modern crew of tape labels was beginning to pop up, he founded Awesome Tapes From Africa (ATFA), an mp3 blog that is, somewhat ironically, dedicated to sharing an analogue medium. Each blog post presents a tape Shimkovitz collected on his trips, often focusing on subcultures, linguistic groups and musical styles that have been ignored by most other Western labels.
Recent years have seen a high volume of excellent reissues from labels like Analog Africa and Soundway, meticulously researched and remastered vinyl compilations mostly focusing on music of the ‘60s and ‘70s. But in the wake of colonial independence struggles, production of vinyl on the continent declined, while more and more recording studios began to appear. From its introduction in the early ‘80s, cassette technology made a big impact on the way music circulated on the African continent.
Professional and pirate-dubbed copies alike began to circulate, making it possible for regional styles and linguistic minorities to share their music. ATFA specializes in obscure music on cassette from the ‘80s and beyond. Shimkovitz stresses, however, that he’s not on a nostalgia trip — he’s mostly into more recent stuff and some of the featured music was originally released on vinyl or CD. Still, it’s called Awesome Tapes for a reason.
“The cassette was really instrumental in making the music industry in various parts of Africa expand into smaller regions and make it possible for smaller subcultures to distribute their music, and now the digital realm is making that even stronger and people are getting influenced by music from neighbouring countries or from abroad even quicker. And so, in a way, I really like the tape, and that’s how I got into music in Africa, because that was the dominant medium when I was travelling there for the first time.”
Today people are still dubbing and trading tapes, though in some places it’s starting to fade away and be replaced by digital means of trading. “We forget that this concept of making copies or printing a lot of stuff quickly and cheaply is pretty new. We take CD-Rs for granted, but I remember when CD-Rs were first made available, that was, like, such a miracle invention to me.”
CDs have become a lot cheaper in Africa since Shimkovitz first travelled there, but the ubiquity of mobile phones has changed music distribution habits even more.
“It’s really cool to see the ways that things are changing, like the way Chris Kirkley’s [Music for Saharan Cellphones] compilations about music distribution has really shone a light on that.”
ATFA is changing too. Shimkovitz recently took the courageous step of turning his blog into a record label. “I have way more music than I can ever have time to post on the blog, stuff that I really love. And there are certain things it seemed were worth remastering and making available.”
He’s up front about the challenges of releasing records in today’s climate. “Yeah, it’s pretty stupid, but super fun. It’s stupid financially, but it felt kind of organic to turn ATFA into some sort of record releasing entity.”
Turning the blog into a label is a way for Shimkovitz to potentially give back to the artists. By giving these records proper releases and distribution in the West, he’s also giving some artists the chance to get some tour dates. The hardest thing is to locate the artists to arrange an official contract to re-release the music, but unlike the clearance work that went into those compilations, agreements from one artist at a time are all he needs.
Considering Shimkovitz is known for his blog featuring African tapes, it’s fitting that he’ll actually be playing tapes at his Casa gig tomorrow night, with two tape decks and a DJ mixer. Unlike mixing vinyl or using a laptop, playing tapes is much less precise.
“I just do it on stage as I go it just takes focusing on it and making sure you’re quick while tracks are playing preparing the next track. I know a lot of the tapes pretty well, but I’m always bringing out new tapes that I don’t know so well, so there’s a bit of spontaneity to it for sure. And mixing and blending and matching beats is a whole different thing with tapes. You can’t really drop the needle, obviously. You end up fiddling around a bit, but ultimately there’s a big of a leap of faith when you press play.”
I assured him that Montreal embraces spontaneity and creative hybridity.
“Montreal’s cool because Montreal’s down with electronic music and dance music, but there’s also, like, this sort of wild DIY undercurrent, whereas in Berlin, where I was living the past year, there’s this heavy emphasis on the sort of ‘rules of techno,’ and things like that, and I’d play at those types of parties and kind of sometimes clash or confuse people. But a place like Montreal I think anything goes and people are gonna be down.”
Brian’s “Collateral Damage” column for the Wire
More on Suoni 2013
INTERVIEW EXTRA EXCERPTS
Tell me a bit about why the cassette is so important as a medium in some of the regions your blog focus on.
The cassette was really instrumental in making the music industry in various parts of Africa expand into smaller regions and make it possible for smaller sub-cultures to distribute their music and now the digital realm is making that even stronger and people are getting influenced by music from neighboring countries or from abroad even quicker. And so in a way I really like the tape, and that’s how I got into music in Africa because that was the dominant medium when I was travelling their for the first time. … But it’s really cool to see the ways that things are changing, like the way Chris Kirkley’s compilations about cellphone music distribution has really shone a light on the way that things are changing. Because I don’t want to fetishize this old school medium just for the sake of that. But still to this day the music that you hear is from a cassette player and it has a certain sound and that’s what I’ve really enjoyed.
Do you still encounter tapes in your recent trips?
From time to time. But, yea now a days things are moving on. CDs were really expensive when I first visited West Africa. Now they’re a lot cheaper. So it helps.
Are these official releases or pirate dub copies?
When the major western labels were running the industries in some of these countries and printing LPs … obviously LP manufacturing isn’t something someone can do without a big budget and access to a big factory and everything like that and it’s also harder to distribute because they’re bigger and heavier to warehouse and transport. So what’s cool when you travel around, like with my travels in west Africa you find in certain areas recordings in languages tat are not spoken by large amounts of people or types of music that are no longer a big deal or they’re sort of marginalized because they’re not really the kind of music that gets played on the radio or the kind of thing that you would here like in the barbershop blasting on the streets but they’re still produced in quantities that there’s enough them that they’re in the shops, so you can cruise around a country the size of Ghana which is the size of maybe like the state of Pennsylvania, and from region to region find a lot of different music sold in the shops that is not sold at the big central markets in the capital, where you know it’s in a different language or different style that’s not super popular but because cassettes are cheap and easy to duplicate and manufacture, smaller communities that aren’t necessary linked into the international or national bigger business of music distribution and sales can make stuff. And I kind of observed this process, and read about it and seen it in other parts of the world. Because you know we forget that tapes, this concept of making copies or printing a lot of stuff quickly and cheaply is pretty new. We take for granted CD-Rs but I remember when CD-Rs were first made available that was like such a miracle invention to me, it seemed like magic. And me and my friends could make records of our music and duplicate them quickly and spread them around, and mix tapes or whatever even faster than cassettes. So there is certain places or certain times a lot of the cassettes that you purchased in African markets were on handmade cassettes with handmade labels but in other places and at other times with different types of music there’s a lot of variation, it’s more professional. Mass produced labels, with official labels printed on the cassettes themselves. I’m fascinated by the cassette as a medium for making it possible to distribute music wider and faster and cheaper.
Africa’s a big place. The name Awesome Tapes from Africa is a complicated and difficult name because it sort of generalized about Africa, which is a massive very broad place and so in talking about it I try not to oversimplify the diversity. And the different ways music can be heard and distributed.
SO that’s why all these labels doing different things can all exist because there’s so much stuff going on.
Penn: 46,055 sq mi
Ghana: 92,098 sq mi
What first brought you to Africa? It wasn’t music was it?
Well, it sort of was. I was a student at Indiana University, which has this ethnomusicology department I was studying in and I kind of had ever been outside of America, except for Canada, so I really wanted to study abroad, at one point and experience culture shock and see another place and I was really interested in language, and popular music in urban settings, so I had the opportunity to go to Ghana for one semester and so I totally fell in love with all the different kinds of music I heard and people were super nice there and taught me a lot of stuff and when I found out about rap in Ghana in seemed like a really interesting direction to follow as a young ethnomusicologist looking for stuff that my mentors hadn’t really looked into and looking at the way that ethnomusicology as a field is changing. It was changing as I was a student in the early 2000s, with the internet and thinking about popular culture, pop music as more worthy of scholarly study and so a lot of ethnomusicologists are studying folk music and older stuff and things happening out in the villages and dying traditions or whatever, traditional ceremonies and I was like No Man there’s all this stuff happening in the cities that I really wanted to check out and there weren’t that many people writing about hip hop at the time, in academic journals so it seemed like a really cool, exciting thing to check out. So I got a grant to go back to Ghana and stayed there for a year and so yea during both those trips there were still a ton of cassettes around and I got into the Africa music before that because I was just a big music guy getting into all sorts of different things I could get my hands on, and I had no idea how big of a thing hip hop was in West Africa until I went there.
SIT was rad because I was able to stay with families and learn the language and do independent study project. My university had a program that sends students to university of Ghana at Legon but I decided not to do that because I decided I wanted to something that was less university-ish.
I definitely wouldn’t be here talking to you right now if it wasn’t for them and that program, so I guess I can’t say enough good things about it. It worked out really well, just to get out of university and do something different.
Something I like about tapes (and records) is the ability to think in terms of Side A/Side B. You can’t easily skip or shuffle like on a CD. So when you post a tape, why break it up into tracks?
I’m working on an updated site to make it a little easier because sometimes people are so lazy they complain about having to click ten times to download a tape. I want to have a better player on there.
Tell me more about doing this DJ tour.
Yeah, I’m DJing tapes like with two tape decks and a DJ mixer. I just do it on stage as I go it just takes focusing on it and making sure you’re quick while tracks are playing preparing the next track. I know a lot of the tapes pretty well but I’m always bringing out new tapes that I don’t know so well so… there’s a bit of spontaneity to it for sure. And mixing and blending and matching beats is a whole different thing with tapes. It’s not as precise as using LPs or Serato or anything like that because you can’t really drop the needle, obviously. You end up fiddling around a bit before you mix in a new track to make sure it’s gonna work out OK but ultimately there’s a bit of a leap of faith when you press play.
Montreal’s cool because Montreal’s down with electronic music and dance music but there’s also like this sort of wild DIY undercurrent so whereas like in Berlin where I was living the past year there’s this heavy emphasis on the sort of “rules of techno,” and things like that, and I’d play at those types of parties and kind of sometimes clash or confuse people, although it usually worked out well, but a place like Montreal I think anything goes and people are gonna be down.
It’s one of my favorite cities, it’s really sophisticated without being douchey.
You lived in NY, and you’ve been living in Berlin. Now you’ve just moved to LA. How’s that?
The generation of people who moved to Brooklyn are moving on. I want to have a decent standard of living without making banker money and it seems like LA is the only big city in America to allow that. I didn’t really feel like I was part of a community of people (in Berlin) who were “doing stuff” there’s just a lot of people kinda hanging out.
In LA I feel I can be more focused on the music business aspect of it. I did my 20s hang out and do drugs kinda thing already.
I’m curious about who your readers are, who’s downloading? Do you know how many of your downloads come from outside the West?
I don’t know in terms of numbers. I’d have to guess maybe ten or 15%-20% comes from outside North America, Europe and Australia. We get some from Brazil, Japan and a bit of Africa. Quite a few people have told me that they are from the African continent but they’re expats living in London or Toronto or wherever and that’s pretty cool but I can see the countries that come and visit and it is predominantly America Canada and Europe. Which is it’s own conversation but just thinking about my friends in Ghana.. a majority of them use internet cafes or don’t have the fastest bandwidth at their house so they’re not like downloading tracks of African music, they’re on facebook or communicating with people outside of their town and looking at university opportunities. Like us here checking out music during lunch or after work, or during work, so I guess it makes sense that there’s more traffic from that part of the world.
All these DJs from Congo and Angola and South Africa posting dance music on Soundcloud. How many of these DJs do you think are drawing on these tapes or similar kinds of music for samples.
I’ve seen examples of people doing versions or sampling classic 60s or 70s tracks using it as a hook for their modern hip hop or R&B inflected top 40 type music, but it’s hard to say. There’s stuff happening but if you’re a dude from Nigeria you don’t need to go to my blog. Cross generational and cross border influences, language and distribution channels can be a barrier but because so many people are on soundcloud and youtube etc the sky is the limit. Some scenes are more forward thinking than others in terms of using past samples.
A dude from Johanesburg wrote to tell me he hears music like this on the radio and sent me links. Walking down the street he hears that music. It’s not super famous, or well-known, but it’s out there.
■”As part of the 2013 Suoni per il Popolo festival, Brian Shimkovitz came to town to DJ, performing along with DJ Pataka and Xarah Dion at Casa del Popolo (4873 St-Laurent) on Saturday, June 8, 9:30 p.m.. It was free.
Brian Shimkovitz also was part of the panel Beneath the Surfaces, a discussion with Jonathan Sterne, Justin Evans, Don Wilkie and Jake Moore at at la Sala Rossa (4848 St-Laurent) on Saturday, June 8, 1 p.m.
– See more at: Cult MTL