Awesome Tapes From Africa: An Interview with Brian Shimkovitz
What started as a blog soon turned into a label, and the founder/curator reflects on the newest reissue and the cassette's diminishing African presence.
Check out "Om" Alec Khaoli's "Say You Love Me" -- a totally exuberant blast of dance pop from South Africa, 1985. Those crisp snares, buoyant keys, and brilliant vocals: the track's got me all smiles. A highly sought slice of wax, Say You Love Me has now been reissued by Awesome Tapes From Africa, a record label that evolved from a music blog specializing in, yes, awesome tapes from Africa. Label boss Brian Shimkovitz is on the phone with PopMatters, talking about the "Om" Alec appeal.
"I realized that [Say You Love Me ] was really kind of a perfect short record, kind of deep and soulful, introspective at times, but definitely for the dance floor," Shimkovitz explains, well versed and filled with enthusiasm for the music. "It has all that fun flavor of the early '80s, with Vocoder and vibes. This kind of funky approach in a non-pretentious but also non-corny way, feels a little bit left field, but it's not strange. It's totally Top 40 music of the time."
The Awesome Tapes blog began in 2006 as "basically a way to stay sane on the weekends as I was doing my New York City job," says Shimkovitz, who is now based in Los Angeles. Over a decade, the blog has grown into a trove of hundreds of tapes, available for listening or download, sortable by decade or region. It's a vast wunderkammer of eye and ear catching African cassettes. As the blog's About page puts it: "This is music you won't easily find anywhere else -- except, perhaps in its region of origin. If you are an artist/etc and wish for me to remove your music, email me."
"The blog is meant to be kind of an open library to show people what music sounds like in Africa, in various places," Shimkovitz says. Elaborating on the ethics of music posting during our call, he's up front about potential concerns over sharing music with the world: "I realize the ethical grey area of posting a complete recording without the artist's consent, but in the cases that I'm dealing with, where the records aren't for sale anywhere, I feel like it's a better thing to do than to let the music not get heard," he says.
Moving from tape blogger to label head was a natural outgrowth, and the first Awesome Tapes From Africa reissue -- La Grande Cantatrice Malienne Vol 3 by Malian singer Na Hawa Doumbia -- appeared in 2011.
"First of all, I'm trying to mirror what the blog has always done, which is to have a variety of stuff, but also to do things that are going to hopefully make an impact on the artist's career," Shimkovitz notes, discussing the difference between the blog and label. "In most cases, the artist is still alive. In most cases I'm trying to figure out how to get them tour dates and work with them on the visa process, finding booking agents, and using the network I'm building to go back and organize shows."
All Awesome Tapes releases are done in collaboration with the artist, who gets half of any profits. Beyond just the financial aspects, Shimkovitz sees his role as that of promoter and representative. He explains: "I've been really lucky because most of the musicians I've been working with, I'm super obsessed with their music and kind of like in this fanboy situation, but at the same time I've managed to figure out a way to connect their records with an audience." But before connecting artist and audience, Shimkovitz first needs to make contact himself. This is often challenging, requiring sleuthing and a fair amount of luck to track down the performers.
In the case of Say You Love Me, Shimkovitz emailed a production company that popped up when researching "Om" Alec. The contact turned out to be "Om" Alec's son, who linked Shimkovitz up with the singer. With the personal connection made, the biggest roadblock to doing the reissue was getting good audio to remaster. With the album's master tapes nowhere to be found, Plan B involved locating scratch-free copies of the original '80s vinyl. "We sourced a few copies of the vinyl and had them mastered in different places wherever we could find them, in order to get something that didn't have any crackles that you can hear or any problems. To source a direct transfer from the vinyl seemed to be the best option," Shimkovitz relates.
The label reissues full albums. No comps. "I never wish to select two songs from a tape and say these are the relevant ones or these are the interesting ones," Shimkovitz says. He elaborates: "I've always enjoyed compilations, but me personally, just seeing as my mission is to build on artist's careers, I want to deal with telling their stories. You can't tell their story, and try to encapsulate a moment in time and place through such a selective array of songs. I don't want my fingerprints on it."
Technology's shakeup of how music works is ongoing and colossal. An example pertinent to the Awesome Tapes From Africa model involves the cassette tape itself. Tapes -- once ubiquitous in the early aughts when Shimkovitz did fieldwork in Ghana -- have now all but vanished from the marketplace, outmoded by the arrival of the smartphone. Shimkovitz reflects: "When I started the blog, cassettes were the standard in most places in Africa still, so it felt contemporary. It felt like something that was celebrating a really commonplace piece of mass produced art. But now it's become very rare to find tapes in most African cities. You get a feel for the blog being more of an archive."
On recent trips to Senegal, South Africa, and Mauritius Shimkovitz found that "when you say 'I'm looking for tapes,' people kind of laugh at you. It's not a thing anymore. You would go through markets in West Africa and see half a dozen cassette dealers in one outdoor market, but you don't see it anymore." This rapid drop in African cassette availability is another good reason to explore the blog, which is becoming a storehouse of amazing music that's increasingly hard to find. And while some things change, other stuff stays the same -- I'd wager "Say You Love Me" sounds as good in 2017 as it did in 1985.