MEMORABILIA. COLLECTING SOUNDS WITH... Brian Shimkovitz. Part I
Produced by Matías Rossi
When Brian Shimkovitz went to Ghana on a Fulbright Scholarship for ethnomusicology in 2005, he was confronted with a rich, bizarre, puzzling and extremely varied array of music, mostly released on cassettes. 'I had never really considered going to Africa,' he says, 'but I had this interest in popular music in cities.' And the African music scene turned out to be just the ideal fieldwork project for Shimkovitz.
For a whole year he was based in Accra, the capital city of Ghana, but occasionally traveled to other locations in West Africa such as Mali, Togo and Burkina Faso. In all of these places, street markets and stalls provided him with a seemingly endless supply of out-of-the-way material.
By the time he went back to Brooklyn, having interviewed a substantial number of MCs, DJs and producers, he had amassed an impressive collection of tapes, but had no master plan for them. Starting a blog to channel his findings ('communicating it to people without dumbing it down completely', as he recalls) seemed like a reasonable enough idea. The name of the blog was pretty self-explanatory: Awesome Tapes from Africa.
Steering away from the stereotypical afro-exoticist formulation that had been associated to the World Music market for decades, Brian made an effort to simply share his own excitement for the sounds, the artwork and the richness of his fragmented collection: 'a non-encyclopedic approach to this very, very broad and deep array of music that's out there – that I'm certain my 4,000 cassettes is only scratching the surface of 0.01% of music that’s commercially available.' It was probably this straightforward approach, combined with the viral potential of the web that made the project grow beyond his wildest expectations.
Some years later, what began as a fairly underground resource for close friends, some connoisseurs and digital crate-diggers, has turned into a full-fledged record label. Awesome Tapes From Africa reissues all sorts of African tape rarities, from folkloric pop, to left-field dancefloor gems and hip-hop bangers, shedding light on obscure and wonderful sounds from across the continent.
The label has received major acclaim from publications worldwide for its reissues by re-discovered legends including Ethiopian accordion and keyboard maestro Hailu Mergia, Somali funk and soul group Dur-Dur Band and Malian chanteuse Nahawa Doumbia, underscoring the broader mission of Awesome Tapes from Africa: contributing to building the international market for African music and helping a few of his favorite artists find new audiences through touring and reissues.