I met Brian Shimkovitz, the charming founder of Awesome Tapes from Africa (ATFA), a couple of summers ago. He was an agent at the PR firm where I was the summer intern. After his departure, we got coffee at a Ukrainian diner and he told me of his impending move to Germany and his plan to tour as a DJ and spin Awesome Tapes into a proper label. Nearly two years later, Brian is still touring the world playing cassettes through large speakers, with new releases pending. We sat down over Skype to chat about the collector impulse, charges of exoticism, and why academics forget just how good music can feel.
The Independent: You were in Africa on a Fulbright when the Awesome Tapes from Africa project began. What’s the story here?
Brian Shimkovitz: I started ATFA in 2006, shortly after moving to NYC after a year doing ethnomusicology fieldwork in Ghana. I moved to NYC to get a job in PR because I realized after doing fieldwork that academia wasn’t going to help me communicate about what I’d learned in a very useful or efficient way.
I grew up playing music, being obsessed with music, and wondered how I could make a career out of my interests. So when I found out Indiana University had one of the best ethnomusicology programs in the country I had a total epiphany. I spent my final year taking all grad courses in ethnomusicology so I was able to get a sense of what the field would entail if went for a PhD.
Indy: That’s cool. Turning to the moment when you first started collecting tapes—what was that about?
BS: I was always a tape guy, even before I visited West Africa. But when I went to Ghana the first time I saw that the widest selection of music was available on tape. So I started going to the shops and areas of the big outdoor markets where tapes are sold. I searched for parts of town where foreigners lived, so I could find music from other regions. I was sending packages home to Chicago so I could collect as much as possible while I was there.
Indy: Who were these tapes originally meant for? What is their original market?
BS: They are generally commercially available sounds, everything from local radio pop highlife to rap of all kinds to traditional music. Many of the things I bought I heard first on the radio.
Once I learned to speak Twi, one of the local languages, I was able to impress people and show them how serious I am.
It’s the language of the Ashanti people. It’s not the indigenous language of the capital where I was based, but it’s the lingua franca.
Indy: Cool. Glad to learn that. Awesome Tapes became a thing in your life largely because it met blog success. What’s the story here?
BS: After bringing home so many tapes I thought it would be cool to do something with them. When I started Googling some of the more obscure or exciting recordings, I realized there wasn’t much info, and this sparked excitement in me. It felt like a nice way to relieve the stress of my PR job during the weekends.
So as I started posting this stuff and sharing it with my friends it somehow got popular, largely from other blogs including it in their blogrolls. Not quite sure how it happened but I suddenly felt encouraged by other peoples’ interest and feedback. I realized I was doing what I wanted to learn about toward the end of school, “public ethnomusicology”, although in a much less dense, much more fun and accessible way.
Indy: On the topic of “public ethnomusicology,” could you speak more about the relationship between Awesome Tapes and academia?
BS: Scholarly pursuits related to cultural practices in general tend to be narrow in their impact beyond journals and libraries and conferences. ATFA was a reaction to the boredom I felt existing in this theoretical realm where music is over-analyzed to the point where it loses the power it holds among the people who make it.
Broadening the definition of ethnomusicology is something that sort of makes me cringe though I don’t wish to denigrate the deep and important work social and cultural scientists are doing worldwide. Nonetheless, the artists whose music I’ve made available to more diverse ears than otherwise imaginable would probably find the blog more useful and vital than scholarly journal articles few people will read or remember.
Indy: It seems to me that there is a strange and populous community of blogs all engaged in some kind of unprecedentedly specific collector effort. I’m thinking of the blogs that feature vinyl rips of Kollywood electronica, old cassettes of Nigerian funk, or South American Psych Rock. What do you think? Do you feel like Awesome Tapes fulfills some sort of collector impulse writ large? Or is this an over-intellectualization?
BS: Personally, I have always been a collector. And I think the Internet and blogging is ripe for showing off one’s collection. Further, the Internet and blogs have helped give a voice to esoteric things of all kinds.
Many of these tapes may no longer be in print and almost all are nearly impossible to find in shops outside Africa, in NYC, Paris, Brussels, etc. Many African expats I meet who know about the site are excited to find old recordings that they can’t find any more ring featured on ATFA.
That said, this is no exclusivity claim. Quite the contrary. I am fascinated by the mass produced nature of this as opposed to the vinyl nerd mentality we see among many DJs and music tastemakers.
Indy: Recently, upon seeing me wearing my Awesome Tapes shirt, a peer of mine said that the blog sounds exoticizing. Thoughts?
BS: Well, listen. This blog is for people who haven’t experienced this music and won’t be able to go to Africa. If people interpret the blog and use it as their own way to…what does it even mean to exoticize something? I’m treating the music in a respectful way.
There are probably a lot of people who have gotten that reaction. But people who check it out realize it’s not there. When you look at early ethnomusicology and anthropology, there is a view of inhabitants of non-western cultures as savages. I am not doing this.
There are definitely people who think African music is involved in some sort of hipster trend. They think we’re trying to co-opt something to garner some semblance of authenticity in our lives because we are ostensibly upper-middle class white kids from the suburbs. I am friends with a lot of people who think this.
Ultimately, if you look at the blog, it becomes pretty clear what my intentions are. This blog is meant to pull away all of the attachments and baggage surrounding this stuff that we talk about in relating to Africa and instead focus on how great the music is. I’m specifically trying not to be the douchey guy who exoticizes something and puts it on his mantle. I remember what it means to be in university and look at the world with a lot of skepticism. I might have said the same thing. People are haters.
Indy: So who do you think is the blog’s audience?
BS: I am writing for my friends and other people who like the music. When I look at the traffic statistics of my blog I see people coming from Pitchfork, Polish hardcore metal message boards, Greek art magazines, and Jazz message boards. A wide variety of people, or whatever.
Indy: On the Awesome Tapes from Africa blog, the music has always been available for free download. How do you think about and manage ownership of the music, especially now that Awesome Tapes from Africa has become a record label?
BS: I am not posting ads on the site so there is no direct profit coming from these downloads. I launched the label to find a way to generate an extra revenue stream for some of my favorite artists. As all profits are split 50/50 and I take on significant risk in terms of investing money and time in the manufacturing and promotion of these commercial releases, I feel the label is quite fair. Following the research I did on the music industry in West Africa, it is apparent to me that this deal is better than what the majority of musicians received when they first made these records. My hope is that further profits will go to the artists by way of touring and licensing opportunities.
Ultimately my goal is get people to hear and enjoy this music. The fact that I am white and the music is made by mostly black African musicians should not make a difference. The criticisms I have received for my perceived profiting through this project have come from a mixture of ignorance about the music distribution process across Africa and misplaced white guilt. Yes, this digitized way of distributing the music isn’t as accessible to the musicians themselves but assuming that Africans don’t hear music via globalized, mediated formats is condescending. Most people I know in Africa aren’t listening to or downloading music they can hear locally when they go online. They are accessing music from outside their countries. Are they exoticizing Jay-Z or does this process only move in one direction?
Indy: Do you see a difference between what you do with Awesome Tapes and with labels like Soundway? Correct me if I’m wrong here but it seems to me that Soundway has guys who pretty much go in to abandoned major label studio catalogues in places like Lagos or Accra and mine the archives for new songs for their compilations. What do you think about their work? How does it relate to Awesome Tapes?
BS: They are going out and finding music that sounds like certain things: Funk, Garage Rock, etc., whereas I’m more interested in the music people there are into: specific micro-musics, subcultural delicacies. Compilations necessarily disembody the track from the context it came from. Many of these funk tracks are really good but they miscommunicate what an artist was going for. From day one I didn’t want to post a track here or a track there. I wanted to post the whole recordings. I wanted people to hear it the way you’d hear it in Africa.
I see this preference as furthering the mission the blog has had from its beginning which is to make people realize how much cool talent and diversity and creativity there is in every corner of Africa. The message can be garbled by whatever generalizations. What is Africa? It means a lot of different things!
But at the end of the day it’s pretty rewarding for me and the people who have had doors opened up for their music. When I was doing my research, everybody asked me how to get their music to North America. I’ve been able to apply what I know to putting the music out there.