A Chat with Brian Shimkovitz

Some 16 years ago, a jazz drummer and ethnomusicology student was so taken by the broad Ghanaian musical vibration he experienced during his scholarship that it would eventually set him on an extraordinary path – away from academics and towards cassette culture. Luke Cohlen sat down with Brian Shimkovitz, better known as Awesome Tapes From Africa, the blog-turned-label that has been putting out quality reissues from cassette to vinyl since 2011.

Last year, SSFB had the honor of having Brian and Ata Kak over twice; first at the inauguration in the Rush Hour store and later on at the festival. Brian’s love and admiration for Ata Kak’s music were crystal clear. There was quite a bridge of years between him finding the cassette and actually getting in touch with the man himself.

“Ata Kak would have been the first release on the label if I knew where he was at that time, but I held back, because that’s what you do,” he recalls.

Brian regularly shares recordings of cassettes he finds on his blog, but would only ever release music in a commercial manner when he is able to get in touch with the artists themselves – or their family if the artists had passed away – in order to pay them royalties. An example in humility, Brian has not only helped set up shows and a live ensemble for Ata Kak, but is also spreading good music throughout the world by touring with Penny Penny and Hailu Mergia.

SSFB instore special at Rush Hour

Hailu Mergia – “Shemonmuanaye” (2013)

The story of Ata Kak, who had switched continent after producing his music over 25 years ago, is characteristic of the struggle Brian sometimes experiences when tracking down artists.

“It’s just complicated finding people,” says Brian. “Penny Penny [similarly] took a few years, because when I started looking for him he was an elected official with the largest party of his local government [African National Congress, Nelson Mandela’s party]. He was just difficult to track down. I couldn’t get anybody to give me his mobile phone number, you know. At first it seemed easy to find him, but it ended up taking a few years.’’

Brian continues with an anecdote about the times he had consulted translators in the hopes of reviving dead ends, only to find out that the supposed relatives of artists were not related at all. Examples of artists whose music he still dreams of releasing some day are Somali artists Ahmed Yasin Digfeer and Hasan Aden Samatar. The latter is a legend who joined the government-aided Waaberi supergroup before his twenties, and was responsible for spreading Somali music throughout the world during the last century.

Ahmed Yasin Digfeer – “Hibo”

Hassan Aden Samatar – “Markaan Da’da Jiray”

It siphoned through Brian’s words that he resents the idea of him being perceived as a sort of musical Columbus and know-it-all among the public – a critique that floats around his project sometimes.

“I don’t know anything,” he says. “Every country is so massive and has so many different regions; and every city – just like here – has so many scenes, layers and genres… I don’t know about 99% of it.”

This resentment was brought further to light when I described his activities using “discovering”, a word he immediately dismissed, and rightfully so.

“I wouldn’t use the word ‘discovering’,” explains Brian. “I visit mostly as a tourist. I’m not like a digger. I don’t get off the airplane looking for records. I’m there to hang out with people and do specific stuff; either a project or a holiday… and over time find out about music, listen a lot to the radio, ask lots of questions, and – then also – keep an eye out for tapes.’’

Browsing through the catalogue of Awesome Tapes, it breathes a retrospective approach that focuses mostly on music from around the 80s. I was interested if Brian ever stumbles on contemporary music that sparks his interest, too.

“People are really interested in South African music outside of South Africa right now,” says Brian. “It’s becoming very popular, which is really encouraging.’’ Brian was aiming at GQOM here – a unique bass-heavy skeletal concoction of tribal house and kwaito. DJ LAG is arguably the biggest exponent and boy wonder of that style right now, one that the producer from Durban introduced last year to venues such as Panorama Bar. If one wishes to get a good introduction to this style of music, check out The Sound of Durban on the Gqom Oh! label.

DJ Lag – “Ice Drop” (2016)

Gqom Oh! The Sound Of Durban Vol. 1 (2016, South Africa)

Brian further points us towards the South of Europe: “That label Príncipe – everything that’s happening there in Lisbon, it’s crazy.’’ The Lisbon sound is a musical melting pot due to descendants from Portugal’s former colonies such as Angola and Cape Verde living there, taking cues from genres such as Kuduro and Kizomba.

Another emerging style Brian tells us to keep an eye out for is Hausa from North Nigeria. “It’s always pushing the envelope with all sorts of electronic keyboards, Auto-Tune, Middle Eastern-sounding influences, maybe a bit of bollywood kitsch,” he says.

With that, Brian sets off for his next show, but not before giving us many tips to keep us listening for days. Enjoy the music folks, and see you soon, Brian!

DJ Marfox vs DJ Nervoso – Boiler Room Lisbon DJ Set (2015)

Rarara – “Sai Buhari Sai Baba” (2016)

Photo credits: Marinka Grondel