Who’s that slightly-built man performing on the main stage of this new Amsterdam-based festival? It’s clear that a festival appearance isn’t a routine gig for him. In a way he symbolizes the success of SSFB’s first edition – the festival capable of drawing a curious crowd to a main stage, led by a mystery man from Ghana that goes by the name of Ata Kak.
Strange Sounds From Beyond certainly injected a breath of fresh air into the festival scene, but it didn’t exactly break any new ground in bringing about the popularity of obscure music. Today’s best loved tracks have been around for decades, but just didn’t get noticed until recently. So how did obscure music get so popular? What changed in people’s interest? In the middle of the crowd, my Rush Hour pals and I took a moment to ponder upon how niche music got this far.
The Ghanese Ata Kak and his radiant smile faces a large and expectant crowd. He plays his first ever “Obaa Sima” show as the headliner of a Dutch festival. It’s unlikely for many beyond this festival terrain to have heard of Yaw Atta-Owusu, but that can just as well be his appeal. The idea of an obscure, eccentric lo-fi act taking over the main stage has novelty written all over it. For those acquainted with his work, it must be nothing short of thrilling to finally meet the mystery man behind this otherworldly music and experience him in real time. All are obvious reasons that attest to his popularity here. Obvious to me, to the Rush Hour crew and likely to our fan base. Certainly to a niche group of music lovers in search of new material; one who gets passionate about learning the context surrounding a piece of music. I suppose any record digger would be charmed by Ata Kak… There is something authentic about his story and his peculiar brand of music. Still why would a large crowd go for such a performance? To seek, to read and to learn is pretty much an introvert’s occupation. Not necessarily an activity that appeals to the extroverted festival goer.
Of his humble beginnings as a musician, Ata Kak admittedly landed his first job by lying to some band about being a drummer. Fame eluded him for several decades, despite his special repertoire. I suspect his inspiring and spontaneous personality may have played some part in the rising popularity of his oddball music over time. His Ghanese tracks make allusions to US rap and house music, blending diverse genres in a way we haven’t heard before. Fittingly so, he was rediscovered by a music freak. Originally put out on cassette in 1994, Ata Kak’s music was hunted down by Awesome Tapes From Africa’s Brian Shimkovitz in 2006, and had gone on to become a cult hit among a small niche group of music nerds across the globe. It took Shimkovitz almost a decade to find Atta-Owusu alive, resulting in the first official vinyl release of “Obaa Sima” last year.
Shimkovitz’s fascinating story is very iconic for this niche music movement of late. In the past few years we’ve seen a growing group of music freaks with boutique labels, putting out curious finds into a growing vinyl market. Rush Hour has had the privilege of distributing a number of these labels, such as Music From Memory, Goma Gringa and Ubuntu to name a few. The popularity of these labels is proof that a wider interest exists for niche music, though only as far as the music digger goes. This doesn’t necessarily apply to the typical festival goer.
Revival of vinyl
A few years ago, vinyl was dead and illegal free downloads thrived. Over time, the music industry adapted. Vinyl, being inextricably linked to the music digging culture, saw a rise in the number of collectors as a result, despite the fact that many mp3s were made freely available through piracy.
Fortunately for Rush Hour, we never stopped gaining ground. In recent years I’ve seen the RH store’s music selection naturally broaden and deepen, and more and more people engaging with the idea that digging deep for music leads to pleasant surprises. Rush Hour, just like Red Light Radio and places alike, has evolved into a platform for a burgeoning community of label owners, DJs and music lovers worldwide. We moved to a bigger storefront this year, offering up a larger collection of more diverse music, often issued with extensive liner notes. Having this vast selection of music in-store, we felt we had to put more effort into bringing the store’s archives to a wider audience. So we initiated House Of Music, RH’s non-periodical magazine. And we started organizing more events and get-togethers to facilitate the experience of good music in an intimate setting. This feels like an achievement, but this was not just a matter of cause and effect. Opportunities grew thanks to the bigger picture – the global shift in how music is lived and perceived.
It’s hard to pinpoint the cause of a movement. What I find really intriguing, is the way habits direct a flux and how these habits are influenced or dictated by certain mechanisms. I consider the internet as one such mechanism at play. It’s fascinating to think of it, in relation to analogue media, as the instigator of the public’s growing interest in niche music. Pioneering media theorist Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) studied the influence of communication media independent of their content. He is known for coining the expression “the medium is the message” (and for predicting the World Wide Web almost thirty years before it was invented). A main concept of McLuhan theorizes that new technologies exert a gravitational effect on cognition, which in turn affects social organization. His theory inspires me. It validates why vinyl, the analogue medium here, is indispensable in the age of the internet.
In today’s music game, I juxtapose the internet with vinyl as its opponent. The World Wide Web makes everything easily accessible, the keyword being “easy” here. Sure, easy is helpful, but easy can also be boring. Though less accessible, vinyl effectively carries music that’s way more tangible than this modern day jukebox we call the internet can offer. A lot of old music is solely pressed on vinyl, not yet rediscovered and very much out of press. In other words, very inaccessible and practically “unshazamable”. New music too, often gets pressed in limited capacity. All of this has brought about a change in habit.
This new situation only serves to make us crave more for a piece of music, because it is now a rare commodity; not unlike a fashionista’s lust for a pair of limited edition shoes. And this is before we have even factored in the snowball effect. With information made more easily available by the internet, our knowledge of music has also increased exponentially. One can even infer that the vinyl habit thrives in the duality of their existence both off- and online. Because the more you know, the more you realize how little you know, right? It’s a mind fuck that propels our imagination and makes hunters out of us. It sounds kind of desperate, but it’s actually so much fun! To underline the importance of our imagination in this game, I’d like to quote Einstein, who once said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
Moreover, the internet is social. Changing consumption habits have led to a new type of music experience, and the nerds have probably infected a wider audience through various platforms and by DJing at events. The wider audience may not necessarily maintain the same digging habits, but they can to some degree appreciate the concept of obscurity and the exotic sounds presented by their favorite DJs in clubs and at festivals, including Strange Sounds From Beyond. Perhaps not everyone will agree with my deductions, but the name of this festival and the success of its very first edition definitely indicates a direction that’s hopefully here to stay, just like the internet is…