Brian Shimkovitz, the guy behind the cult blog-turned-record label Awesome Tapes from Africa, is in Bangkok to perform one of his unconventional cassette-only DJ sets at Studio Lam this Friday, Mar 6, on his first tour of Asia. BK talked to him shortly after he touched down—and just after he’d wolfed down a “transcendant khao mun gai.”
The story of Awesome Tapes from Africa ostensibly began with founder Brian Shimkovitz, an ethnomusicology student, spending a year in Ghana on a Fulbright scholarship which gave him free reign to study "hip-life," forms of rap done in local languages. There, he started amassing a collection of cassettes rarely heard in their place of origin, let alone in the West. So, wanting to "show people what African music sounds like in Africa," he started a blog in 2006. That blog has since become a record label, a little like our own ZudRangMa, that's re-released a number of forgotten gems, from the funk-laced Ethiopian jazz of Hailu Mergia and the Walias to to the Ghanaian Afro-house of Ata Ak (an elusive artist who took a Searching for Sugarman-esque effort to track down; more on that below). But before all that, Shimkovitz actually spent a year living and teaching English in Bangkok.
“I turned in the [Fullbright] grant proposal one day before I took a one-way ticket to Thailand to teach English," he says. "I stayed here for a year before I got the grant. That was kind of my ticket out of here—otherwise I probably would have been around for a lot longer, such is the chill life here. I was going to punk shows, hardcore shows and experimental electronic stuff, but there was only a tiny, tiny inkling of people getting into vintage Asian music at the time I was departing. It was still very much a nascent thing. Now it’s incredible, I stopped by Studio Lam last night. They have a cool sound system there—it’s better than anything I’ve seen in LA pretty much! It’s very, very cool I get to play in such a place I love so much, that I haven’t had the chance to visit in 12 years."
Have you listened to a lot of the old mo lam stuff that the likes of [Bangkok-based record label] Zudrangma put out?
Yeah, I’ve been aware of that stuff for a long time. I remember being here, in like 2003, and just waiting for the vintage Southeast Asian trend to emerge. I was going around collecting lots of luk thung and luk krung cassettes. Not in preperation or anything; just because I’m a music nerd. It’s the same reason I started Awesome Tapes from Africa; it’s because I was living in Ghana for a year, and being a music guy I was just picking up things left and right.
Where did your interest in African music stem from?
Even in high school I was starting to get exposed to African music, African pop music. Once I went to university, I was just blown away when I heard Fela [Kuti] and all this other stuff. Then I had this best friend who’d been to Ghana and he showed me some cassettes. I was like, this music is nothing like anything we’d hear here. It was just the tip of the iceberg for all this great stuff happening, just in Ghana alone, not to speak of all the other coutries. I eventually realized that within each country there’s more than a hundred languages in many cases and so many different music scenes, and we outside of the African continent don’t know anything about it. I had an interest in it, I was studying ethnomusicology, I was always interested in music and popular culture in urban settings, so it made sense to go to Accra, Ghana. I’d never traveled outside of America before my first time there, so it was a significant culture shock, but more importantly, I found out that people were rapping in local languages, and that set me off on a whole thing in academia in terms of triying to do some writing and learning about hip-hop in West Africa, of which there hadn’t been much research. I was lucky enough to get the Fullbright grant and because I wasn’t in a PhD program I really didn’t have to report to anyone—they just sort of cut me loose and I learned a lot.”
How did the blog start?
After that, I moved to Brooklyn and I needed like a weekend hobby. I just wanted show people what African music sounds like, in Africa. So that was back in 2006, when Blogspot was an emerging thing, and I noticed a lot of people in America, especially in Brooklyn, were listening to all different kinds of music. Indie rock people and metal people were listening to music from abroad, and I was surprised by that. I went away for a year and, like, MySpace was this huge thing, and Animal Collective and M.I.A. got super-famous—it was an environment that was friendly to the kind of stuff that I was interested in. I just started blogging, posting these tapes online, and I wanted to post the entire tape. I wanted to not be a selecter, I just wanted the music to speak for itself and tell the whole story of what the artist was trying to do with the complete recording.
That was in 2006; do you think peoples' music tastes have diversified even further now?
Yeah, I think we have passed the point of no return with the internet and with the amount of stuff that has happened with your standard guitar-based, drums, rock ensemble. A lot of people are trying to do stuff that hasn’t been done before. That means exploring further afield for inspirations and influences. When I started the blog, I think there was the beginning of a kind of trend, an interest in African funk, but I’ve always been into the kinds of music that havent’t been given much of a spotlight outside of where they come from, and I’ve just continued with that regardless of any trends. When people started interviewing me, because Vampire Weekend and stuff were just getting famous, they asked me, "Are you just doing this because of the trend?" I’d be like, “Yes, there’s an element of that, but I’ll definitely still be doing this long after whatever trend in Williamsburg dies out."
Were you always into cassettes, in particular?
I’ve always been interested in tapes. I grew up listening to The Grateful Dead, this legendary band from America whose fans have always recorded shows and traded tapes. I was a little late getting a CD player when I was in middle-school. I’d have all these tapes of different types of popular music—I spent a lot of my youth obsessed with jazz. I was always making tape recordings of CDs from the library before it was possible to have a CDR and just copy it. I like to think of cassettes as the original MP3s. Like most people I had a tape deck in my car, so I never stopped listening to tapes. When I went to Africa in 2002 and saw that all they had was tapes for the most part, I didn’t skip a beat, it was completely normal. In order to find as much music as possible, you had to mess with tapes—there was no other option at the time. Nowadays they’re not really making tapes in most African countries, though in certain music scenes and certain regions, there’s still stuff on cassettes, but it’s not as widespread.
You’re still reissuing things on tape, too.
Yeah, every release has a limited run of 250 copies on tape just becase it makes sense, it’s fun to do, and there are people out there now listening to tapes again. There are many tape-only labels; a lot of lo-fi, experimental and noise music gets put out on tapes, especially in America, Australia, New Zealand and parts of Europe. I’m not here saying, the tape is the best medium that’s ever existed, but I definitely enjoy using it a lot.
What's it like DJing with tapes?
It’s really fun. It’s also really natural because the music I’m collecting is all on tapes. At first I didn’t really have a sense of how to do it in a parallel way to what techno, house and hip-hop DJs are doing with matching beats and blending, but I’ve developed a kind of method, using pitch control on the tape decks and just knowing the music well enough to keep a dance floor going. It’s a little weird, but it works out. There’s a bit of a leap of faith every time you press play, trial and error. It’s more or less the same as DJing with vinyl, but you can’t drop the needle, you have to cue stuff up. I don’t cue it up before the gig; I just do it on the fly depending on the vibe.
How many tapes have you brought along?
Oh like 75 or so; not too many, just enough to do slightly different stuff each time. Every time I go out on tour I bring a different selection of tapes so I don’t get sick of the stuff. This time I’ve brought some Nigerian fuji music, traditional music from Ethiopia, South African disco, Morrocan house music... just so much stuff. I think Thai people really love to have fun, if I remember correctly, so it should be a pretty lively time. Depending how it goes, I usually start off pretty mellow, and then work it up into a frenzy.
You’ve got that Ata Kak reissue coming up…
It just came out. Today. I’ve been busy responding to journalists. This is like a dream come true, because the blog all started with Ata Kak’s cassette. It turned out he didn’t even know people were digging his music. It took me years to track him down, at first just because I was curious what his story was. It's so interesting and different, so otherworldly. When the label started, I was still looking for him and there were no clues. I was like, we gotta put out this record, help him make some money off it. Finally, after many years of stalking on Google and Skype, going to Hamburg to search for him, asking friends all over Ghana to search for him, putting up signs and stuff, then contacting people in Canada, where the record was actually made, I finally took a flight to Toronto and refused to leave until I found someone from his faily, which I did. His son Jeff is living in Toronto. Ata Kak is back in Masi, Ghana. It was a total dream for me, and he was very surprised when I called to tell him what’s up and just bombard him with questions. He’s very excited that people are responding well to the record and it seems to be selling well so far. I brought some copies, but everyone in New Zealand bought them. He’s interested in performing but doesn’t have any instruments, so I’m trying to get over and bring him some. He hasn’t performed for many, many years.
What's next? Are you currently chasing anyone else?
I’m always on the case. At the moment I’m in contact with a few people who kind of fell into my lap. There are things I’m working on that I can’t really talk about. I’m always trying to track people down, but nothing quite as dramatic as the Ata Kak search.