Brian Shimkovitz is the Indiana Jones of African cassettes. He may not own a lasso or have a deep knowledge of ancient civilizations, but he would look dangerously handsome in a Harrison Ford fedora; poring over sub-Saharan TDKs with a magnifying glass. Brian spends his life writing about life-changing songs on his awesome Awesome Tapes From Africa blog; which you should visit.
Shimkovitz devotes his time to excavating Africa's diverse musical territories. All in the name of precious artefacts: fresh to death tapes. So I caught up with him to talk all things music from the motherland.
Noisey: Hello pal, how did all this get started?
Brian: I went to Ghana for the first time in 2002 and found out very quickly that the best music to be found was on tape. I was always kind of a tape guy anyway so it was no big deal. Tapes cost about $1 so I bought a shitload and sent back several shoeboxes full.
What drew you to Africa in the first place?
I got really into studying the ins-and-outs of hiplife, the local form of rap music in Ghana. So I kept looking for more music and then did some travelling. I collected numerous tapes for the never-ending variety and bizarre finds. I like different kinds of music from around Africa--traditional, pop, electronic music--and I just ended up finding more and more things that were worth a closer listen. I am a bit OCD about this. I now have around 4,000 tapes in my tiny apartment in Alphabet City.
What did you have in mind when you decided to start the blog?
I simply wanted to share this music I figured no one outside of West Africa would have the chance to hear. After living in Ghana for a year, I came back with this impression that you hear music constantly--on the radio, in public transport, blasting out of barber shops, in the market--so it felt like a cool thing to show people what Africa sounds like.
Did you expect it to do this well?
I noticed the traffic was coming from a variety of sources outside the typical dude with Birkenstocks and tie-dye world music zone. So it feels like a big success, the positive feedback makes me even more into continuing to share my tapes.
How do you keep track of all your cassettes?
I don’t have an organizational system yet, it’s just a series of boxes. If I want to find something, I better have time to look for it!
One of the things that always struck me about the tapes was the artwork. What makes them so cool?
Raw collage and daring colour are what stick out to me in African cassette art. I like how the majority are portraits of the artist, sometimes in surprising poses or contexts. Always looking sharp. These cover designs are full of motion and often look like something from the distant past (even when it’s a Tanzanian bongo flava tape from 2003).
Are there any regions you prefer, with regards to where the music comes from?
I am really into music from the Sahel, the arid region at the edge of the Sahara desert in places like Niger, Mali and Mauritania. The music is often spare and soulful with distinctive vocals.
How do you even pick the songs you blog about?
I like to post tracks that are super bizarre to my ears or very popular in the region they’re from or both. I try to mix up old and new, acoustic and electronic, from as many regions as I can.
Do you have a team of super sleuths scouting for rare tapes, I mean, how do you get all this shit?
Ever since I started doing this blog, my friends and random people from the internet have been kind contributors. I see it as a public project of sorts, so it’s amazing how many people have thought of me while they were travelling and brought some jams back for me to share.
What stuff has excited you the most?
I have been getting excited about 90s house music from South Africa and I have always been drawn to rap from Senegal and Tanzania. Lately, I've been getting into Nigerian fuji music and various guitar band sounds from 70s Kenya.
What's the African music industry like right now?
I think there are challenges that prevent the same kind of DIY approach of helping underground artists bubble up to the mainstream as efficiently as we have seen in the West. People have to pay to get their songs played on the radio. While it’s become easier to self-produce a record, it’s even more competitive to get the music heard outside one’s neighbourhood. Touring is almost impossible because of cost and logistics; and piracy is still making it hard for artists to see money from recordings.
Is cassette culture is still thriving over there? Cause you know, the internet killed everything cool over here.
I think the cassette appears to be in a solid place. The durability of cassettes will keep them in use for some time to come in a context where dust, heat, humidity and rugged repeated use are facts of life.
On the flipside, with blogs like yours, what kind of impact has the internet had in getting people all over the world aware of African music?
The internet is like a record shop with infinite aisles of free music you’ve never laid ears on. But you have to have direction otherwise you might not come across the more obscure sounds, the internet lets you discover things you might be too shy or too located in Nebraska to have ever heard.
Finally, if you could make your very own awesome tape for Africa, what songs would be on it?
The theme song from Twin Peaks.