“I would never try to project meaning on someone else’s musical compositions. If you’re DJing it in a respectful way, then c’est la vie. I just don’t find it that provocative for a white Jewish guy to play music of any ilk.”
As founder of Awesome Tapes From Africa, Brian Shimkovitz is one of the more respected DJs and label heads in music right now, dedicating his life to finding rare, obscure and forgotten tapes from Africa and bringing them to the attention of us ignorant music-lovers. We weren’t about to waste the opportunity to question Shimkovitz, so we went deep into his mission of showcasing the diversity of local musical cultures in Africa. Despite talking for so long and making him late for a dentist appointment, Shimkovitz’s enthusiasm and devotion to his tape-collecting craft came across in abundance. We spoke about how the ATFA journey started, the current state of music in Ghana, the affect ATFA has had on the musicians it’s worked with and whether AFTA plans to expand into new musical territories.
Awesome Tapes From Africa plays Field Day in London on Sat 6th June.
Coming from Chicago, how did you end up living in LA?
LA felt like a cool place to go to as California is a special place and I’d never lived there before. Plus it’s cheaper than New York. I wanted to check out other places before I eventually go back to New York. I moved to LA after living in Berlin for one and a half years. It was cool but I feel like people are always sitting around there. It just wasn’t a very productive time for me, it wasn’t even that I was having too much fun, I was just like chilling in my apartment staring at the wall.
In LA there are a lot of really amazing and creative people there. There’s a really nice environment there for whatever project you are working on. I spend a lot of time travelling around DJing so it’s a really nice place to go back to. I live in downtown LA, which is like a concrete jungle, but very beautiful. I live in the old financial district, which was abandoned after the 30s and loads of old bank buildings. Downtown is quite an old area, which until recently people didn’t really go there to do stuff. There’s definitely a different atmosphere in LA than in New York when it comes to nightlife. It never really pops off in LA. LA is so comfortable that people are more likely to chill in the comfort of their own homes, whereas in New York and Brooklyn, people need to get out of their tiny apartments and so cross the town to party in dirty warehouses.
That difference reminds me a lot of the difference I feel between Bristol and London.
Dude, Bristol is fucking wild! Nobody gives a fuck, nobody is too cool or pretentious, nobody’s posh. Dude it’s rugged.
Where did you go study and why did you choose to study ethnomusicology?
I went to Indiana University in Bloomington, and ended up studying ethnomusicology as my school had a really good music department. I wanted to study music in the library. I’d played drums my whole life, playing jazz, and I wanted to do something different and something about music and culture. I got into African music and I was curious about travelling abroad. I’d never travelled abroad and I wanted to go somewhere where I’d be culture shocked.
I chose Ghana, and I was reading African Studies. In between two trips to Ghana I studied Twi-language which is spoken widely in Ghana, so when I returned for a year I had a really good time speaking the language. It was really fortuitous as I randomly went to this school a couple of hours from Chicago and it happened to have all this stuff I was interested in. It dovetailed with my interests that I didn’t even know I had!
Before you went to study what was your relationship with music?
I grew up playing the drums and collecting a lot of records and cassettes and going to a tonne of concerts – everything from classical to jazz, reggae, a lot of rap and Chicago dance music, tonnes of hippy music like Grateful Dead and Fish. African music was on my wavelength but I didn’t know much about it. I was super into it but only Fela and stuff like that. I was introduced to it by a friend who’d been to Ghana and was like “there’s all these tapes there and all this music, check this out”. He played a tape for me of highlife music and I was like “holy shit, there’s so much out there that I have no idea about!”. I’m completely ignorant, and I still am. The more I learn, the more I realise I have to learn more. Awesome Tapes From Africa is just scratching the surface.
What made you choose to travel to Ghana?
Part of why I went to Ghana was because I wanted to go somewhere where English was a spoken language, but also because I wanted to go as part of an independent study project. Ghana seemed like an easy way into West African culture because they spoke English. There were a few things that came together: my friend had been there and the programme was there. I’d always known about Ghanaian culture though; in Chicago we have a Ghanaian community. If I had the chance I’d have also gone to Nigeria though, but my passport was tied up in immigration for so long in Ghana, that by the time I got it back I couldn’t go.
When you went to Ghana, did it change your opinions about West-African culture and music in general?
I went to Ghana as a ‘blank slate’, especially in comparison to other people in the study group who asked ridiculous questions like “why aren’t all the musicians wearing grass skirts”. I actually went there knowing there was a fair bit of modern culture, I didn’t have the expectation that there was only traditional music. I was blown away though. One of the very first nights I arrived there in the early 2000s, I was on the phone with a noted ethnomusicologist from Ghana and I was telling him that I wanted to study highlife music. He surprised me and said “oh well highlife music is pretty much dead at this point and it’s all about rap ‘hip-life music’, a combination of highlife and rap. I knew that there were more modern blends of music in Ghana but I didn’t know that rap had taken over so intensively.
Now, many different types of music are being developed, but when I first got there my expectations of the diversity of the music scenes there were blown out. I was surprised that a country that small could have a hundred different languages all these different kinds of musical activity going on. I was also so overwhelmed by the generosity and kindness of people who answered my many questions about what they were doing and what kind of music they were into.
Overall did you find it a positive experience with people appreciating you being there and what you were doing?
Oh for sure. As once you start trying to speak the language of the country you are in, people really appreciate that and that opens a door to a tonne of learning experiences. Everyone I met in Ghana was very welcoming and open to sharing information with me. I would be on a bus and go like “yo what song is this?”, but then also when I was doing research for my grant to study hip-hop, I was asking all these questions to lecturers, musicians and DJs, and they were just very very into sharing this information with an outsider.
People dig Americans and foreigners, also as a music guy I was bringing information about music from back home, which a lot of young people and rappers were really curious about.
That’s interesting did you bring music from abroad to them as well as learning from them?
Yeah I actually bought a tonne of records back in 2004/2005, before the massive boom of collecting African vinyl. I went there but I didn’t have like a dream of collecting vinyl as I’ve always been obsessed with tapes, which was also the best way for me to do my research as that was what the rappers were putting their music on at the time. But I bought a tonne of records – everything from Nas to the Chi-Lights to share with people, I traded them with three or four different dudes who had old West African records. I wanted to drop off cool American music on vinyl, although I only found about four people who even had record players.
Of the musicians you met out there, are there any who particularly stood out and intrigued you?
There are so many characters in so many places but there was this guy Kiki, who is a rapper from Accra. He never got really famous but he always had this crew that were fashioned after Wu Tang. It also wasn’t the only crew I met around Southern Ghana that were fashioned after Wu Tang Clan; 8 or 10 guys from the same school and grade, who met at school and were rapping out in the school yard.
There is this huge gulf between people who are really talented and able to scrape together enough to record a full album and release it, and the people who can release a record AND get it played on the radio – thereby becoming a known entity. For every recording you find on the market or hear on the radio in a country like Ghana or Nigeria, there are dozens of others who are recording music but stay underground. Kiki and his crew aren’t super famous but everyone in their neighbourhood knows them. They make hip-life dancey music, but influenced by pan African political stuff. There are a bunch of crews like this and they’re really impressive. They’re getting older now but still putting out stuff, although its shifted from tapes and CDs to the digital realm.
What do you think makes for that difference, between someone making good music and then actually ‘making it’ in music?
Oh its all about money. People don’t get a chance to play their music on the radio and get promoted unless you have a producer behind you who’s going to put in the money to getting you on the radio – you have to pay DJs to play your music in Ghana. In other places you’ll get musicians who are just interested in playing at weddings and don’t really care about being on the radio or making CDs. But for Ghanaian rappers it’s all about getting advertising deals – so you just have to be this well known person and you get well known by having in-roads. If you’re just an underground guy, like some bands where we’re from who know how to make records but don’t know the first thing about getting it in the magazine or on Pitchfork, they wont make it. Or if you don’t know anything but have thousands of pounds and can hire a publicist then suddenly your shit gets reviewed. For most musicians in Ghana it’s just not possible.
How much do musicians there have access to the Internet and are they able to raise their profile in that way?
I think that the Internet has created a lot of opportunities both in the countries around Africa, but also to get people known outside. In the same way it’s become a saturated market on our side, it’s the same over there. You can just easily get lost in the mix. You can put out records all day long and have them featured on YouTube or iTunes but unless a whole bunch of stuff comes together in a perfect storm, where you have fans and they all hear about this record – you’re not really going to sell much. In doing Awesome Tapes From Africa, I’ve found a way to take the people who’ve been checking out the blog all these years and show them stuff that’s available for sale in collaboration with the artist, so the artist can have a more direct avenue with fans who would pay money for their stuff. It’s a small project that I wish was on a larger scale. There’s just very little opportunity of distribution, physically or digitally, for artists in Africa to get their stuff to neighbouring countries let alone Belgium, New Zealand and Japan.
Are there many local labels in Ghana?
Yes and no, they don’t really function like they do here, developing their brand and signing artists. It’s more that producers and managers work with artists on an individual basis. Some producers might have a few artists they work with, or studios who work with a specific coral of rappers and singers, but there’s not the same kind of label scene in Ghana. In the past there was more but now its like everyman for himself.
From a personal perspective, what was your greatest lesson having been to Ghana and West Africa
My greatest lesson was that no matter how difficult things are or how challenging a task may be, there is always a way to be positive and resilient in figuring out a solution. The folks I’ve been hanging out with in west Africa are just super-positive, “make happen”, do it yourself kind-of people. It was very inspiring.
Having initially not been to Africa and then spending quite a bit of time there, are there any aspects of Ghanaian and West African culture that you think is misinterpreted by Western media?
I knew so little before I went but I think Western media in general give off the sense that people are living in a very isolated manner, but actually they are more conscious of our politics and goings-on than we are in many cases. Plus they are highly conscious of the happenings in their neck of the woods. So, I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that people who live in developing countries are disconnected from the newest reality and gadgets that we have.
Turning to the blog and the Awesome Tapes From Africa project, as well as providing music on a pure-listening basis, is there anything else you wanted your readers to take away from your work?
I wanted people to know that there was a tonne of different stuff happening creatively and talent wise. For people to know that Africa is a massive place filled with many, many different countries that all are completely diverse, and that each of these regions and neighbourhoods have different music and are all so interesting. This music deserves to be included in the global conversation about music, culture and the arts, and have access to our markets and our listening spheres.
When people are sensitive to musical appropriation and object to people playing stuff which isn’t of their own heritage, what do you think?
I just think DJs shouldn’t have to explain the music they play. Full stop. Anywhere in the world that I’ve been – and I’ve heard people of all shapes and sizes playing music of all musical types – I’ve never felt it necessary or appropriate or even rational to be like “why is this Chinese guy playing Beyonce?”. It’s just stupid and it doesn’t make sense to me. As a Chicagoan, I don’t get my panties in a twist when I go to Germany and everyone is playing house music and they’re not from Chicago; they’re not gay Puerto Rican kids from the south side so they don’t ‘get it’. Whatever.
Though I know white people playing African music is much weightier and I completely respect that, but at the same time I feel like DJing music and if you’re DJing it in a respectful way, then c’est la.
Do you think politics plays a role in music or they should be separate?
I think politics definitely plays a role in music and I would never try to diminish that. But in terms of how one frames the music they’re involved in, then its up to that person how political they try to make it. Me personally, the way I present music is more or less meant to be a-political, in that the music speaks for itself and I would never try to project meaning on someone else’s musical compositions. I just don’t find it that provocative for a white Jewish person to play music of any ilk.
How have the musicians you’ve met and the artists you’ve promoted for your blog responded to what you’re doing?
Everybody that I’ve talked to has been really happy, especially the artists on the label because they are getting paid every 6 months and they’re all getting exposure and having their songs featured. It’s going really well and I’ve created a lot of opportunities for a lot of the artist, also become de facto-manager for a lot of them. I’ve managed to help a lot of the artist on the label have opportunities to tour and have their songs placed in various productions, which pays more money than selling records these days. It’s been a matter of getting their music included in the global system.
What’s next for you? Are there any other cultures or specific countries that you feel you don’t know much about and are keen to explore?
The African continent is so massive and so diverse, which I guess has been the theme of the conversation so far, and I would add to that by saying that there are many, many countries whose music has not been distributed widely. Places like Chad, Djibouti, Gabon, people outside haven’t taken an interest. I would say that there is a tonnes of music that I would love to learn about here and perhaps help release. Its been so fun to meet and work with the artists I’ve met, and if I get the time and money to go to more countries, hear their music and find ways to work with brilliant artists that would be my dream scenario. That’s the hope for the future. I want to keep doing what I am doing and learn how to do it better and find people to help work with me, because I’m just doing it mostly by myself.
Will it always be Awesome Tapes From Africa or do you think you will explore other countries?
I don’t really feel like I need to go do like Awesome Tapes From Argentina or anything. People have suggested a lot and I’ve thought about it a lot over the years but not recently, I just feel like there is so much going on in Africa that I could never get sick of it. It’s almost pretentious to be like “oh cool I’m all set, I already know everything about Africa, now I’m going to go do Awesome Tapes From Australia”. I just feel there is so much more I have to learn.
Do you think you would take some time out from DJing to spend an extended time out there in the future?
Absolutely! I’m completely overwhelmed with spending way too much time in Europe and not enough time in Africa itself. But the bottom line for me is that I don’t have enough money and the only way I can keep the project going is to keep playing shows and keep spreading the word about it. If I was independently wealthy you wouldn’t even hear about me. I would just be going on trips to Africa all the time. I don’t want to complain though, I am very fortunate and it’s been very fun.