It’s 9pm on a Tuesday night in the Ghanaian city of Kumasi and somebody’s phone is ringing.
The owner of the phone has spent six hours of his day running, lifting weights, perfecting dance routines, singing and rapping. He has been doing this every day for several weeks and is in good shape, getting ready to take his music on tour for the first time ever.
Yaw Atta-Owusu has been waiting a long time this opportunity. Going by the stage name Ata Kak, he released his debut album Oba Sima (translated in English as “ideal woman”) in the nineties but, for over ten years, only a few people heard it.
He picks up the phone. The Ghanaian phone line is crackly, but there is no wi-fi in his house so there’s no alternative form of communication. He steps outside to ensure the signal is good enough for him to be heard clearly.
“My life has changed a lot recently,” he tells me. “For a while I was unemployed. Financially, I’m okay now and I’m optimistic about the future. It’s getting much better and this tour has brightened my life. Before, I didn’t have much hope, but now I can laugh.”
Ata Kak’s music is one on its own: a frenetic mix of skittish rapping and offbeat singing in Kwi (one of Ghana’s seven languages) with moments of 90’s organ-tinged house, along with some of the most infectious elements of West African highlife music and eighties disco. It wasn’t until 2002, when DJ and ethnomusicologist Brian Shimkowitz stumbled upon a cassette tape of Oba Sima in Ghana, did Ata Kak’s music reach the spotlight it deserved. This discovery marked the genesis of Shimkowitz’s blog, Awesome Tapes From Africa (AFTA), which specialises in finding obscure cassette tapes from Africa and introducing them to a wider audience.
Four years after the blog was started, AFTA became a record label and Shimkowitz started doing DJ sets under the same name. Now in its tenth year and, after Shimkowitz spent eight years trying to track Atta-Owusu down, the label has something particularly special to celebrate: Ata Kak going on his first ever international tour, 25 years after releasing his only album.
“Ata Kak’s recording is really the whole manifesto for the Awesome Tapes from Africa project,” Shimkowitz tells me. “It’s a crucial part of everything that I’m doing and I’m super proud that we’re able to get Ata Kak to perform overseas.”
Throughout the summer, he will play at several festivals around Europe including London’s Field Day, Sonar in Barcelona, Strange Sounds From Beyond in Amsterdam and Flow Festival in Helsinki. It will also mark Atta-Owusu’s first time in Europe since he lived in Germany for three years in the late eighties. Not only is it his first tour he’s ever done, it’ll pretty much mark his first proper live shows.
“I have never done a live performance in Ghana,” he says. “When I was in Canada I only did one, but it wasn’t like a party… it wasn’t with a lot of people around.” This gig also involved him singing over a cassette tape, rather than playing with a live band. But things are different on his tour, where he has a synthesiser and keyboard to play and a live band supporting him.
Ata Kak has a mixture of musical influences, including Michael Jackson, Grandmaster Flash, “but I also like hiplife and still listen to the typical highlife music, like Nana Kwame Ampadu and CK Mann.” When Atta-Owusu moved to Germany, he discovered reggae music and he admits that Bob Marley is “also one of my favourites. Peter Tosh and Gregory Isaacs too. When I went to Canada, I got back into highlife again and, after a while, I switched to the type of music I make.”
Atta-Owusu eats a mainly vegetarian diet made from food around his house and in his garden, which provides a good diet for his daily tour preparation. “I’ve been singing very hard, everyday,” he tells me. “I need up to six hours’ training each day, because I cannot take this tour for granted.” With an understated optimism he remarks how “it’s going to get better”, referring to his pre-tour conditioning. “From now, up to the time I get to London, I’m going to be getting in shape, through running and singing, dancing, doing everything in preparation for the tour.” It’s clearly something Atta-Owusu has meticulously planned, with the precision of a professional athlete. “When you’re on stage, it’s not just a matter of singing, it involves a lot of other things. And that’s why I’m trying hard just to make the show lively.”
Qu Junktions, the UK agency who has also worked with Omar Souleyman, approached Atta-Owusu and Shimkowitz to suggest organising this tour for Ata Kak.“It was really them who came to us and I didn’t haven’t to twist Yaw’s arm at all”, Shmkovitz recounts, “he’s happy to come overseas and present the music, after all these years. And like he said, you want to work and if you don’t have a job, this is a great job.” Getting the necessary visas to play the tour was quite a lengthy process but there weren’t any obvious problems. “In Africa, it’s quite different to what happens in America or Europe, and sometimes it can be difficult, but so far, it’s been good for me,” Yaw says.
I ask Shimkowitz how the reaction has been to the inaugural Ata Kak tour. “There seems to be a lot of anticipation, just judging from messages on social media. A lot of people in the music industry are asking what it’s going to sound like.” It should be something novel for concert goers as well. Ata Kak’s genre-crossing music carries a joyous feeling and is likely to pack a punch in a live setting.
Atta-Owusu doesn’t seem nervous about the tour, despite not even being that well known in his home country. “In Ghana, I’m not that popular,” he admits, “but I hope to change that later on. I may have a tour here and probably the rest of Africa too. But for me, the bigger the crowds, the better it is,” he says, with a brazen laugh.
Not intent for this to be the first and last Ata Kak tour, Atta-Owusu displays a resilience of an ageing sportsman still in their prime. “I want to continue touring as long as the opportunity presents itself,” he says. He might not have to wait too long, as Shimkowitz is looking for other opportunities later in the year for Ata Kak to perform on bills that include other Awesome Tapes from Africa artists such as Hailu Mergia and DJ Katapilla. “I’m hoping to reach a wider audience and to record even more songs in the future”, he tells me, with an undeniable excitement. “This is just the beginning. The future is great.”