Awesome Tapes From Africa: An Interview with Brian Shimkovitz

Brian Shimkovitz has spent the last decade building Awesome Tapes From Africa from a small blog into a record label. Along the way, Shimkowitz has toured as a DJ and organised tours for a number of artists whose music the label has released. What emerged from our converstation, more than anything else, was that it is impossible to boil Awesome Tapes From Africa down to one thing – to isolate any one part of the project is to underestimate how much Awesome Tapes From Africa is doing, and how important it is.

 

 

Shimkovitz is keen to describe Awesome Tapes From Africa as a “tiny, tiny development project”. The majority of African musicians are barely able to make money for their art: the way the music industry is structured in many African states leads to artists selling rights to their music, limiting their potential of gaining a long-term income from their music. Awesome Tapes From Africa, in contrast, structures payments so artists are paid an initial lump sum, and given subsequent payments of 50 percent of royalties from sales paid every six months. Large payments, say from music being played in films, are also paid directly to the artists. Shimkovitz therefore sees Awesome Tapes From Africa as a means of surgically inserting cash into artists’ families, separate from large organisations, such as UNICEF, whose focus is on funding local government organisations.

So Awesome Tapes From Africa can be seen as a development project. But the label is not just Shimkovitz’s work. Rather, it is also the work of artists whose music is released through the label. For Shimkovitz, it would be a success for  Awesome Tapes from Africa if journalists go directly the artists who are releasing music. Shimkovitz expressed mild disbelief as he commented, “People hit me up and ask to contribute to a retrospective piece of someone I’ve published, and its like, well why don’t you go and talk to them?” He goes on to emphasise that interviews with musicians pick up on what the music really means, and fully admits that “unless you go and eat the food and speak the language and poop in the toilets, you don’t really have too much of a sense of what that music means”.

The lack of direct interviews with musicians who have had music published through Awesome Tapes From Africa is particularly interesting, given part of the interest around the project stems from the stories of artists published through the label. The most well-known instance of this is Hailu Mergia, an Ethiopian musician who spent decades working as a taxi-driver in America. The artist decided to stay in the country after his band toured there in the early 80’s. Mergia is now having his tapes reissued on the Awesome Tapes record label and is in the middle of a tour. It is this depth which, as Shimkovitz highlights, is often missing from the stories of young indie bands that feeds into the recorded music and the performances of the musicians, ultimately making the music richer.

For Shimkovitz, these stories separate records on the Awesome Tapes From Africa label from compilations of country, or time-specific music, as “compilations very clumsily create artificial scenes and movements. Telling the story is important because otherwise it’s just 12 songs you’ve picked.” There is a conscious push to present the music as it is, not to put on “new album art to make it look cool for people in Newcastle, [or to] do a re-edit so the dudes in Stockholm don’t feel uncomfortable”. Shimkovitz further feels that presenting the music faithfully to the original avoids certain issues of domination seen recently in African music with artists such as Tinariwen. The artists’ “message gets garbled, the message gets mainstreamed” in order to be accommodated within the dominant view of African music in a European context, or to fit in with marketing from larger record companies, imposing meaning on to the music.

Beyond deepening the meaning of the music, or even just allowing the original meaning to come through, the stories have two other important functions. The stories help bring down African music from being perceived as ‘exotic’ to “living music, done by a living human… but who just lives in a very different place”. Shimkovitz says that he “used to go around thinking that America was so enlightened and that we were almost post-racial and then Trayvon Martin happened”. The reality of entrenched views about race and cultural difference cuts of an essential part of the Awesome Tapes From Africa project. The perceived differences develop a kind of othering – of mystifying foreign music into something fundamentally different to “our” music – with musical cultures that are from a non-North American/European background. As such, there is a desire to ensure music is seen as music, regardless of its origins, at the heart of Awesome Tapes From Africa.

Second, the stories help prevent an artificial tale of African music as newly globalised, that only with the introduction of the Internet have the majority of African musicians begun to engage with the wider world of music. Such a narrative ignores the fact of colonialism and the corresponding cultural interaction, including music, alongside other cultural encounters: Shimkovitz tells of the merging of Ghanaian Highlife and the disco music of 1980’s Hamburg due to the migration of a number of Ghanaian musicians, and how, to this day, this has left a form of music called “Bergerhighlife” in Ghana.

The relationship between globalisation and Awesome Tapes From Africa is an interesting one. Shimkovitz says that:

when [I] was in college, globalisation was a dirty word, but then I realised that as I started to leave the university, leave this gilded world, and go to [the] developing world and I started to realise that what globalisation actually means on the ground. Its not all bad, you realise that Africans are kept out of this circle that you have.

The “circle” is a group which holds power, and, in our digital age, access to technology. Shimkovitz recognises that globalisation can lead to a homogenisation of culture, primarily around European and North American cultures, but strongly believes that “globalisation can be fought with globalisation”. Awesome Tapes From Africa engages in this fight by allowing voices that are threatened to be subsumed under that process of a homogenisation of global culture a sustainable platform to express themselves.

This final point returns to where the interview started: namely, the importance of Awesome Tapes From Africa working as a tiny development project, as something which inserts money into communities, ensuring they have the means to create and digitally disseminate their music. What comes across when talking Shimkovitz is that, more than anything else, is that Awesome Tapes From Africa cannot just be boiled down to just one thing. Yes, it is a tiny development project, but it’s also a record label and a DJ act. When talking to Shimkovitz though, what it appears to unite this project  is to give people the chance to communicate through music- it’s about expanding the circle of people who can talk to us through music, and expanding the circle of people who get to listen to those speaking.