Brian Shimkovitz began Awesome Tapes From Africa (ATFA) as a way to share the compelling tapes he found crate digging around Ghana. This eventually evolved beyond the blogosphere and into a fully functional record label that provides a platform for these unknown musicians and their recordings to breathe new life and keep the sounds of those funky grooves in circulation. Ahead of his show tomorrow at Dada, we spoke to him about the evolution of the project and the difficulties that DJing with tapes can pose.

What motivated you to search out African music and what were your initial aims for the blog?
I initially wanted to make a blog that had music that my friends would not hear anywhere else. I began looking for African tapes during my first trip to Ghana in 2002, as I am obsessive about music collecting and tapes were the main things at the time. When searching for a tape, is it always random or are you ever looking for something specific? I am often looking for a specific genre or song style or language, but most of the time I end up receiving or finding a bunch of tapes and sorting through them to find the ones I enjoy.

What’s some of your criteria for purchase? Is the artwork a big part of the selection process?
Sometimes the artwork stands out and I have to buy the tape. Although that can be hit or miss for sure. So the good thing about buying tapes in markets in Africa is that the shopkeepers usually let you listen before you buy!

Is this something you’ll be doing for a while, or do you feel like eventually you’ll move on to a different continent?
I am so into African music (and most music, really) and I definitely need to hear a lot more sounds from various countries I’ve never visited. I don’t really plan on expanding to other continents as far as a project like this. I’ve heard that you have over 4,000 tapes in your collection thus far.

How do you organize this massive collection? 
The collection is quite massive and lives in 3-4 different cities so it is highly disorganized. Once I finally settle in one place to live I will begin to sort it into a system and try to digitize most of it. I am still finding more music to add!

At what point did you decide to take Awesome Tapes on the road and play the music you’ve been collecting in a live setting?
Well, the funny thing is I never meant to be a DJ and I never imagined ATFA the blog as anything more than that. But a few years ago in about 2009 or 2010 people began to ask me a lot about gigs and I got an agent in Europe. From 2011, I decided to quit my job because I had started the label and realized there was no way to do it right without spending all my time on it. I am very low on money because of this, but I am happy doing something interesting and rewarding.

You DJ with cassettes, which obviously causes its share of logistical and technical problems. Are tapes worth the effort?
DJing tapes is super fun but yeah kind of not the most efficient. I like how it sounds and I like the feel of mixing on tapes, once the vibe is right and I am getting into the set, there is a really good, hard to describe feeling of playing powerful sounds out of cassette decks on a big system. The tapes keep me busy the whole time because I have to cue up to the song (or the point in the middle of a song) I want to play. I do not plan the sets beforehand or rewind/fast forward the tapes in advance.

Do you make backup copies of your favorite tapes in case they get destroyed while playing them live?
I do not make copies of the tapes and I play only the originals. I am into preserving but more into having the music sound great and feeling like I am playing the real thing. I am not into tapes turning into this vinyl thing where people are trading them for hundreds of dollars on eBay… They are meant to be played!

What tracks on the Awesome Tapes From Africa blog would be on your make-out mix?

“Baby making music” is a special thing and I have always thought of it as being American R&B slow jams. However, if I had to make an ATFA make out mix it would definitely include something from Boubacar Traore’s tape, which is among my favorites, as well as something from Getachew Mekurya’s saxophone and drum machine tape of mellow tunes, and finally something from Egyptian songstress Shadia.

In the 80s and 90s, there was a huge cassette culture here in Beijing and throughout China. Any chance you’ll be hunting for tapes while in Asia?

I lived in Bangkok for a year in 2003 and while I was there I found many tapes. I am in love with Chinese traditional and folk music, especially from the interior and western provinces so I will hopefully have time to find some music around China while I am visiting.

Make sure to catch Brian Shimkovitz and his Awesome Tapes from Africa on tomorrow (Mar 19) at Dada and grip some more of his tracks via Soundcloud.

Images: multimedia.pol.dk, ATFA Blog


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