We live in an age of digital transparency. When it comes to the way we listen to and interpret music, the so-called ‘digital revolution’ has been essential in exposing listeners everywhere to traditional and contemporary forms of music from around the world. Exciting and often long-forgotten threads of music-making are cropping up everywhere in digital and physical form on the international stage. Perhaps nowhere has this recent trend been more evident than in the music coming out of Africa these days. One of the key figures leading the charge in documenting local music scenes from across the African continent is Brian Shimkovitz.
Simply put, Shimkovitz is the J Dilla of African cassettes. He may not produce innovative sample-based hip hop like the great Jay Dee once did, but he is still every bit as influential when it comes to the world music scene today. A native of the Chicago area, Shimkovitz heads up the popular L.A.-based blog and record label Awesome Tapes from Africa (ATFA). He launched the project in April, 2006 as a way of using the instant transmission and crowd-sourcing powers of the Internet as a way of promoting the lives and works of small-time African artists. In a recent essay published by British music journal The Wire, Shimkovitz gave his mission statement for the label, saying, “I started ATFA as a way to make artefacts available from the cassette-based music economy I have encountered around Africa.”
Most of the singles, EPs, and albums ATFA releases are excellent. In particular, I thoroughly enjoyed Shimkovitz’s reissue of a self-titled cassette by Malian vocalist Bintou Sidibe. Originally released in 1993 off the Liberian label Super Sound, ATFA’s treatment of Sidibe’s record comes with a careful description of the history and cultural context of her music. Without Shimkovitz’s liner notes on the album, I probably wouldn’t have been aware that Bintou Sidibe led a successful career as a singer in the Wassoulou style of West African popular music.
Another great record in the catalogue of tapes put out by ATFA was their re-printing of Volume 5, an album released in 1987 by the legendary Somali funk group Dur-Dur Band. Recorded at Radio Mogadishu, Dur-Dur Band’s music is simple and laid-back, a joyful sound intended to bring about transcendental moments of dance and release in the heat of the groove—very highly recommended.
In all, perhaps the most impressive aspect of Awesome Tapes is two-fold: not only does Shimkovitz’s modest self-run label release authentic, high-resolution editions of original recordings nearly lost to the world, but it does so at a startlingly fast rate. ATFA’s catalogues of brilliant archival recordings are updated once or twice a month on average. This label is truly the result of Shimkovitz’s lifelong passion for experiencing the depth and breadth of local African music. It also reflects his deeply held commitment to making beautiful, engaging music available to anyone in this age of digital transparency.