In advance of his trip to Trabolgan, the man behind Awesome Tapes From Africa tells Ellie O’Byrne about his quest to spread the word on the continent’s rarest music.
He was the musical legend who gave it all up to drive a taxi. Hailu Mergia hadn’t performed for over 20 years when Brian Shimkovitz tracked him down, not in his native Ethiopia, but in Washington DC.
Mergia was the virtuoso keyboard and accordion player with The Walia Band, darlings of the belle époque of Ethiojazz in the 1970s. But when half the band absconded to the US during the bloody days of Mengistu’s
communist regime, Mergia recorded a last solo album Stateside in 1985 before calling it a day and becoming a cabbie.
Blogger turned record label owner and DJ Shimkovitz — playing the It Takes A Village festival in Co Cork next month — was on one of his customary crate-digging sessions on a visit to Ethiopia when he stumbled upon a tape: the 1985 solo album, Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument.
Mergia was a popular figure in Ethiopian music, and hardly unknown, but this was unlike anything Shimkovitz had heard.
“I was obsessed with this one record that seemed so distinctive; none of the music nerds had been talking about it online,” Shimkovitz says. “
Last year Mergia released Lalu Belu, his first album in 30 years, on Shimkovitz’s Awesome Tapes From Africa label, and has been touring
For Shimkovitz, googling the name of a musician he wants to work with and finding a cell-phone number is a rare stroke of luck. The founder of Awesome Tapes From Africa (ATFA), Shimkovitz has embarked on some epic quests to connect with
musicians from the African continent, inspired by his desire to share the diverse and under-explored world of African cassette culture with global audiences.
ATFA issues rereleases of out-of-print cassettes from African musicians and bands and offers a 50/50 deal to the musicians it works with. But hunting down artists in countries with varying levels of internet and telecommunications access, sometimes in regions with politically troubled pasts and issues of poverty and inequality, can be no mean feat.
His first ever hunt for a musician, Ghanaian rapper Ata Kak, took nearly 10 years.
The Chicagoan fell in love with the “frenetic leftfield rap madness” of the elusive Ata Kak’s sole album, Obaa Sima, in 2002, while living in Ghana. Earlier, he had earned himself a Fulbright scholarship to the West African country while studying ethnomusicology.
But it was a decade later, in a West African grocery store in Toronto, that Shimkovitz managed to find someone who knew Yaw Atta-Owusu, AKA Ata Kak; following a stint living in Canada, the self-taught musician had retired to Ghana and put his musical career behind him.
Like Mergia, Atta-Owusu’s album re-release on Shimkovitz’s label has rejuvenated his career and given him an appreciative audience in the US and Europe. And it was Ata Kak’s unique DIY hip hop that launched Shimkovitz’s own career; enthused, he began a blog called Awesome Tapes From Africa, which morphed into a fully-fledged record label and DJing gigs.
ATFA DJ sets are a turntable-free affair: Shimkovitz DJs on cassette. This is no hipster gimmick, but a way of exposing US and European audiences to his eminently danceable finds in their original format.
“I learned how to use pitch control and blend beats for the dance floor, even though people were saying, ‘Why would you DJ from cassette, it’s harder and it’s not what people do,’” he says.
“It totally seems to work and I’m having a lot of fun doing it. The music I’m playing is music a lot of people haven’t heard before.
Like many thirtysomethings, Shimkovitz retains a soft spot for cassettes, having grown up with them. But his appreciation of the format is practical as well as nostalgic, he says.
“I love the cassette but I’m not a hard-core proselytiser; it’s not some kind of uber-medium and I don’t think everything should be on cassette, but I do really love the mass-produced, democratic nature of these small, affordable pieces of art.”
Vinyl production stopped in Africa in the 1980s, and for a period of time, the cassette ruled. Tapes were king in Africa for a lot of the same reasons that they were favoured by global DIY, punk and underground scenes.
“For me, the tape is durable, logical, easy to keep clean and pass around and trade, and it was easy to play on a lot of the second-hand vehicles that were around,” he says.
Making sure artists have access to a fair deal is hugely important to
Shimkovitz, who says the 50/50 split he offers is a risk-free deal for artists whose work otherwise either won’t reach a global audience or, these days, will be uploaded to YouTube, where it is unmonetizable for the musician.
“I don’t offer 360 deals like the big labels, where they get a split of the money from touring and even merch,” he says. “What I offer is an old-school punk rock deal. And I always give an advance up-front, so the artist knows I’m not trying to steal their music.
As a continent that has been roundly exploited by colonial forces, Africa still battles to regain control of its own natural resources and wealth.
Some people may balk at the neo-colonial implications of seeing wealthy white audiences grooving merrily away to Shimkovitz’s finds: is this just a new form of plunder?
He says the answer to the cultural appropriation debate is to present the music in its original, rather than as samples and remixes, and that his DJ sets help grow an avid audience for musicians themselves to capitalise on.
“A part of me feels it can be quite problematic, but a bigger part of me just feels that all musicians want their music to be heard and enjoyed at the end of the day,” he says.
“The musicians I’ve met all always tell me they want people to enjoy their music and they’re happy that foreigners are grabbing on to it; they want help and assistance from their governments and communities and musicians’ unions and fans to get their music heard.
“To me, the thing that plays against the neo-colonialism risk is to let the music speak for itself in its original format. If I can put as few finger prints on the project as possible, that’s best. I just want to take something that already exists in a brilliant way and open the door to other audiences to access it.”