In the pantheon of great self-explanatory names, Awesome Tapes From Africa ranks with Ol’ Dirty Bastard or André the Giant. Its mission can be encapsulated in a few words.
The stories behind the blog-turned–record label are more labyrinthine. It starts with ATFA founder Brian Shimkovitz spending a year in Ghana on a Fulbright scholarship studying “hip-life” — a combination of highlife and rap music done in local languages. While trawling the Gold Coast, the former Indiana University ethnomusicology student amassed a treasure trove of cassettes rarely heard by Western ears.
Shortly after the program ended, Shimkovitz moved to New York for a job in music publicity. He quickly realized that he needed a hobby.
“Instead of going to Brooklyn bars, I mostly just listened to those tapes,” Shimkovitz says in his downtown L.A. studio loft. Filled with old records and travel almanacs, the loft doubles as ATFA’s international headquarters.
“It was extremely spontaneous,” the bespectacled 34-year-old adds. “I just told my roommate, ‘I’m going to start a blog and post all this music on it and I’m going to call it Awesome Tapes From Africa.’”
Founded in 2006, the site immediately became a must-bookmark for anyone interested in obscure Ethio-jazz and Nigerian Jùjú, Tanzanian taarab and tsapiky from Madagascar.
The tapes lived up to the blog’s hyperbolic title and found a cult audience. European strangers started mailing Shimkovitz boxes of rare cassettes. Friends returned from L.A. with plunder from Little Ethiopia. The Chicago native personally combed mom ’n’ pop shops in Paris, Brussels and London.
ATFA became an indispensable archive for African music from the 1970s to the present, encompassing all regions. Shimkovitz became the blog era’s closest analog to famed blues and roots folklorist Alan Lomax.
Decamping to Berlin, Shimkovitz left his publicist job to focus on DJing and the label. Since its first 2011 release, ATFA has re-pressed the finest tapes from his collection on vinyl, cassette and CD. Each arrives with original packaging, artwork and the occasional remix bonus track.
In 2013, Shimkovitz moved to L.A. and expanded the imprint’s slate to several albums a year. He still DJs frequently and hosts a monthly dublab radio show.
The label’s nature requires him to be an amateur sleuth — tracking down reclusive musicians, wrangling translators and ensuring that the artists receive proper remuneration.
“I’ve practically had to stalk people,” he jokes, as his cat, Larry, bounds around the apartment.
The next ATFA release represents a holy grail. Since first discovering it in a roadside stall in Cape Coast, Ghana, Shimkovitz has been obsessed with an early ’90s hip-life tape from Ata Kak.
“I bought it spontaneously because the cover was unreal. It’s the original one I discovered and the inspiration for the blog — the emblematic awesome tape from Africa,” Shimkovitz says of Obaa Sima, which he’ll release on March 3.
“It’s lo-fi and DIY, yet encapsulates everything important in modern Ghanaian music,” Shimkovitz explains. “Plus, it was made by a guy no one had ever heard of. No information on the Internet. The phone number on the cover led nowhere. He was a complete mystery.”
Determined to find the tape’s creator before reissuing it, Shimkovitz blindly booked a flight to Toronto, where Ata Kak had been living during the album’s conception. While he cold-called local businesses and knocked on doors in Ghanaian neighborhoods, a BBC reporter shadowing Shimkovitz for a radio documentary managed to contact the musician’s son via Facebook.
Several months later, the world can hear what it almost lost.
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”The Western music industry doesn’t reflect all the brilliant things that are happening in Africa,” Shimkovitz says, summarizing his mission. “I want to help that music gain access to our marketplace and help people understand exactly how creative and interesting African music is.”