In 2001, Brian Shimkovitz was a young jazz fanatic in his second year of studying ethnomusicology at Indiana University. He had never left the United States before a research trip that year sent him across the Atlantic to Ghana.
Back at home he’d been an avid collector of used cassettes, ranging from the jazz he’d studied as a drummer, to hip-hop, funk, and house music. Wandering the streets of Ghana, he found himself surrounded by a living cassette culture – tapes were the main way people bought and sold music. For Shimkovitz, each tape promised something new, and he quickly became obsessed.
Shimkovitz, now in his mid-30s, says the transition from rooting in crates in Chicago to browsing market stalls in Accra was perfectly natural.
“That’s what I’d always done, accumulating a lot of tapes,” he says, speaking from his current base in Hamburg. “So it was like, wow, I’m in this place where the cassette is still the main thing, and that’s almost 90 per cent of the music that you come across there. That’s why I never considered myself a ‘digger’ in the way that people are, I’ve always just been really into going to music shops and buying music. When I first started doing it, you didn’t have to dig for it.”
Started a blog
Over the following years, Shimkovitz would return repeatedly, gathering more tapes and exploring the various genres and scenes that produced them. In 2006, he started a blog called Awesome Tapes From Africa. It did exactly what it said on the tin: Shimkovitz posted his favourite discoveries, just straight MP3 files of cassettes he’d recorded himself, with a picture of the artwork. Nothing fancy. An audience quickly developed, listening, discussing and sharing the music.
“I was actually really surprised by how popular the blog became, because I didn’t think so many people would be interested in music that’s so different to what they’re used to, and in languages they’ll probably never learn,” says Shimkovitz. “I think the blog evolved parallel to a wider evolution in people’s tastes in music, because now here we are, more than 10 years after I started the blog, and there’s just a ton of labels doing a ton of music that is from every corner of the world. Nowadays, people have a ton of crazy compilations from all different necks of the woods. Soundtracks, experimental music, contemporary classical music, electronic music.... Music is exciting these days and it’s cool that people are checking it all out.”
Many of the things I get excited about are things that have been on Youtube for eight or 10 years
Listening to Shimkovitz, it’s clear that he’s never left the simple pleasures of hearing new sounds behind. It’s been six years since his blog turned into a record label of the same name, in 2011, but he retains a boyish enthusiasm for the unheard, those artists and sounds which are still unknown him. So much, he says, is simply hidden in plain sight.
“Every day I’m on Youtube just coming across the most insane, interesting things that have always been there, just sitting there,” he says, almost in disbelief. “Many of the things I get excited about are things that have been on Youtube for eight or 10 years. I’m just like, damn, all this stuff is just there and I’m just at home watching Stranger Things or something.”
With the Awesome Tapes From Africa record label, Shimkovitz took the slightly unusual route of reissuing the works of African artists in full, without modification. At a time when compilations – good and bad – are big business, Shimkovitz felt certain his role was less about curation and more about amplification.
“The blog, from almost the very beginning – it was important to me to pick out entire recordings because I didn’t want to be a selector,” he says. “I didn’t want to say, these are the two or three tracks that I think are important. I wanted to present the music as the artist presented it, in that context.
I'm aware that there's a certain percentage of people that are never going to be OK with the work I'm doing here, and that's just the nature of the world we're living in
“In order to not have my foreign, American, white privileged fingerprints all over it, I just wanted to have the complete recording with the original album art and not change it at all. Let it speak for itself. So when I started the label, it made sense to do the same thing. I choose to focus on recordings that are really, really good from start to finish and tell an important story.”
Open to criticism
Even without his fingerprints on the music, sharing and selling the work of African musicians has left Shimkovitz open to criticism – he’s a white American guy making money, and making a career for himself, out of the work of black musicians. The financial organisation of the label is very transparent and straightforward, with artists seeing 50 per cent of all profits, but the criticisms remain.
“I’m aware that there’s a certain percentage of people that are never going to be OK with the work I’m doing here, and that’s just the nature of the world we’re living in,” says Shimkovitz. “But I have good relationships with all the artists I’m working with, and everyone is doing well, so I think the project overall contributes to making the market for African music that people pay for larger. Even if it is run by a white person.
“It’s something I think about every day and I’m conscious of it [in almost] everything I do. But I feel that the positive benefits to the artists and to the wider world of documenting interesting music that hasn’t been given a wider broadcast – I think it’s worth it.”
In recent years, the added exposure from Shimkovitz’s label has allowed artists such as Ata Kak and DJ Katapila to tour across world. Shimkovitz himself has become a presence on the global DJ circuit, taking to the stage with a box of cassettes and a pair of tape decks. He plays the original cassettes from his collection, blending high energy dancefloor sounds with more unexpected acoustic and traditional music.
DJing is as far as he takes it though. Despite his background as a musician himself, when I wonder whether Shimkovitz has ever had the urge to collaborate with the artists he releases – either in the role of producer, as Mark Ernestus has done recently with Senegalese musicians, or as a drummer – his response is refreshingly direct.
“Oh fuck no! No, no, no. I don’t have anything to say, musically, so I don’t want to contribute to anything. I just want to hear the people I admire do their best. I’m just a huge fanboy grown into a professional fanboy. It’s pretty sick.”