Label Of The Week – Awesome Tapes From Africa

‘This is music you won’t easily find anywhere else—except, perhaps in its region of origin’

Brian Shimkovitz was busy working on a scholarship in Ghana when after trawling markets and small record stores, he became infatuated by the tape-cassette culture that was present in the region. With the aim of tracking these previously un-heard artists down, remastering the cassettes and presenting them to the mass market, Shimkovitz wanted to share the gems he’d found with the general populous – not as a money making venture, but to support the musicians and give the listener an opportunity to hear incredibly exclusive material. Presenting everything from alternative African disco, afro-beat rhythms and regional pop – the aim of the label was to give a 50% share of profits to the artists and get them recognised on an international scale. And it’s fair to say Shimkovitz has done a grand job – with Ata Kak most notibly gaining a succession of bookings around Holland, Germany and England.

It was when Shimkovitz visited the Golden Cape Coast that his luck presented him with an old copy of Obaa Sima (which accurately translates as ‘Perfect Woman’ from the original Twi dialect) which was re-released in 2015 to rave reviews. The record itself paints an authentic picture of Ghanian dance music, which features remastered original recordings. Influenced by the golden age of hip-hop, Ata-Kak’s staccato vocals and slightly-detuned vocal melodies, propped up by afro-beat style guitar playing and electronic percussion certainly sounds in a league of its own. Each track on the album stands out in it’s own right, with catchy hooks from lead singer Ata-Owusu, manipulated vocals and retro dance beats. Dam Nyinaa encapsulates this ethos, with fast paced singing through a filter mimicking vinyl scratching, retro synthesiser sounds, shrieks and an abundance of echoing effects. Working with both lo-fi and over-done production, the track in essence shouldn’t work – but results in sounding more like a deliberate masterpiece than a mistake.

Notably, another artist Shimkovitz has brought into public conscious are known as Dur Dur Band, a Somalian group who emerged in the early 1980’s – whom were formed during a time when culture was thriving in the horn of Africa. Deriving inspiration from a plethora of artists such as Bob Marley and Santana – the record ‘Vol. 5’ is as diverse and interesting as it is rooted in a signature afro-beat sound. From numerous civil wars, brought about by clan divisions and security issues, the arts in Somalia became neglected as war raged – and as it was released before this tragedy, Vol 5. significantly stands as a reminder of the country’s once thriving musical scene. The album was recorded originally at Radio Mogadishu, which was coincidentally the only state-run broadcaster to later resist Al-Shabab’s brief ban on music.  Later remastered for ATFA, the album showcases the qualities that could have flourished if the countries stability wasn’t overturned, and still is just as danceable and soulful today. ‘Dooyo’ in particular features tight percussion, a soulful female vocal line supported by staccato, early-funk guitar playing, vintage synthesizers and a call-and-response gang vocal backing line. The track has the vintage fuzz effect from early recording equipment – and this in turn adds to the authenticty that the label have been careful to preserve, even throughout the remastering process.

Shimkovitz is more of a musical archeologist than a label boss. It’s a passion for the music which drives the label and the discoveries it’s uncovered and released. In a way, Awesome Tapes From Africa is doing both the listener and the artist a massive favour, really paving the way to success for certain musicians who otherwise wouldn’t have been presented the opportunity to play to a wider demographic. It’s refreshing to know there’s an abundance of hidden gems in the musical sphere, but it’s also quite daunting to realise how much goes unheard – even when tools like the internet, file sharing and social media exist. Now moving into it’s sixth year of activity, it’s clear that Awesome Tapes From Africa still has plenty of work still to do – but based on the label’s already impressive track record, the best is still yet to come.

JH

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