Music for the Masses: Awesome Tapes from Africa

Starting as a humble blog in 2006, Awesome Tapes from Africa (ATFA) has grown into a cottage industry of sorts by combining the best parts of the voracious collector mentality (I’ve gotta find this!) with the benevolent DJ mentality (You’ve gotta hear this!). The blog was originally an outlet for founder Brian Shimkovitz to share his impressive collection of African musical obscurities, expanded into DJ nights wherein Shimkovitz would take his crates of cassettes on the road, and is now finally a label.

ATFA has thus far released last year’s highly regarded album by N√¢ Hawa Doumbia (on LP, CD, and cassette), with a new album by Bola on the way (more on these below). Music for the Masses met with Shimkovitz and discovered a passionate fan who wants to make a continent’s worth of hidden music accessible.

MM: How did you start seriously collecting music from Africa?

BS: I studied in Ghana during college and came across tons of interesting music while doing ethnomusicology research on the music industry. I went back on a Fulbright grant in 2005 to research the emerging hip-hop scene there and picked up even more recordings. I have always been a big music collector, but the work I was doing on popular music encouraged this obsession even more.

Tell me about the evolution of ATFA.

When I started the blog in 2006, I felt like it was a fun thing to do on the weekend. I was working in New York City in music publicity, and over the years people kept asking me if I was thinking of doing something more with the blog. I began DJing the music from Awesome Tapes so much that I needed to quit my [day] job. I had built a strong sense of how to do something streamlined and effective in terms of a label.

Shortly before that, the folks at Secretly Canadian Distribution contacted me to see if I would be interested in working with them. So it came together in an organic way.

Why do you feel that these rarities are important and need to be heard?

African music in the Western marketplace is extremely limited. I was astounded by the vibrant diversity of music you can hear everywhere you go in virtually any town in Africa. It felt really important to me as a music listener living in America to make it possible for some of my friends to hear things we can’t find at shops outside the continent.

Most of what I post you’d be hard-pressed to find even just outside the region in which it originates. I had no idea so many other people around the world would be as enthusiastic as I am about some of this music.

Talk about your label’s two physical releases.

One thing that’s always been important with the blog and now with the label is making available complete recordings, i.e., not compilations. Letting an entire artistic statement speak for itself has always been a priority for me, hence the less-than- encyclopedic presentation of the recordings on the blog.

The first title is Doumbia’s La Grande Cantatrice Malienne Vol. 3, which is an early album by a well-regarded singer from southern Mali. It is very acoustic and soulful and organic-sounding and felt like an excellent first statement for the label. It’s not too out-there, like some of the things I have become known for, yet it’s a rare and fascinating look at music from one part of Mali.

While in Ghana, I became fascinated with the music of ethnic groups hailing from the northern regions, especially their folk music forms. The second release is by an artist from the Upper East Region named Bola, who plays the kologo, a two-stringed lutelike instrument. Kologo music is typically played solo with a couple of dancers. The instrumentalist sings praises and preaches advice while he performs.

Bola’s approach is very 21st century‚ he is accompanied by drum machine, synthesizer, and heavy bass‚ so the music is very dance-oriented and modern. I am extremely excited for what’s going to happen with his career…. He already has invitations to perform at festivals in Europe.

What would you recommend for a more substantive African music collection?

I spent a week in France this past summer digging through the music holdings of the musée du quai Branly, and I was blown away by the extensive collection of commercially released field recordings there. In particular, labels including Ocora, Lyrichord, and Smithsonian Folkways have released incredible documents of music from all over…. Folkways recordings epitomize the kind of variety a larger library should have available. In terms of popular music, one could focus on releases by labels like World Circuit, Sublime Frequencies, and Finders Keepers.

Who’s the most recent artist you’ve gotten excited about?

This isn’t African, but I have been really into the Iranian musician Kourosh Yaghmaei, who released many incredible songs during the prerevolutionary heyday of Persian psychedelic rock.

About Matthew Moyer


  1. Nick Fritsch says:

    Since our name came up in the article, I just wanted to mention that Lyrichord features three labels of cds and mp3 downloads, the JVC Video Series of World Music and Dance dvds (as well as many other edu dvds on music and cultures), and we accept purchase orders from any library within the United States as well as Visa, MC, AMEX, and PayPal. All our liner notes are available (no purchase necessary) on both our and our Lyrichord Download sites.