Awesome Tapes From Africa at Smart Bar Friday

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Brian Shimkovitz
  • courtesy of Surefire Agency
  • Brian Shimkovitz
World Music Festival: Chicago wraps up this weekend, with loads of terrific shows happening all over the city. Oddly, one of the most exciting international music events occurring this weekend isn't a part of the festival: on Friday night Evanston native Brian Shimkovitz, best known as the man behind the blog and label called Awesome Tapes From Africa, will DJ at Smart Bar from his voluminous collection of African music cassettes. In the 80s most countries in Africa began using tapes as the primary format for commercial music—they were cheap, portable, and easily manufactured—and since launching in 2006 Shimkovitz's blog has posted hundreds of cassette releases as free mp3s. Three years ago he took his obsession more seriously and launched the label, working out deals with the artists whose music he's issued on CD, vinyl, and digital formats.

Thus far he's released six albums—not including several collections of remixes—featuring music from Ethiopia, South Africa, Ghana, Senegal, Somalia, and Mali, most of which previously had scant if any presence in the U.S. The imprint's latest release is Liital, a furious collection of tracks by the Senegalese taasukat (a female ritual poet) Agy Ngana Diop, recorded in the 80s. Over wildly pounding, polyrhythmic sabar and tama drums, primitive drum machines and synthesizer patterns, and the occasional sample of a whinnying horse or a blaring train whistle, Diop delivers a hectoring verbal assault that's part martial chant, part protorap. Below you can hear the album track "Sapaly."

In advance of Shimkovitz's set on Friday, I asked him some questions about all-cassette DJ sets, how he got started collecting, and the disappearance of cassettes in Africa.

Why do you use tapes when you DJ? Why not go digital?

Awesome Tapes From Africa started as a thing about cassettes and their sound and the array of music that's available—sometimes exclusively—on tape. DJing with tapes from the start made sense, and it's a lot of fun to try and be creative within this boundary. I never aspired to DJ records or CDs, but mixing with tapes has been very rewarding.

Do you travel with your own decks or ask clubs to supply them?

I always bring a spare small, somewhat high-performance tape deck in case the venue or whatever doesn't have good working decks available. It's always a hassle for the places I play, since they have to search their networks of friends to find usable decks. I need robust models that can really play well and not break down or make funny noises.

Do you worry about tapes degrading from playing and rewinding?

The tapes are degrading, but I try to rotate the various tapes I bring to play, which helps keep the sets from becoming too similar to one another. It's sad to see some tapes eventually become unplayable, but anything less than playing the original cassettes wouldn't be as fun or sound as good.

Are you a very technical DJ? Or do you focus on the music and flow?

Over the years I have gotten better at mixing and matching beats while DJing tapes, especially with pitch control on the better decks. But I started out much more focused on the selections, which has often been enough to make people dance and get wild about some music they haven't heard before.

I assume that in most of Africa, tapes have been phased out by now—is this correct? If not, do you still have good pipelines for getting new stuff?

In most of Africa tapes have been phased out, indeed, so it's been harder lately to keep abreast of cool shit, but I am finding that there is a never-ending array of interesting sounds from the 70s/80s/90s/00s, so I am constantly busy listening to things that are new to me. But, yeah, I am sometimes bummed about the DJing part, especially, since there are so many amazing songs for the dance floor coming out of all parts of Africa.

I assume your collecting began with a trip or two to Africa—can you tell me where and when you first visited and how the obsession played out?

I first visited West Africa in 2002, doing a study-abroad trip to Ghana for a semester and an extra couple months. I went back with a Fulbright grant to study hiplife in Ghana in 2004, for a year. During those two trips I visited other countries in the region and tried to search for music in lots of different kinds of neighborhoods, asking a lot of questions and just kind of diving into different things that I didn't know about (which was pretty much everything). Maybe I was naive at the time, but I was just completely blown away by how each language group had a massive diversity of musical activities and styles—and each country is home to many—often dozens—of languages.

I also assume the DJ activity started to support the label, right?

I first began DJing in 2010, when some people invited me to speak at a conference in Berlin. The label launched a bit later, in late 2011 I think? Na Hawa Doumbia was the first release. It was quite hard to get going at first, but I think I am figuring out all the paperwork and processes now. I could not have done it without the trust of the artists, who have all been great to work with, and the extensive work of SC Distribution in Bloomington, Indiana.

Today's playlist:

Lars Gullin, 1954/56 Vol. 9/Summertime (Dragon)
About Group, Start & Complete (Domino)
Sofia Gubaidulina, Offertorium (Deutsche Grammophon)
Lou Donaldson, The Natural Soul (Blue Note)
Tindersticks, Across Six Leap Years (Lucky Dog/City Slang)

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