Exploring sounds from the Sub-Sahara

Art & Lit Music

David Astley tells us about Brian Shimkovitz’s promotion of the charasmatic and highly influential music emanating from West Africa

After two stints in West Africa, totaling 18 months, Brian Shimkovitz returned to New York with a whole lot of tapes. He had purchased, found and been given them on his travels around Ghana, Mali, Burkina Faso and Togo while researching for his degree in ethnomusicology. When back in the US he decided that he needed to show off what he had found and fallen in love with. Brian made his first post on Awesome Tapes From Africa in April 2006 – it concerned a cassette by a Ghanaian rapper called Ata Kak.

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Seven years later and ATFA is still posting cassettes from all over Africa that are up for download, but the site is now also exploring different formats. To date ATFA have put out three reissues and one more is in the pipeline. These records have been put out with the artists consent (problematic when the tapes are so obscure) and a promise of half of all profits. The most recent release, ‘Volume 5’ by the Somalian Dur-Dur Band, has garnered attention from press around the world and led to increased interest in the blog and the little known Somali band.

The members of Dur-Dur Band emigrated from Somalia in the early 90s, leaving behind the still ongoing civil war and around 10 recordings made in the capital. Mogadishu was awash with musicians from the 60s to the onset of the war: some were exploring traditional music from the Horn of Africa,  Arabia and Ethiopia; others taking inspiration from contemporary artists from the USA, brought to their attention through imported tapes; and a few, like Dur-Dur Band, who managed to bridge these polar influences.

‘Volume 5’ is most easily categorized as a funk record, but then when you list it together with the likes of James Brown and George Clinton it doesn’t sit particularly well. The Somali vocal style, highlife brass blasts and subtle percussion single this record out from the category. This fusing of traditional and new happens all over the World and in all sorts of forms. The influence of globalization on music in West Africa has lead to the creation of new genres, like hip-life (fusion of hip-hop and Ghanaian highlife), which have become more popular than the traditional ones that they have often grown from. Some have worried  about the danger that this poses for the more traditional elements of West African music.

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Brian Shimkovitz has expressed some concern about the globalization of music and the possibility of losing genres, instruments and styles that are unique to certain areas. The increased attention that sites like Awesome Tapes and artists such as Tinariwen and Amadou and Miriam bring to African music can only be positive. There is no doubt that such promotion and distribution of Afrian music has been good news for the West African music scene. However, even with the increased interest, the lack of opportunity to record and difficulties distributing the more traditional side to African music, the possibility of loss is definitely real.

Should we actively seek to preserve these genres that could be lost with time? Traditional African, more specifically West African, music has already had such a large influence on the music we listen to everyday – without it there would have been no Blues and the subsequent influence is huge. But does influence alone make them more deserving of preservation than other types of music that are in just as a precarious position?

Whatever the answers are or are not, Awesome Tapes From Africa provides a place for easy and inexpensive exploration into music that would be lost without it.