Brian Shimkovitz is one of the world's foremost scholars and treasure hunters of West African popular music. He's been called the Indiana Jones of African cassette tapes. He says the region's music is much more than its simplistic stereotype. "Each country in Africa may have several languages, each with a whole array of music movements, from folk to pop to ceremonial, and a million other things," he explains.
A lifelong interest in music as a jazz drummer led him to study ethnomusicology at Indiana University. Then he traveled to Africa. "I had been listening to a very small amount of Nigerian juju and Afrobeat music, and my friend in school showed me some Ghanaian tapes of highlife music," he explains. "While doing research, I ended up meeting so many brilliant musicians and producers... The huge diversity of musical styles is astounding."
This untold wealth of local recordings, virtually unknown outside Africa, moved Shimkovitz to launch the Awesome Tapes From Africa (ATFA) project in 2006. And what began as a simple blog with the modest mission of sharing obscure African music online evolved into a record label reissuing old cassette tapes.
"I thought it would be cool to share some of the music I heard in West Africa that I knew wasn’t really available back home," he says. "I had a hobby of digitizing the tapes."
Shimkovitz continues to travel heroic distances. "I have been lucky enough to visit South Africa and Mauritius this year," he says. "Normally, I go every two years or so, since it’s difficult to make enough time or have enough money to visit very often. I have spent a lot more time in West Africa, having traveled to Senegal and Ghana over the last few years. I hope one day to see more places."
He plays down the discovery aspect of his crate-digging quest, however. "I wouldn’t say I am discovering anything, just spreading some of the surprising or legendary musicians who may not get as much visibility overseas," he says.
But those legendary local musicians are also enjoying a second life as artists thanks to Shimkovitz. One of them, the Ethiopian jazz artist Hailu Mergia, has found enough success to relocate to Washington, D.C.
"I am very proud of the work I’ve done with Hailu," Shimkovitz says. "I got his cassette from a music shop in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, and then found his phone number online. I often have to kind of stalk people to get in contact. I asked if he would let me reissue his tape and also if he wanted to try to play shows if we could find bandmates. Now he is playing all over the world — he even played in Miami — and his recordings that we’ve reissued have reached a lot of really excited fans.
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"Some of the [ATFA artists] aren’t very obscure and are quite big stars," he clarifies. "As they begin to travel to Europe or wherever to play more shows... it all progresses with each of the musicians. We have four on tour this summer: Ata Kak, Nahawa Doumbia, DJ Katapila, and Hailu Mergia."
In the end, as its name implies, Awesome Tapes From Africa is a celebration of music that has not gotten enough love. And it's a celebration to be joined by anyone looking to expand musical horizons while getting down to some of the most vibrant and euphoric dance records on the planet.
"I am stoked to play for the first time in Miami," Shimkovitz enthuses. "And I know you guys are down with rhythmic music and bass. So, yeah, should be very fun to play the music I’m carrying on this trip from different countries and regions and genres."
Vamos a la Playa, Featuring Awesome Tapes From Africa, Presented by Klangbox.FM
5 p.m. Sunday, July 9, at Gramps, 176 NW 24th St., Miami; 305-699-2669; gramps.com. Admission is free.