Awesome Tapes

Published on June 19th, 2017

Awesome Tapes

Brian Shimkovitz | Credit Julia Berlin

Cassettes are more than collectibles for Brian Shimkovitz, creator of Awesome Tapes From Africa. They were his entrée to revelatory music. They inspired his blog-turned-record-label. They’re the core of his live DJ sets, which span forty years of African pop, funk,  rap, jazz and folk.

DJing with cassettes wasn’t exactly widespread even before the advent of digitized music, but the method came to make sense for Shimkovitz. “I never grew up practicing on turntables,” he tells PureHoney. “It’s been through playing on the actual cassettes in a live setting that I’ve learned to DJ.”

Lacking the microscopic beat-matching of purely digital tracks, he feels his way through. At the same time, he says, “You can’t hang out between two tracks for too long,” because the beats in his polyglot collection don’t always sync.

A typical Tapes set traverses decades, countries and genres: the blippy ‘80s dance floor music of Umoja, a South African band; the hypnotic instrumentals of visionary ‘70s keyboardist Hailu Merga, from Ethiopia; the urgent voicings of Awa Poulo, a contemporary folk singer from Mali. “It’s expressive in its own way,” the Los Angeles-based Shimkovitz says of his particular blend of medium and source material. “You’re matching different stuff together by hook or by crook.”

Shimkovitz used to live and work in New York as a music publicist. A trip to Ghana, in West Africa, in the early 2000s put him on a parallel path. There, he found cassette albums of music that blew his mind. The blog was his personal way of publicizing it, until he decided that blogging alone wasn’t enough.

Shimkovitz started locating and working with the artists to re-release their recordings. Listener response to those reissues has given some of the artists — like the aforementioned Merga — a second life as international touring performers.

Shimkovitz sees his project as a one-man version of adventurous record labels like Nonesuch and Smithsonian Folkways. “In a very small way,” he says, “I feel like I’m contributing to making the market for African music bigger.”

Klangbox.fm and Vamos a la Playa present the Miami debut of Awesome Tapes From Africa, 5pm Sunday July 9 at Gramps, 176 NW 24th Street. Free admission. awesometapes.com
~ Sean Piccoli

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