Blogger Shares Music From Africa With The World

What began as a simple project to share obscure African cassettes online has become a global phenomenon. Since launching Awesome Tapes From Africa in 2006, ethnomusicologist Brian Shimkovitz has evolved the blog into a record label and DJ project that allows him to travel the globe mixing cassettes at music festivals, re-releasing his favorite African albums, and reviving the careers of musicians whose popularity faded many years ago or never before reached beyond their hometowns.

A lot has been written about his work, and there’s 200-plus tapes on his blog ( Originally from Chicago and now living in Los Angeles, Brian happened to be on vacation in Hawaii this month, so I had the chance to ask him a few questions.

What’s your tape collection looking like these days?

I think there’s about 2,000 tapes here in LA. I also have tons of records of different kinds of music, because you can’t just sit around listening to African tapes all day.

When did you go full-time with Awesome Tapes?

I used to work as a music publicist. I went full time in 2012.

What reactions from artists have made an impression on you?

It’s been really rewarding working with someone like Hailu Mergia, the Ethiopian keyboard and accordion player who now lives in D.C. He’s now playing shows all the time, all over the world. He wasn’t playing shows two years ago. His records I’ve reissued on ATFA are doing really well.

Someone like that who made great music and is still around and still totally down to play but just isn’t the music business man himself — it’s been very cool to see him be able to remount a career like that.

Brian Shimkovitz has garnered international attention for his blog/record label Awesome Tapes From Africa PHOTO COURTESY BRIAN SHIMKOVITZ

Brian Shimkovitz has garnered international attention for his blog/record label Awesome Tapes From Africa PHOTO COURTESY BRIAN SHIMKOVITZ

How do you choose what gets released on ATFA?

I’m trying to put out a variety of things that other labels wouldn’t put out and trying to work with artists who might be household names where they come from, but for whatever reason haven’t been widely distributed outside yet or widely recognized. I’m really interested in doing an array of different regions, sounds, electronic/ acoustic, male/female, vocal/ not vocal, traditional/modern. A lot of people have an idea of what African music is “supposed to be.” I’m trying to do something different, but things that are very indicative of the place they come from but might also build bridges sonically for people who don’t know the music or language from that place.

I’m interested in lots of different periods, regions, sub-regional, hyper-regional stuff. Things that are important in one particular place but not necessarily known 200 km down the road. You can learn a lot about a place and a time by zooming into just one artist’s album or story.

Where do you see ATFA 5-10 years from now?

Working with as many artists as possible and helping to further their career.

There’s just so much. I’ve barely even begun to scratch the surface.

The website has 200-plus posts alone, but there are still so many holes, so many gaps, some much more stuff to check out.