Q&A: Awesome Tapes From Africa's Brian Shimkovitz On Cassette DJing, His New Label, And His Overflowing Mailbox

The blog Awesome Tapes From Africa delivers on the promise of its name. Founder Brian Shimkovitz launched it as a way to share with his friends some of the cheap cassettes he found while in Ghana (on a Fulbright Scholarship for ethnomusicology), and in the years since it began its audience has since grown beyond his pals; it now attracts tens of thousands of visitors a month.

The premise is simple: Find a tape, post the music online, let the listening party ensue. Pertinent details beyond who the artist is—where he or she lives, who plays the instruments, when it was recorded—may or may not be provided. Shimkovitz is refreshingly ego-free, sometimes weighing in with some background info but just as likely to say something along the lines of, "I have no idea who this artist is, but I like it."

Recently he's moved beyond cyberspace to do DJ gigs where he mixes his sets using those very same cassettes. (He'll DJ at this weekend's All Tomorrow's Parties-produced I'll Be Your Mirror Festival in Asbury Park, and on Sunday he'll DJ at Tandem in Brooklyn with Portland's Sahel Sounds and Brooklyn-based Bird & Whale.) He's also on the verge of launching a reissue label; its first release will be Nâ Hawa Doumbia's 1982 album La Grande Cantatrice Malienne, Vol. 3. Sound of the City spoke with him about what it's like to put together DJ sets on cassette, launching his label, and where he finds tapes in New York.

What was the initial inspiration for doing this?

After spending a year in Ghana in 2005, which was the second trip I took there, I brought back just a ton of tapes. And I was sitting there in my Brooklyn apartment trying to figure out what to do with them—it just seemed that it was a lot of stuff that people wouldn't normally get a chance to hear about. I thought that I should just start sharing them, and a blog was a new quick and free format at the time. And I thought it'd be good to do just a simple concept. It was a bit selfish because I just wanted to show my friends what I had brought back, but it really quickly became something that a lot of people were looking to for introducing themselves to or going deeper into African music.

There is a lot of interest in African music these days. It seems that each week sees another reissue of cool African stuff.

Do you think this is a trend? I've been so immersed in it for so long that it is hard for me to gauge. But it seems like it. That's why I started this new label. I feel like there are millions great compilations coming out, but I'm going to really take a closer look at the artist rather than a disembodied track with a break beat to it. My thing is that I'm going to put out complete records, basically doing what the blog is doing, but in a commercial release format.

Why focus on cassettes?

When I went to Ghana I wanted to collect as many different kinds of music as I could. There just weren't a lot of opportunities to buy CDs and there weren't that many MP3s at the time. Now people are trading MP3s on their mobile phones, but the widest variety of stuff in West Africa is still on tape.

Also, tapes just seemed pretty natural. I was a pretty late guy to CDs in high school. And I always listened to a lot of tapes because I'm a huge Dead fan. So it seemed pretty natural to me to have a box full of tapes. I've always had a cassette deck and have about 4,000 tapes in my apartment.

And you DJ with cassettes too, right? This would seem to be challenging, to say the least.

It seemed like a natural thing as well. If you are playing all this music on cassette, making it available from cassette on the blog, it seemed to make sense to just have a couple of tape decks instead of playing on turntables.

I remember cassettes breaking or getting eaten. Does this happen during the set?

Yeah. Two weeks ago at a festival in Latvia one of my favorite tapes broke. A few months ago in Germany they had three cassette players for me and they all broke before the end of the show. At SXSW last year I just picked up these crappy Walkmen that I bought at Kmart for 15 bucks. By the end of the five sets I did, there they were all broken. I was just on Craigslist before you called looking for a tape deck.

Where do you shop for cassettes?

It started out with the blog just being stuff that I picked up in Africa, but now I find people's collections in the States and absorb them. Every week I get packages from people all over the world who send me tapes they've collected from various trips. I'll get an email from some guy saying: "I was in Senegal in 1989 with the Peace Corps and I have this box of tapes that's been sitting under my bed. Do you want them?" There are some places in Brooklyn that I know, grocery stores and Rasta shops where I can buy select tapes from Mali. There are places up in the Bronx where I can get Ghanan tapes.

Where does one find the tapes in Africa?

There will random shops in neighborhoods amongst a bunch of other things. Then there are markets where there is an entire row of shops with 20-30 guys that are all selling stuff. Unlike crate diggers who have specific labels or artists that they are looking for, I have certain things that I look for, but a lot of times I'm at the whim of what's available. The thing is that they all have a tape deck, even the guys traveling around, and they'll open up the cassettes and play them for you. I always show a lot of interest and ask a lot of questions and try and use the local languages. I try and learn as much as I can from the various retail guys on the street.

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