Sasquatch Artist of the Week: Awesome Tapes From Africa (With Interview!)

Six weeks ago, the Sasquatch Music Festival lineup was released to much fanfare. Like all festivals, some hated the lineup while others loved it. For the more levelheaded, it appears to be a very balanced lineup with a deep undercard. From here on out we will be underscoring the lesser-known Sasquatch artists by highlighting a different artist each week. Beyond delving into each artist’s bio, sound, etc., we will attempt to give some insight into what will make their performance at Sasquatch so amazing.

The past several weeks we’ve covered Sasquatch artists who by and large only perform their own material. This week, we’re taking things in a drastically different direction. In 2005, Brian Shimkovitz, a recent graduate of Indiana University and an ethnomusicology major, spent a year in Ghana on a Fulbright Scholarship. While in Ghana, Shimkovitz acquired a number of cassette tapes of local artists.  On his return to his home in Brooklyn, Shimvokitz launched a blog to share the tapes with his friends. That blog, Awesome Tapes From Africa, is now one of the premier sources for “world” music on the web. Along with the blog, Shimkovitz now takes his show on the road, Djing with cassette tapes, as well as running an Awesome Tapes From Africa label. Last week, we spoke with Brian about his live sets, the label, where to look for awesome cassettes in Los Angeles (Little Ethiopia), and most importantly, if he’s excited to play at Sasquatch. Brian was incredibly helpful in making this interview happen and provided us with articulate, well-thought out answers. Brian also recently moved to Berlin so let’s show him a little love stateside. Read the entire interview after the jump and be sure to bookmark Awesome Tapes From Africa.

Astral Plane: First off, how’s the move to Berlin treating you?

Brian Shimkovitz: Moving to Berlin has been pretty chill so far, thanks. Just getting redtape stuff sorted out.

AP: What prompted the move?

Brian Shimkovitz: My girlfriend and I decided we wanted a change from NYC. And the rent is way cheaper here and it’s closer to all the DJ gigs I have been doing and plan to do this year.

AP: At what point did you decide to take Awesome Tapes on the road and play the music you’d been collecting in a live setting?

Brian Shimkovitz: I’ve been really lucky and people have reacted very positively to the blog since the beginning. After a few years of doing it I started getting invited to DJ some shows, it was never my idea. I was a bit shy about it at first but playing tapes live and bringing the blog experience to a dancefloor context was amazing. Now there are fans of some of the songs or artists on the blog so the shows are getting increasingly wild.

AP: That’s awesome. I’ve never been to one of your shows, but I’ve heard great things.

AP: Have you ever thought about DJing in a format outside of tapes?

Brian Shimkovitz: Haha not even once. I mean, I often bring my laptop to play mp3s of tapes I don’t have with me but I have never been interested or even curious about DJing vinyl. I collect tons of records, lots of disco and soul 12″s and stuff but I have never wanted to play them as a DJ.

AP: The reason we reached out to you is because you are playing at Sasquatch Music Festival in May. You will be playing in the Banana Shack, which is usually a more “rave”-ey atmosphere. How do you think your set will fit in alongside acts like Nero, LA Riots and Araabmuzik?

Brian Shimkovitz: I am really excited to play at Sasquatch because I know the audience there is super open-minded and enthusiastic. I end up playing so many different kinds of festivals that sometimes I have been lumped into to the dance music area but it always work well. I think it also helps mix up the mood for people during a multiple-day festival.

AP: Definitely. Sasquatch is probably my favorite weekend of the week and the more un-traditional acts make the festival what it is.

AP: You recently started your own Awesome Tapes label. How’s that gone so far?

Brian Shimkovitz: Awesome Tapes From Africa the label is turning out to be pretty amazing so far. The first release, by this singer from Mali named Nahawa Doumbia, has done well and received the attention I think it deserves. The next record comes out in early April and it’s by this brilliant guy from Northern Ghana called Bola. My dream with the blog has been to find a way to help some of these artists build careers outside their home regions and I feel like the label is doing it.

AP: Are you doing mainly re-releases or do you plan on releasing brand new music in the future?

Brian Shimkovitz: We shall see, good question! Right now I am really busy with all the great previously-released records I would love to get legally licensed for the label. I feel like since none of these tapes have been available outside a specific region they don’t really feel like re-releases for most listeners.

AP: Absolutely. Have you had trouble tracking down many of these artists?

Brian Shimkovitz: Yes! That’s the single most complicated and time-consuming and frustrating part of the label project. I have spent untold days on the internet and skype calling and emailing anyone I can figure is remotely related to the artist I’m looking for.

AP: That’s dedication

AP: My favorite tape you’ve posted was by Sayed Makawi back in 2007. Really eclectic drum beat driven stuff. Any interesting back story to that one?

Brian Shimkovitz: Haha I love that one too! I hardly listen to it lately though. I spent a day going from shop to shop in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn looking for interesting tapes from North Africa. There are a lot of Egyptian groceries and whatnot down there. I went into a video shop and found a bunch of tapes behind the counter collecting dust. I didn’t have enough moeny to buy more than a few for some reason so I had to choose wisely. How could you not be attracted to a tape with a cover like that, old man in sunglasses all smiles. Oh wait scratch that. i think i got that tape from a friend in fact! It is also from Egypt but not the one i was thinking of just now. My friend who worked for several months in Egypt hooked me up with some tapes. This was one of them but I didn’t get any info from him about where exactly he picked it up or why. Definitely a fascinating and lively tape though!

AP: That cover is great!

Brian Shimkovitz: I got some really bizarre-looking tapes on that trip down to Bay Ridge. But yeah this one is rad.

AP: We’re based in Los Angeles and Seattle. Any recommendations on where to search out tapes in either city?

Brian Shimkovitz: My friend once got me at least a dozen excellent Ethiopian tapes in LA’s Little Ethiopia, at a grocery store there. As far as Seattle, I am not sure, I have never had the chance to look for tapes there unfortunately.

AP: I’ll have to check out Little Ethipia!

AP: You write in a very accessible manner even though you have a degree in ethnomusicology. Who would consider your audience to be?

Brian Shimkovitz: I made a conscious decision to make the blog more accessible than the scholarly literature I was accustomed to when I started in 2006. I felt like since I was going to be able to dig as deep into the information behind these pieces of commercial music I had collected I might as well speak about it the way I would if I were just hanging with a friend. There are so many really great encyclopedic-type music blogs that I wanted to make these tapes–which a lot of people don’t know tons about and might not know where to start–something really easy to approach.

AP: Yeah I love your approach. I would have initially overlooked the blog if you wrote in a more scholarly manner, but it has spurred my interest in many of the genres and artists you post about

Brian Shimkovitz: Yeah I felt like the audience it really varied. At first I thought it would be “world music” nerds, which would have been great. But once I noticed that more people who are into the kinds of music I am into–hip-hop, indie rock, techno, etc–were checking it out, I got more encouraged. I really like how it’s not about being an expert any more. I don’t want to be an expert and I think we can all be experts in a way with the information we can get from the internet and social networks.

AP: Yeah, there’s no way this sort of project would have been able to function 15 years ago the way it does today.

Brian Shimkovitz: True. And what’s interesting is that part of the reason for that is (I think) listeners are ever more adventurous.

AP: If you had to recommend one tape you’ve heard recently, what would it be?

Brian Shimkovitz: Hmm. I think that would be… This tape from Eritrea I just received from a friend in Switzerland. It’s by an instrumentalist (and vocalist?) named Awalom Gebremariam. It’s got this driving rhythm that’s typical of a lot of Eritrean popular music but it’s particularly well-crafted and beautiful but also soulful. My friend who gave me the tape just made this really lovely documentary about his fixed gear bike ride across Eritrea, you should check this out:

AP: Most definitely! I’ll have to check out Awalom Gebremariam as well.

Brian Shimkovitz: Yes, I will be posting this one soon!

AP: Looking forward to it.

AP: Thanks so much for taking some time out of your busy schedule to talk with us.

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