“Kind of A Manifesto”–Awesome Tapes From Africa’s Brian Shimkovitz on Releasing “Obaa Sima”
Over the past decade, the blog-then-label Awesome Tapes from Africa has been at the forefront of a new wave of “world” labels, one that attempts to better reflect the messy complexity of musical cultures across the African continent. Leaving questions of cultural authenticity beyond, Awesome Tapes has been just as likely to focus on Michael Jackson loving Somalian disco/funk or Tanzanian rap as more “traditional” genres like juju or mbalax. But behind all of it has been one record. One astounding, surprising, dance-floor slaying record by a mysterious Ghanian producer named Ata Kak. A record which is, after years of effort, finally receiving its proper release. Afropop producer Sam Backer interviewed label-owner Brian Shimkovitz about the journey to “Obaa Sima.” Stay tuned for Afropop’s interview with Ata Kak himself, coming soon!
Sam Backer: So, to start with–this is a pretty crazy record you’re putting out.
Brian Shimkovitz: Yeah, it was a super crazy record and it was a big part of the inspiration for the original blog project. Because after going through a whole bunch of the tapes that I had gotten on two trips to West Africa, I was listening to this one in my apartment in Brooklyn and I was just like, “people need to hear this.” This is something that nobody imagines, that after a year of doing research in Ghana about music I was completely astounded existed, and I immediately started asking people about it and nobody knew who Ata Kak was. Not Ghanaians or North Americans. No one I spoke with. So I just posted it. I was literally sitting there one day and I was like “I’m gonna start a blog.”
Wow. Let’s rewind a little. How did you first get to Ghana? And why were you buying cassette tapes to begin with?
I first went to Ghana in 2002 as a study abroad project for a semester. And while I was there, I started doing research about the music industry. I was going around collecting tapes because it was 2002, and at that time, the majority of the music available on the market was on cassette. So I would go to shops, or I would go to the areas in the market where they sell lots of music. Or if I saw someone wandering around the neighborhood selling cassettes, like on a wheelbarrow or a bicycle or something, I would just check it out. And I would sometimes buy things because they were really cheap. They were only like 75 cents or a dollar each, so I just bought a lot! And one of the things that I bought on that first trip, that I came across in Cape Coast, was this Ata Kak tape which I didn’t really listen to until much much later.
Do you remember where you bought it?
Yeah, I bought it in front of the Standard Chartered Bank. On the corner, down by the ocean. I bought it from an older dude in, not a wheelbarrow but…it was like a trolly with big wooden wheels and a wooden platform. People put stuff on it and then they yank it around, kind of like a hand-pulled forklift. He was selling stuff on that. It wasn’t wrapped up, it was one of the cassettes that was just may or may not have been used, may or may not have been very bootleg. And in that particular instance I didn’t talk to him about it, I just grabbed a bunch of tapes. There were definitely other times when I sat there for half hour, an hour, and chatted with the person who was selling music and tried to find out information about it. But I didn’t that time.
Were they playing the tapes? Did you hear it before you bought it?
Oh no, he wasn’t playing it in this instance. I was attracted to it by the cover. I mean- the cover’s amazing. I saw the cover and was like, all right, I’ll buy this. I didn’t go through and listen to each and every tape, really, until later. I don’t have any memory of listening to this tape until 2005, 2006, in my apartment.
So that was like three or four years later.
Right. After I went to Ghana, I was sending all these tapes back to my parent’s house in Chicago but I was living in Bloomington, Indiana. and this tape remained with a whole bunch of tapes that never made it to Bloomington. So I graduated college and moved to DC, and then I moved to Thailand for a year, and then I moved to Ghana. And it wasn’t until after a year in Thailand and a year in Ghana that I moved to Brooklyn. And that’s when I brought all those tapes that I had collected over the years into one place. And I that’s when I started really going through deeper, and listening deeper. And that was when the inspiration for the blog started.
So, you’re sitting there, and you’re listening and your listening. You’re just going through all these cassette tapes you’d collected.
I realized that these tapes were not available. And there was so much surprising stuff. I had no idea how to get these tapes distributed in America but it was 2006, blogs were a relatively new thing. And I wanted to share it with my buddies and acquaintances. And I had no idea, you know. I mean, obviously someone’s going to come across it if they’re Googling but I thought it would all be specialists. I didn’t know that it was gonna be occurring kind of concurrently with an overall interest in more international music among people who would typically just buy indie rock or rap records. It all converged.
Yeah, and with the Internet just blowing open people’s tastes
Right, and like a new concept of world music.
Tell me a little bit more about that. Because that’s something that we talk about a lot at Afropop, because we were around for both booms, or spikes in interest, or whatever we should call it.
Do they see it as a new boom? Or do they see it like, this has always been a thing, and all of you guys just started noticing?
I mean, it’s different. I think we see the interest, but it’s very different because it’s more distanced in a way. It’s a lot of the older music and there’s…
Very specific genres.
Right. Very specific genres. It’s also bands that are almost by definition not available. It’s like, listening to this music through the prism of DJ culture.
And we don’t have very much information. At least back then in the early ’80s there was a lot of like, care, with regard to liner notes and at least pretending to present folksy stuff, even though most of it was manipulated for the Western marketplace.
But it’s also that the bands would tour.
But now it’s like DJs and producers are selecting the weird left field tracks that they know like kids in France will dance to.
Definitely. But I do think that it’s important that the bands used to be able to tour. Like, King Sunny Ade used to come.
Yeah… that’s so different.
So was this one of the first tapes that you put up?
Ata Kak was the very first tape that I posted on the blog. Kind of as a manifesto almost.
What did you mean by manifesto?
I just wanted to show people both the kind of African music you actually hear in Africa but also stuff that you would never believe, just surprising things. And this cassette was the epitome of the kind of music that the world music establishment has never made available to people outside of Africa. I don’t know…after living there for like a year, I was just like “Wow, we have absolutely no idea what’s happening over here.”
Was there a response?
Yeah almost immediately. A lot of random people were emailing me almost immediately, and then various friends in New York who I showed it to. I don’t know, there seemed to be a response, and anytime I met someone who had heard of the blog after like a year of doing it, they always mentioned that record. I actually started searching for him almost immediately. But the phone numbers inside the cassette led to Russian-speaking people in Toronto.
How does this record connect to other Ghanaian music from that period? Do you think it does, really, at all?
Oh yeah. Big time. I mean, refracted through a prism of so many things. One of the things is that Ata Kak never really played music, much less highlife music, until many years later when he landed living in Canada. He didn’t start playing music until he lived in Germany. I mean, this is somebody who didn’t grow up making music. So his interpretation of highlife is based on a life-long experience as a listener. Throw into the mix his being impressed by people like Michael Jackson and Grandmaster Flash. Throw into the mix having lived abroad both in Germany and in Canada for a collective 20 years or whatever. Then he decides to start making his own music, pulls together his own makeshift studio using Atari Notator, by the way, which is like the pre-pre-Fruity Loops way of fucking with sequencing on a computer. He makes music that has the bubblegum highlife kind of sound, but there’s also something gritty because of the DIY way that he recorded it, and there’s something very global about the measurements of elements that he includes.
What do you mean by that?
It sounds like something made by somebody who wasn’t only listening to Ghanaian music. It sounds like somebody who maybe had been in Germany in the ’80s when disco and Euro-disco were all over the radio. I mean, he told me that his look and his rapping were inspired to rap by Melle Mell from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. I went around looking for Melle Mell videos from the era, and I found a German TV video performance of them playing in the mid-’80s in Germany. And the similarity of the look between Melle Mel and Ata Kak’s original look on the album cover is uncanny. He was taking notes from all this international stuff. Which is no different from what artists still based in Africa were doing but it was just refracted in a different way because he’s physically situated in different places.
So how did you eventually track him down? It sounds like you’ve been looking for him since the beginning of the Awesome Tapes From Africa blog.
Yeah, I have. But not like on a daily basis. You know, it’s been over the years. I actually started searching for him almost immediately. But the phone numbers inside the cassette led to Russian-speaking people in Toronto.
Huh. So in the original cassette, it had Toronto phone numbers.
Yeah. They were cell phone numbers–these 416 numbers which is for Toronto cell phones.
So how did you eventually find him?
I was losing sleep over it, literally. I was on tour in Europe, and I was like fuck it. I’m gonna buy a flight to Toronto, and I’m not gonna leave Toronto until I find his family. So I bought a flight–the flight was like ridiculously expensive, it was in the middle of the polar vortex–and I just went to Toronto and stayed with friends. I made a huge list of all the Ghanaian businesses around that part of Ontario, rented a car, and started searching. And at the same time, the BBC had already been talking to me for like a year and a half, and they were following my movements as I was going around trying to find Ata Kak. And I was giving them general updates over time, talking to this one freelance journalist for the BBC radio and so at that point things started to heat up and they were like, OK, cool, you’re going to Toronto, we’re going to send a reporter with you to record everything. Mark, the BBC presenter who was eventually going to do the piece on air wasn’t able to attend, but he was back in London just Googling around. And I had spent so many years Googling, going into like the 27th Google page of like obscure weird combinations of searches for people who were included on the record or people I’d found out about later and I was so over Googling. I knew that there was like a Facebook page that was generated by somebody anonymously–it was a Facebook fan page that had 1,000 likes on it or whatever, and I hadn’t looked at in a while. I had been following it but I hadn’t looked at it in a while.
So while I was in Toronto driving around, stalking people, more or less at the same time that I came across a man who lived above a bodega who remembered the people who performed on the record and remembered Ata Kak because he was in a band that rehearsed in his sister’s basement at one point in Toronto, around that same time, in London, Mark, had commented on the Facebook page of Ata Kak, saying hey, does anybody know where this guy is, and somebody responds and that person happens to be Ata Kak’s 20-year-old son who lives in Toronto and he responds that day. He says “Yeah, he went back to Ghana, that’s my dad.” And I’m just like, losing my shit. I can’t believe that all this is happening at the same time. That I’ve found the first person I’ve come across who remembers Ata Kak apart from the old man who designed the cassette cover who lives up in Ghana, who I just like stalked for two years on Skype. That this random guy in the U.K., this radio presenter, just commented on this page and that his son happened to have searched Youtube recently for his dad’s name for some reason and saw that there were videos uploaded by users that had upwards of 100,000 views on them and he was just like, “What the fuck, people know about my dad’s record?” So he started Googling, and that’s when he found the Facebook page. So it’s like an insane confluence of shit that happened in January last year.
Whoa. That’s crazy.
Yeah, it’s super crazy, man. It took me like five or six days up there, but once I found the son and he communicated with me and realized that I wasn’t psycho, we went and hooked up, and did an interview with the BBC.
And then you were like, I found him.
I was like, give me his phone number. But his son was like really slow, so it was a couple days in Toronto being like, “Is this guy going to write back to me? Does he think I’m insane?”And I’m like “Hey, I’m a big fan of your dad. I came all the way to Toronto to try to find you guys. Can we meet up?” You know, it’s kind of weird.
But then I started calling Ata Kak… The BBC made me do the first phone call with Ata Kaak on the air–not on the air but recorded. So I went to the recordists house and did it with like Skype connected to a fancy studio. And I was like, “Hello, I’m Brian. You don’t know me but I’m a huge fan of your music. I posted your music on my website like a million years ago and you have all these fans online. Did you know that?” And he’s like, “Oh my God. I had no idea.” He’s like, “Thank you Jesus.” He had no idea.
Yeah, it’s great. I just really wanted him to know that people love his music. I was just losing sleep over it because I was like, “Man I will never forgive myself if this guy died six months ago.” Because you could tell it was not a successful record. Nobody had heard of him. I contacted so many music organizations in Ghana, so many friends. I had friends, you know, pounding the pavement, cruising around different cities, there was no information.
So what’s kind of amazing is that the tape got to that tape seller in Ghana at all. Do you have any ideas about how that happened?
No idea. It was never played on the radio. He never played a show in Ghana, he played one show in Canada. He didn’t have money for payola. He didn’t have money to pay the disc jockeys to play it.
A record like that in Ghana, if you have thousands of dollars to just throw at people, or even hundreds, you could get it played on the air. And the Ghanaian radio situation is such that if you pay somebody, the right somebody, to play it ad nauseum for a couple of weeks, it could take off. But he didn’t have that kind of money. I mean, he had no network, he was a DIY guy. He was just totally a random dude.
See for me, what’s always really interesting is just what happens to the music when it makes that transition to a different context. That this random record is put on Youtube, and now people love it. You know what I mean?
Yes. It’s completely astounding. And I would love to know more about what Ghanaians think of this music or if they even think it’s good. Because Awesome Tapes From Africa has really been attempting to interact with the communities from which the music comes from on these official releases, you know, working directly with the artists and their family, etc etc. But in this particular instance, this is not a recording that the Ghanaian community was like “Yo, you have to reissue this” There are thousands and thousands of other recordings that Ghanaians would go crazy for probably. I don’t know that for sure as I’m not a Ghanaian, but I suspect, because nobody knows about this, that it’s not something that anybody was asking for. However, all the American, European, Australian, Japanese fans of this are super into it. So why is that? It’s a good question. Probably because the lyrical content doesn’t really matter to people over here, who are just into something that sounds unique, and at the same time, particularly in America, there’s been a rise in interest in early house music, in electronic music, in DIY bedroom producer music. And at this point, that’s like a worldwide trend that’s just been happening.
I was going to ask if you knew what Ghanaians thought of it.
No, I would love to know. Part of the reason why I’m trying to go to Ghana to shoot a short documentary is to do that. I want to like, interview people on the street about it, or like play it for them and see what they think.
It’s just really interesting, just that transition.
And to be totally candid, that transition troubles me because of my ethnomusicology background. I don’t want to be seen as somebody who takes music and tries to change it. I merely wanted to present Ata Kak’s cassette as this artifact of commercial, artistic creativity that was created and mass produced, this cassette that everybody could buy. But part of the whole thing about the blog is just presenting it as it is. With the album art as it is, and I think that, well, it’s impossible to analyze and parse the contextual reaction of all the different people, because then you get into this thing where it means so many different things to so many different people. So although the life of the Ata Kak recording has gone on in this separate way and interacted with the life of Awesome Tapes From Africa, it can still be seen as a product of a specific time and place, and to me, now that everybody is all mixed up and living in all different countries, it’s just become a really interesting immigrant story.
Yeah, it is. It’s interesting that he was in Toronto, which has it’s own complicated stuff.
Yeah. It’s just different. There’s nothing 100 percent “authentically African” about this if you want to put it in that sense, because it was recorded abroad; it didn’t spring from a community of people, there was no, like, scene for this music. He was playing in a highlife band that did the typical Ghanaian Canadian ’80s/’90s highlife, but he says that he had this idea for some other music and he didn’t think that the people with him would be able to play it, would want to play it. So maybe it is a bit more of this outsider auteur vibe. You can definitely tell from the way it’s recorded and the quality and everything that it’s made by somebody who didn’t train in the instruments and in the recording arts.
Could you tell me a little bit about the process of digitization? I think I read in your press thing that the master tapes…. sort of blew up?
So here’s what happened. Over the years I’ve just been playing the same tape and it degraded a bit. And the original MP3s were not very high quality. So people have been asking for something with higher quality. I myself have wished for higher quality and you can tell that the recording was not mastered up to international standards of the time and that the mixing is not super precise, the voice is a little bit higher in the mix than other stuff. But anyway, when I did all of this and finally talked to Ata Kak over the phone, I dreamed that he would have a box of like, 100 pristine tapes in perfect condition and a dat or a CD of the masters but…he kind of didn’t. He had one cassette, one original cassette which when I played it – he sent it to me- sounded worse than what I had and it also sounded slower, which was really confusing. So I played him the cassette that I have, the one that everyone’s heard over the years, and he’s like, “Yeah, that’s sped up a little bit, that’s not how I originally recorded it,.” And so that presented a quandary in and of itself, because I wanted to release the music as the artist intended it, but because the story of this music has extended far beyond Ata Kak’s hands, and it’s become part of this story that involves all these other people, most people know it as this faster version.
So to get back to the fidelity question, Ata Kak did have a DAT which he mixed down as his master and was using for duplicating purposes. Now he sent the DAT to this studio that I work with in SoHo, the Magic Shop. I work with this wonderful mastering engineer named Jessica Thompson who’s worked on every project. And she spent many weeks, many months going through and dealing with this dat. She tried to bake it, and it pretty much split into pieces 10 seconds after she put it in the machine for digitizing. Apparently it was a combination of fungus and mold but also dryness and brittleness. It’s this weird thing where it’s both moldy and too dry, so the tape is stuck together and it splits and cracks apart. Literally the worst of both worlds! And we looked into various companies that do high level, very expensive baking and that use different processes to rescue your tape, and they said it was going to cost thousands of dollars and there was no guarantee that they could do it. And everyone I talked to that looked at the tape–the mastering engineer and her colleagues, they all were like, “this is not going to happen.” So I went to Plan B which was contacting people who I knew who may have a copy of this very rare cassette. And all of those copies where either impossible to get my hands on or didn’t sound as good as my original copy, so ..
I love that idea. Do you have a network of like…this shadowy affiliation of people with rare African electronic cassette tape collections? Does that exist?
I wish I did. I can’t say that it’s something that solid, but yes, I do know a number of people around the world who have collections in various things, or who specialize in certain parts of the music or in specific African regional styles. There are certain people who might have this kind of cassette, although this is different because it’s so much rarer than others. And it’s a very specific thing that every person I know who has a copy of it had to put multiple days and weeks of effort into finding a copy. So I wouldn’t say that there are people I know who have very niche-y African electronic music collections around the world, but there are people who have big collections. and you can go to some of these guys for reference purposes. So yeah, part of what I was doing for all those years was trying to figure out who Ata Kak was, and to see if anybody know anything about him. but I can count those people on half of one hand and their copies were not good either. So after several tries Jessica Thompson just went back to the drawing board, started from scratch and came up with something that I think is presentable. It’s not perfect. It can’t ever be perfect because the original recording is lost for ever, but I think it sounds good.
I just couldn’t deal with the idea of releasing the faster version without letting people hear what his original version sounds like and I couldn’t decide which one should be the main one, so we’ve include a download code so you can download and hear what Ata Kak’s original slower version sounded like as well. Basically it was this whole tension between disappointing the long-time fans by putting something on the record that didn’t sound quite like what they were used to, while also not letting Ata Kak’s original intentions get lost. So this was the happy compromise I think.
So are you going to release it on tape?
Yeah. It’s going to be on CD and LP and MP3 and .WAV and tape… The LP and the CD come with download, these extra download codes. I don’t think the tape is gonna have the download codes for the slower version, just because I do the tapes pretty low budget. I tried to make this the most elaborate Awesome Tapes From Africa release so far, so it includes a bunch of archival photos that no one’s ever seen before and longer liner notes that I worked real hard on and, yeah, I’m just super excited about it and very proud of it. For me personally it’s just been a huge life experience and it’s a major milestone in what I’ve been trying to do for the last 10 years.
It’s such a victory, that story … It’s great that you found him, and it’s great that your tape was enough quality to release!
Well, it was OK, it’s not amazing quality but it’ll do the job. Hopefully people don’t hate it… but I think everybody knows what the deal with this tape is so it’s like, yeah, it’s not gonna sound like minimal techno but it’s gonna be fine…