A Decade of Music: Awesome Tapes from Africa | KCET
A Decade of Music: Awesome Tapes from Africa
In partnership with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles: The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles leads the community and leverages its resources to assure the continuity of the Jewish people.
On Brian Shimkovitz's first trip to Ghana as a study abroad student in the early 2000s, he was wandering the streets of Cape Coast after attending a student cultural dance performance when he happened upon a group of young men slaughtering a lamb. "They were slaughtering it in such a way that I was like, 'What are you guys doing?'" recalls Shimkovitz, the Los Angeles-based ethnomusicologist behind blog-cum-record label Awesome Tapes from Africa. "And they said, 'Oh, next door is a rabbi's house, and we're doing Passover, and helping them prepare this lamb.' And I was like, 'Oh word. I'm Jewish. What's up?' They were like, 'Oh cool. Come. There's a mix of people there.' I was the only white person there, but there were people that were African-American, African, and Caribbean. It was a mixture of Rasta, Christianity, and Judaism. It was a mix of rituals; they recited the Shema, and other typical, generic services, but then they also sang Bob Marley songs. They sang Bob Marley songs, they sang Jewish songs, they sang Christian songs, and it was a combo."
Though he was blown away by the culture jam that happened before his eyes, it wasn't until his second trip to Ghana, as a Fulbright scholar, that Shimkovitz began collecting cassette tapes of obscure modern African musicians at Ghanian markets. Shimkovitz has been a total of five times to various African nations now, bringing home suitcases full of tapes each time, which he then digitizes and puts on his blog. In 2016, Awesome Tapes from Africa will celebrate its 10-year anniversary. The blog began modestly: entire albums downloadable directly from the site, and a scan of the tape cover. In 2006, the sounds were revelatory, Shimkovitz introducing Western audiences to diverse musical styles like hiplife and kuduro, which sound at once regionally rooted and globally pop.
Now Awesome Tapes is a full-blown record label, releasing cassettes and vinyl records by a mixture of underground gems and African stars. The first release in 2011, of singer Nahawa Doumbia, introduced the West to the Malian megastar, and found her an audience through Europe (Shimkovitz recently linked Doumbia up with Red Bull, who sponsored her European tour). Other albums like a release by South African artist Penny Penny resurrected his once-successful career, having been somewhat forgotten since the 1990s. And one of Awesome Tapes's most unusual and popular releases, "Obaa Sima," by the obscure Ghanian hiplife rapper Ata Kak sounds like music from another planet. The latter inspired Shimkovitz so much that he recently shot a documentary about finding Ata Kak, a film which will soon find a release.
Shimkovitz lives in Downtown Los Angeles, and when I get him on the phone, he notes that it's quiet this time of year for a Jewish guy, when everyone is out of town celebrating Christmas. Shimkovitz grew up with liberally Jewish parents, but no serious spiritual grounding. "I kind of feel guilty for not being spiritual," he says with a laugh. "I don't feel guilty in the way that my parents felt guilty for not being conservative, but I feel guilty for being a person in the world who doesn't pay attention to the potential for god or other related stuff."
Though Awesome Tapes has had some peripheral brushes with other Jewish artists (Ethiopian jazz and funk player Hailu Mergia shared a stage with Ethiopian-Israeli Jew Ester Rada at a World Music Festival Chicago event once), the label has yet to release any Jewish specific music. In fact, aside from the Smithsonian Folkways compilation album "Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda" (which was nominated for a Grammy in 2005), Shimkovitz has yet to come across much Jewish music in Africa at all, despite several populations of Jews throughout the continent. "Musically, cassettes, I've never come across anything off the top of my head," he says. "I'd have to think a little deeper maybe, but I don't think I've ever come across anything that's overtly Jewish. I have a ton of gospel cassettes, and some of them have references to things that could be from the Old Testament, but nothing that's Jewish per se."
But Shimkovitz's stories from his five trips to Africa are smattered with Jewish experiences, including one trip to the Northern Ethiopian highlands, where the so-called Jews of Ethiopia were located, although Shimkovitz notes that many of them have relocated to Israel. "Now, Ethiopian Orthodox music -- Tewahedo -- it has a lot of connection to Judaism," he says. "I had read a book in college, in my ethnomusicology studies, by a Jewish woman who did research with the Ethiopian Jews up in the mountains, and she had this conclusion-slash-theory that they weren't actual legit Jews; they were just this breakaway sect of Ethiopian Orthodox from a renegade monk who got cast out from Addis Ababa and went up to the mountains and practiced his own style of Orthodox, which over time appeared like Judaism, so when these early Jewish explorer types came across them in the late 1800s, they said, 'Oh, we recognize you guys as Jews. You guys are Jews.' And the [Ethiopians said], 'Yeah, we're Jews. That's right. We're Jews.' It's fascinating that they became Jewish and were adopted by the state of Israel. Not just accepted, but back in the day, when I was in Sunday school, we had to give sadaqah to the Ethiopian Jews."
When we speak, Shimkovitz has just returned from Senegal on a research trip for an Awesome Tapes project that he will announce later this year, but he's also hard at work on a series of events for the 10th anniversary, starting in May, which is technically the 10-year point. "I've organized concerts that involve Awesome Tapes from Africa artists, and then also DJ sets by me," he says. "I'm going to do stuff in Shanghai, Berlin, Amsterdam, London, and New York, and other places."
His planning will get back on track after the end-of-the-year holidays, he says, which have caused downtown to empty out and resemble a ghost town. For now, he's interested in something much more prosaic. "I'm going to go find some Jews to go see a movie with or something," he says with a laugh.
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