Moogfest Q+A: Awesome Tapes from Africa

Image from wsj.com
Image from wsj.com

When I first saw Awesome Tapes from Africa on the Moogfest lineup, I thought it was odd. For one, tapes are analog and Moogfest is electronic. But when it comes to the intersection of music and technology, the project started by Brian Shimkovitz as way to share music he’d discovered while traveling, might be one of the best examples of art and technology intersecting.

Shimkovitz performs an Awesome Tapes from Africa DJ set late-night on Thursday, April 24, as part of the Driftless showcase at Emerald Lounge. 12:45-2:30 a.m.

Mountain Xpress: So, the project got its start as a way for you to share tapes you picked up in Ghana while on a Fulbright Scholarship for ethnomusicology. Were you surprised in the response and in how long it’s been going?

Brian Shimkovitz: When I started posting cassettes on the blog in 2006, I was doing it as a way to get away from my job. I had a mission in mind to share music I had heard that I knew was very hard to find in America. It’s been really fun to have so much support and openness for the music.

I imagine it would be hard to name your favorite finds, but there must be some cool stories that have come out of the project. Connections? Artists who have taken off? Anything like that?

I recently managed to track down an artist whose tape I posted on the very first blog post. It took years of Internet stalking and searching, and I traveled to random places to search, like Hamburg and Toronto. His name is Ata Kak, and his music has impressed listeners all over the world and became sort of Internet-famous so I really wanted to find him and let him know. He was shocked!

What have you learned about music (or, perhaps, about people) through this project?

I am constantly amazed by how much talent there is in every corner of the world. I am also impressed with the extent to which listeners will go to hear new things. People are really opening their ears these days.

When did you decide to parlay the blog into DJ gigs?

I was just happy doing the blog as a hobby until I was asked a few years ago to DJ at a festival. I hadn’t done it before, but I ended up doing it anyway, and I thought it felt like a great way to bring the blog alive and put the music into a more interesting context than someone’s laptop or whatever. I think that was in 2010? Since then, I have DJed a ton and I have tried to get more tricky with the blending and matching beats in avant-garde ways to make the whole set sort of tell a story or take you from point A to point B.

How do you choose what to play as a DJ — are you still trying to introduce listeners to new music, or is the emphasis more on creating a party vibe?

Depending on the situation, I usually just sort of see what people seem to respond to, although I feel like I have some songs in mind when I start playing, things that I think will be interesting for the dance floor. Definitely there are many people sort of just listening and I think that’s fun, too, since I play music that I hope is surprising to a lo of people. There is such a diversity of music from across Africa, so many language groups and various genres and styles and movements. There is a lot to choose from — though I have limited that by focusing only on DJing cassettes.

If you could collaborate with another Moogest artist, who would it be?
I am a DJ so it’s hard to say. I am superinterested in most of the [artists/performers/presenters] I’ve heard about coming to Moogfest, especially some of the speakers.

Do you think you’ll get to attend any of the day-time technology talks/panels/etc.? If so, what interests you?
I would like to hear Janelle Monae speak. I love Greg Tate’s writing so I bet he’d be interesting. I also would love to check out Hisham Bharoocha’s presentation — his art is excellent.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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