Rewind, if you will, to the foetal stages of the first decade of this millenium. A young man named Brian Shimkovitz is studying at Indiana University. His degree: ethnomusicology. He is curious, wide-eared, feeling his way through that thrilling intersection of culture and sound. It’s around this time that, luckily for us, someone introduces him to the music of Nigerian legend Fela Kuti. This encounter will set in motion an interest in African music that could be politely be described as avid – and quite reasonably as obsessive.
The revelation of Kuti led Brian to Ghana in 2002, where he sought to research highlife music in Accra and beyond. But the journey didn’t end there.
What Brian especially noticed, in day-to-day Africa, was hip-hop; sometimes recalling popular American sounds, at other times blasted to new dimensions through hybridization with distinctly African sounds and affordable, ad-hoc equipment. Itching to delve deeper, he returned to Ghana in 2004, now swimming through the mind-boggling, psychedelic coral reef of African subgenres. He opened his ears to anything he could, nomatter how obscure: from vintage funk and lo-fi disco to high-scool rap, electro-juju, zouk, mbalax (not to mention a million other genre names I daren’t say aloud for fear of mispronouncing) – a never-ending web of remarkable, beautiful and sometimes baffling music all contained on spools of magentic tape within mysterious, reticent paper-and-plastic casings.
Returning to his Brooklyn dwelling with a treasure trove of largely unheard musical gems, Brian did what any benevolent music-lover would do – he started a blog. Little did he know that his humble website – AWESOME TAPES FROM AFRICA – would become a cultural phenomenon, introducing legions of fascinated music fans to artists and records they would never have otherwise heard.
Now, Brian has made his way to Terra Australis. “Wednesdays” – the promotion dream team of Andrew Sinclair and Nik Ridiculous – have put together a party to coincide with his Perth visit. Excellent news.
I wander the humid city and the cool spray of summer rain keeps me in good spirits. The sky’s turning from slate grey to black. Ambling along James Street I encounter a chain of friendly faces, buying ice cream or burgers or riding bicycles. Northbridge seems to beam and sigh as the day slips out from under it. I drop into Ya-Yas to watch the always amusing and bemusing Alex Griffin (Ermine Coat) play some songs, which he seems to be doing a better job of all the time. Then a beeline for The Bird, where I catch the wonderful SAM KUZICH (of Cosmo Gets, The Growl) spinning a selection of mint, Africa-inspired tunes to lubricate the airwaves. The Bird is bulging already. As a result, the would-be dancefloor is tightly populated by the time SAVOIR light the fuse on their musical dynamite (ohhh yeah).
Mei “Saraswati” Swan Lim is front and centre, mic, camo-print jacket, shimmering aura of steeze; she’s flanked by producer-boys Andrew Sinclair and James Ireland. The beats come thick and hard, never compromising artistry for party vibes and never conceding party vibes for artistry. The tunes are pretty varied, spanning R’n’B, hip hop, afrobeat, house and ‘80s synth smoothness, but it’s all unified by a distinctive aesthetic umbrella. I don’t know how they do it, frankly. It’s a kind of wonderful alchemy that you can’t engineer. Wavelength. Mei uses her voice as a kind of tuned percussion, emphasising pulsating, snaking rhythms as much as tone and melody. She moves with every beat, and announces tongue-in-cheek frustration at the crowd’s immobility (“what’s the fucking point if you don’t dance?” she grins). Limbs, sneakers, hips respond accordingly, flailing and blurring with the booms, croons, claps and flutters. It’s a Wednesday night sweat monsoon. I say this about local bands’ sets with a kinda surprising frequency, but I never say it lightly: SAVOIR’s set tonight is absolutely world class, easily one of the best local sets I’ve seen in recent memory. These three could take over the world any minute. SAVOIR C’EST POUVOIR.
Feeling invigorated and impatient, a friend and I duck out, back to Ya-Yas to watch the freshly reformed and re-shuffled post-punky pop band DAVE. They do a good Fleetwood Mac cover, and some new songs, as well as some old ones. The crowd is large and cheerful. We zip back to The Bird, in time to hear some sweltering grooves proffered by the BEN TAAFE and DONNA KEBABEY, before the auspicious tape-deck setup of Brian Shimkovitz takes centre stage.
The cassette clicks in and is off like fireworks. You might expect some thin, tinny, lo-fi sounds to emerge from old dusty cassettes from African marketplaces but not so. These recordings, blooming through the formidable Bird PA system, sound rich and majestic, each driving kick drum and frenentic bongo exploding like a plump cherry tomato. Syncopated West-African guitars are silvery backflipping dolphins of sound meandering sanguinely across dense tapestries of rhythm. Artificial shonky rototoms thrum under life-affirming vocal refrains. Adeptly beatmatching complex cassette grooves (something I’ve never seen anyone do), Brian takes you firmly by the wrist and leads you through a winding labyrinth of unbelievable upbeat musical utopias. The room is a surge of bouncing twisting bodies. You can see the steam rising from shoe-tongues.
It’s not unfair to have a dash of scepticism at the notion. The cynic could read it all like this: middle-class intellectual from Brooklyn pillages the marketplaces of Ghana, returns to America, shares his exotic bounty with online multitudes of obscurity-hungry hipsters and having built a modest blogosphere empire, journeys to Western-world capital cities playing the tapes for middle-class youths to dance to. The process has drawn criticism from those who perceive dubious post-colonial attitudes in Brian’s methodology: the free distribution of another culture’s music, the goggling at bizarre and kitsch tape covers and surreally semi-familiar warped sounds.
But those who follow ATFA closely know this isn’t the case. For Brian, the blog is a labour of love, a selfless gesture aimed at both helping his peers hear these incredible sounds as well as helping many (often hard-done-by in their own careers) African artists reach exposure beyond their own shores – something which, in his experience, these musicians are invariably hopeful for. His knowledge is sweeping, almost Encyclopaedic, researched with the rigour of an ethnomusicologist but with the heart and soul of a DJ and avid music fan. The latter is clear as he bounces around the stage, spectacles reflecting red, yellow and green, hands in the air, singing along. True, maybe most of us are crucially removed from the context in which this music was made, ignorant largely to the social conditions and artistic influences that contributed to what we’re hearing and moving to. But the energy, the sonic and visceral splendour of the tunes, needs no translation – and while the tunes don’t tell the whole story, they’re a pretty special entry point. Brian Shimkovitz now lives in Berlin, and has expanded ATFA into its own record label. The project, already more than six years in the making, shows no signs of slowing down. Awesome.”