Africa remains a musical mystery for many people. Yes, the internet can in theory answer any of your questions about the hundreds of musical traditions and genres of the continent, but many of the artists who progress or add to these traditions and styles of music aren’t online. The simple fact is that that only 7% of Africa’s population is online.
To generalise, Westerners can like an artist’s Facebook page, comment on one of their videos, download a song for free from SoundCloud, and stream a whole album without breaking a sweat – this is not the case for the majority of Africa, partly because there is no artist online, at least in some followable capacity, in the first place.
The digital divide between affluent nations and Africa is an intense gap, seemingly impossible to cross or breach in any way. Musical treasures of the past and modern musical talents tend to not reach Western ears, not often anyway, and as a result pretty much all African music can be labelled as, unfairly but understandably, obscure, or treated as an exotic oddity – as if it can’t be held to exist within itself until it has been assimilated, altered and eventually accepted by the West.
That is why it would be a lot nicer if we could hear African music all the time, to dissuade its detractors and cease reductionist exoticism and usher it into the canon of the music of the world, of the internet, and even have it counted as popular music, dispelling any sense of Otherness that traditional African music makes some people feel.
The humble and formerly ubiquitous cassette tape turned 50 years old in August 2013. Brian Shimkovitz, whose Awesome Tapes From Africa blog and record label throw open the aural windows to African music, scenes and subgenres the West would never have learned about otherwise.
“My whole mission has been to show people what African music sounds like in Africa,” says Los Angeles-based Shimkovitz, whose fascination with Africana exploded during the he spent researching the hip-hop scene in Ghana with the help of a Fulbright grant. Back then, a locally produced cassette cost a fraction of what a Europe-pressed CD went for. “Cassette technology has been conducive to the decentralization, diversification and marked expansion of recording industries,” wrote ethnomusicologist Peter Manuel in 1993, noting that Ghana then boasted more than 2,700 dubbing shops and yearly sales of some 2 million bootleg cassettes.
Home to some of the world’s most beautiful and diverse sounds, Mali’s huge capital city, Bamako, turned out to be especially fertile territory for Shimkovitz’s cassette fever. “It’s not like crate digging,” he says of his shopping expeditions, “because you’re buying the same things anyone else could find. They’re often pieces of art in their own way, but they’re not necessarily as rare as the vinyl people dig for in garages and basements. Which is part of the fun, because it’s accessible to everybody and quite cheap.”