“Democracy: Political, social, or economic equality: the absence or disavowal of hereditary or arbitrary class distinctions or privileges… A state of society characterized by tolerance toward minorities, freedom of expression, and respect for the essential dignity and worth of the human individual with equal opportunity for each to develop freely to his fullest capacity in a cooperative community.” –Webster’s Third New International Dictionary
“This is music you won’t easily find anywhere else — except, perhaps in its region of origin.” –Awesome Tapes from Africa
Awesome Tapes from Africa is a blog-turned-label that posts and releases music originally gathered on cassettes while founder Brian Shimkovitz traveled around West Africa. Awesome Tapes is striking as a source of knowledge — that is, as an educational resource. Of course, all musical outlets present themselves as pools of information to be tapped, but Awesome Tapes is especially pronounced in this sense, firstly, as it offers music that would be virtually unreachable for much of its readership/listenership without duplicate journeys across Ghana, Togo, Burkina Faso, and Mali; and secondly, by way of its subsistence, aside from being a label, as a constituent of the blogosphere, which also gives it significant democratic value.
In Blogs and the New Politics of Listening, Coleman, S. (2005) locates, and explains in detail, the democratic worth of blogs: “Blogs allow people — indeed, expect them — to express incomplete thoughts. This terrain of intellectual evolution, vulnerability and search for confirmation or refutation from wider sources is in marked contrast to the crude certainties that dominate so much of political discourse.” Accordingly, in an interview with FADER TV, Shimkovitz tells of Awesome Tapes’ beginnings and affirms said terrain of intellectual evolution: “It was, like, 2006; blogs were still a little bit new, but people were really grabbing onto it a bit. It was very quickly that I saw that people were downloading the music and commenting on it really positively, and these people were from all different types of musical backgrounds or interests.” He continues, “The whole great thing about using technology to connect with people about this music is that all the different people’s ideas and knowledge get to be put all together.”
Moreover, Coleman also suggests that “blogs lower the threshold of entry to the global debate for traditionally unheard or marginalized voices.” Acknowledged, in Shimkovitz’s own words, Awesome Tapes releases “music you won’t easily find anywhere else — except, perhaps in its region of origin.” In keeping, Volume 7 is refreshing to my considerably Western European ears, and Bola’s synthesis of the traditional and the modern is simultaneously accessible and obscure. Ironically, with regard to my personal experience listening to the record, the new(er)-fashioned sounds — deranged minimal electronics — provide familiarity, while those entrenched in Ghanaian tradition are peculiar and exciting.
The modern Ghanaian sound, it appears, is characterized by the electronic minimalism present on Volume 7, a product of the invasion of Ghana’s soundscape by drum-box and synthesizer music in the 1980s and 90s, by way of the ‘highlife’ and ‘hiplife’ movements. Bola fuses this with a forceful strumming of the kologo — a two-string lute — to create a spirited and heavy-dance-evoking undercurrent to his songs. Above all is Bola’s explosive voice, which is packed with intense emotion, its distressed tone coming at an angle to the jaunty musical backing.
Bola leaned to play music while taking care of his family’s animals, and his lack of schooling is positively audible in the raw quality of Volume 7. The album is Awesome Tapes’ second release since evolving into a record label and follows La Grande Cantatrice Malienne Vol 3 by Mali’s Nâ Hawa Doumbia. The success of Awesome Tapes from Africa can be accredited to awesome releases like this, yet it also indicates — in conjunction with the Congolese Congotronics series and South Africa’s Shangaan Electro — a migration of avant-garde African sounds toward a new set of listeners.