Ata Kak's cassette Obaa Sima fell on deaf ears when it was self-released in Ghana and Canada in 1994. The music on the recording - an amalgam of highlife, Twi-language rap, funk and disco - is presented with the passion of a Prince record and the DIY-bedroom-recording lo-fi charm of early Chicago house music. The astute self-taught song craft and visionary blend of sounds and rhythms has made the album a left-field cult favorite among adventurous listeners worldwide. Awesome Tapes From Africa founder Brian Shimkovitz found the tape in 2002 in Cape Coast, Ghana - one of only a few ever pressed - and later made it the inaugural post on the Awesome Tapes From Africa blog. Hundreds of thousands of downloads, YouTube views, music video tributes and remixes, as well as years of mystery regarding Ata Kak's whereabouts, culminate in this remastered release featuring rare photos and the full back story of one of the internet age's most enigmatic musicians.
The worldwide release of Aby Ngana Diop’s Liital tape this fall was a long time coming. A much-requested reissue that appeared on the blog years ago, Liital was met with a hail of critical acclaim upon its release. Now, a group of artists known for adventurous work remixes some of Diop’s most striking songs. Black Dice, Orchestra of Spheres and Michael Ozone draw inspiration from Diop’s vivid original recordings, presenting new takes on the seminal griot’s frenetic and highly rhythmic songs. Orchestra of Spheres must be the most out-of-this-world band in music today. The Wellington, NZ outfit makes its own instruments and sounds like they come from another planet, where nonstop dance and remarkable melodies are the norm. Michael Ozone is a Melbourne-based producer who has absorbed an ever-expanding universe of influences, propelling his mercurial vision to listeners-in-the-know outside Australia. He builds a megamix out of Diop’s songs equally suited for a thoughtful chill or a mellow dance. The long-running group Black Dice is a legendary force in American music, whose seminal body of work stretches across sensibilities and movements. Their startling approach to turning Diop’s music inside-out takes a compelling turn in this brain-rattling remix. Although she passed away in 1997, Aby Ngana Diop’s only cassette release lives on through the recent reissue and with these remixes, entering a new chapter of recognition among contemporary musicians around the world.
The acclaimed and highly sought-after LP by Hailu Mergia and the Walias, Tche Belew, an album of instrumentals released in 1977, is perhaps the most seminal recording released in the aftermath of the 1974 revolution. The story of the Walias band is a critical chapter in Ethiopian popular music, taking place during a period of music industry flux and political complexity in the country.
Hailu Mergia, a keyboardist and arranger diligently working the nightclub scene in Addis Ababa, formed the Walias in the early 1970's with a core group of musicians assembled from prior working bands. They played Mergia's funk- and soul-informed tunes, while cutting 45rpm singles with various vocalists.
While the Walias performed at top hotels and played the presidential palace twice, their relationship with the Derg regime was complex, evidenced by the removal of one song from the record by government censors.
Decades later, Hailu Mergia was surprised to see the album fetching more than $4,000 at online auctions (it helped that the most popular of all Ethiopian tunes "Musicawi Silt" appeared on the record). Now everyone has the chance to listen again - or for the first time - to this timeless pillar of Ethiopian popular music.
Aby Ngana Diop was the most famous taasukat in Dakar, Senegal in the 1980s and 1990s. Taasu is a Wolof-language poetic style, usually performed by women griots over frenetic drum patterns, with an aggressive verbal flow thought to presage rap. Her only album Liital was groundbreaking in the history of Senegalese music because it was the first commercial recording to feature a traditional female taasukat performing to the modern accompaniment of mbalax, Senegal's quintessential pop genre. The distinctive style is captured in all its ear-popping, left-field glory on the recording, which was massively popular upon its release. Diop's powerful chants and incantations above urgent female chorus, cross-rhythmic blasts of the sabar and tama drums, as well as synthesizers, drum machines, hand claps, tambourine jingles and horse and train engine samples. When Aby Ngana Diop died unexpectedly on July 4, 1997, the country mourned her passing, but continued to celebrate her music. Although this cassette has caught the attention of some African music aficianados who have stumbled upon it in recent years, it remains largely unknown to the wider world. Hopefully this re-release from Awesome Tapes From Africa will change that.
Penny Penny’s 1994 debut Shaka Bundu helped put Tsonga music on the map and helped open usher in the electronic era of South African popular music. Following the success of the album’s subsequent international reissue over 20 years later via Awesome Tapes From Africa, Penny Penny Remixes looks at the current music situation in South Africa—a place where homegrown house and techno rub shoulders with kwaito, hip-hop and a rainbow of indigenous pop and folk styles. So Penny Penny Remixes merely scratches the surface with a very brief survey of the voices contributing to a wonderfully diverse dance and electronic music environment. The modern landscape of sounds heard among the artists on this digital EP mirror Shaka Bundu, a crucial turning point in South African pop music in general and Tsonga music in particular, thereby connecting the dots between electrified Shangaan disco and sounds ranging from township jive to mbaqanga to bubblegum to R&B, arriving at today’s vibrant movement of msanzi house and various regional house, techno and visionary electronic music scenes. The musicians here represent a few of the most innovative musicians whose varied takes on Penny’s energy make for fascinating listening, giving hope that music made for the dance-floor continues to develop in surprising ways.
The story of South African singer and dancer Penny Penny is fit for Hollywood. A nearly homeless janitor with no education gets a record deal, becomes a multi-platinum-selling pop star, plays stadiums across Africa, then builds a career as a politician for Mandela's African National Congress party. Penny Penny's debut recording Shaka Bundu, recorded in 1994, is the album that took a 34-year-old Giyani Kulani Kobane from the streets of Johannesburg to the chambers of power. After a chance meeting with Tsonga disco producer Joe Shirimani, just six months after apartheid was lifted, Penny Penny's Shaka Bundu was released and entered the consciousness of the entire country. Penny Penny became an immediate sensation, against the expectations of everyone involved. The album went on to sell more than 250,000 copies in South Africa and Penny Penny has played to thousands on stadium stages from Liberia and Sierra Leone to Namibia and Mozambique. The music was something new for Tsonga disco. Slow house music rhythms became the foundation for Penny's anthemic exultations. Using Atari computers, Korg M1 synthesizer and reel-to-reel tape for vocals, Penny and Shirimani cut the entire record in just seven days. Their signature bass sound combined richness and sharpness with the root tones of an organ. Penny's rap-like delivery became his calling card: a husky, playful vocal performance heavy on vibes. Nearly 20 years since Shaka Bundu blasted from speakers across a newly free South Africa, the music still sounds big and worldly. And, despite shifting his energies from stadium shows to municipal matters, Penny Penny still sports his signature top-bun hairstyle.
Ethiopian keyboardist Hailu Mergia’s re-emergence on the international scene this year has inspired a slew of musicians and dreamers worldwide. The DC-based taxi driver made his name as one of the key players in the Ethiopian music scene in the 1970s. Following the critically-lauded reissue of his haunting, accordion-and-synth-drenched ode to classic Ethiopian music, Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument / Shemonmuanaye, comes Hailu Mergia Remixes, a digital EP featuring some of Awesome Tapes From Africa’s favorite artists.
Norwegian producer and DJ Prins Thomas’ prolific portfolio of balearic productions and remixes, as well as his celebrated collaborations with Lindstrøm, has captured the world’s attention over the last several years. Slipping his spaced-out perspective into the mellow tempo of “Wegene,” the multi-layered, percussive remix soars while maintaining the mystique of Hailu’s characteristic bachelor pad jazz right-hand wanderings.
Further delving into “Wegene” is the DC-based studio and live duo Protect-U. Aaron Leitko and Mike Petillo (the latter is a co-founder of the critically acclaimed Future Times label), build a cross-generational synth-based affinity with Hailu’s piece, preserving the undulating source groove while transforming the landscape into a futuristic beauty all its own. There is not a harsh toke to be found within the vibe they create amidst the already moody original.
The final remix comes from El Guincho (aka Pablo Díaz-Reixa), whose continent-blurring XL Recordings releases, production work and remixes for artists including Björk and Empress Of have fascinated Awesome Tapes From Africa for a while now. The Canary Islands native responds to the Amharic standard “Ambasel” with an upbeat wit that pits a subtle dancefloor zone against hissy chill-out room sizzles.
Hailu Mergia is a one-man band.
In 1985 master accordionist and veteran bandleader/arranger/keyboardist released the Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument cassette. In a nostalgic effort to bring back the vintage accordion sound of his youth, Mergia gave Ethiopian music a sonic makeover. Mergia was already celebrated for his work with the groundbreaking, industry-shifting Addis Ababa ethio-jazz and funk outfit the Walias Band, he pressed forward using new tools to retool the popular sounds of the past.
Adding a Moog synthesizer, Rhodes electric piano and rhythm machine, to the rich harmonic layering of his accordion, he created elegantly arranged, hauntingly psychedelic instrumentals. These songs draw from famous traditional and modern Ethiopian songs, as Mergia brilliantly matches Amhara, Tigrinya and Oromo melodies to otherworldly flavors soaked in jazz and blues, synthesizing a lush, futuristic landscape. He balances Ethiopian music's signature melodic shape with beautiful analog synth touches floating upon clouds of hypnotically minimal rhythm tracks.
The international re-release of legendary Somali outfit Dur-Dur Band’s Volume 5 celebrates the vibrant Mogadishu music scene of the 1980s. On the heels of that successful release comes Dur-Dur Band Remixes, a digital EP featuring reworkings by two crucial American producers: Airbird, aka Joel Ford, co-founder of the Software label and half of electronic duo Ford & Lopatin; and Secret Circuit, who is Eddie Ruscha, creator of a much-adored catalog of recordings for RVNG Intl., Beats in Space, Emotion Response along with his own self-released tapes and EPs.
Dur-Dur Band’s distinctive sound is a jumping off point like no other for these two artists. Airbird strips down the disco romp “Dooyo” into an ethereal meditation with slowly mutating midranges. When the vocals finally rise from a bed of multiplied rhythms and angelic keyboards, the track approaches its sublime finish. Secret Circuit unleashes his signature dub/disco/acid sensibilities, layering and manipulating elements of the brief “Dur-Dur Band Introduction.” He starts with a new beat and transforms it into a dubbed out synth delay with whispers of the guitar line and handclaps. The spoken word bits from the original version leak out in a dream-like trickle as the groove deconstructs and ultimately fades away.
Dur-Dur Band emerged in the 1980s, during a time when Somalia’s contribution to the creative culture in the Horn of Africa was visible and abundant. Seeking inspiration outside the impressive array of Somali traditional music that was encouraged at the time, everyone from Michael Jackson and Phil Collins to Bob Marley and Santana were fair game. This recording, which was remastered from a cassette copy source, is a document of Dur-Dur Band after establishing itself as one of the most popular bands in Mogadishu. The challenge of locating a complete long-player from this era is evidenced bythe fidelity of this recording. However, the complex, soulful music penetrates the hiss. In a country that has been disrupted by civil war, heated clan divisions and security concerns, music and the arts has suffered from stagnation in recent years. Incidentally, more than ten years after Volume 5 (1987) was recorded at Radio Mogadishu, the state-run broadcaster was the only station in Somalia to resist the ban on music briefly enacted by Al-Shabab. Dur-Dur Band is a powerful and illustrative lens through which to appreciate the incredible sounds in Somalia before the country's stability took a turn.
Bola’s music aggressively melds sheer force of spirit with a sound not often heard by ears outside the remote Upper East Region of Ghana. His bold fury stems from the kologo—a two-stringed lute with a calabash gourd resonator—and Frafra-language vocals, emitted in raspy bursts. This is some of the most distinct and dynamic music to come out of Ghana since the emergence of hiplife music in the mid-90s. Volume 7, which came out in 2008, is just one entry in a brilliant series of recordings Bola has released on CD and cassette. Although he employs a traditional instrument and the age-old mode of griot story-telling, Bola embraces elements of modern mainstream Ghanaian music—drum machines, synths, bone-shaking bass. Inspired by pioneering kologo greats like King Ayisoba, Bola has taken a dynamic instrument used by traditional healers and herbalists to sing to god in search of advice and taken it to futuristic heights.
Na Hawa Doumbia's La Grande Cantatrice Malienne Vol 3 marks the first release for new label Awesome Tapes From Africa, a blog and DJ project known worldwide for shedding light on obscure and wonderful musical treasures from the African continent.
This early recording—made in Abidjan, Ivory Coast in 1982—captures the dualities inherent in Doumbia's music early on: from a stripped-down, raw backdrop arise warm sonics; expressions of feminism and social issues imparted through spare refrains.
Doumbia's urgent, distinctive vocals and hypnotic didadi rhythm from her native Bougouni have made her a respected voice in Mali for more than three decades. Today she is best known for her contributions to Wassoulou music.
The singer was raised by her grandmother—her mother died shortly after giving birth. But before passing away she predicted Doumbia would be a singer—something surprising, since she didn't come from the jeli (or griot) caste of hereditary singers. Her grandparents resorted to the magical powers of blacksmiths to fight it, but ultimately the prediction proved correct. Doumbia's music is more powerful than magic.