A monumental career in pop music isn't easy when the system is built against you. But South African songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist "Om" Alec Khaoli managed to do just that with his band Umoja. As apartheid reached its violent peak, Khaoli pursued an escapist form of dance music that resonated across his complicated country, influencing countless legends and releasing recordings across the world.
Umoja, which means oneness or unity in Swahili, was clear in its message to the public. "Oriented towards society, advocating uniting of people. Race was the big thing," Khaoli says. "We wanted people to come together and unite and just form a oneness." Indeed the band's fanbase was mixed among black, colored and white fans. However, their lyrics were not overtly political. "If you wrote songs about apartheid, we would disguise them. If we used language as it was, we would get arrested."
The band helped refine a commercially powerful emergent style, bubblegum, with the album 707 in 1988. "Bubblegum music was about escape," according to Khaoli. "If you had grown up in South Africa at the time, there was nothing more in your life than oppression. It was even in your dreams. Anything that was a way out was welcome... When this music was playing everyone just wanted to dance, just have a good time."
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.
DJ Katapila's Aroo EP is the latest addition to the iconoclastic producer's catalog of fast-paced, pan-West African-influenced dance music. From a young age, Ishmael Abbey was a beloved local DJ in Accra, Ghana’s competitive and rapidly-evolving music galaxy.
DJ Katapila's debut release with Awesome Tapes From Africa, 2016's reissue of Trotro, ignited international acclaim for the Ghanaian DJ and producer: The New York Times, Pitchfork, Resident Advisor and FACT heaped praise on his work. Katapila launched a touring career beyond his grueling schedule of all-night parties around Ghana's southern coast and neighboring countries, heading to Europe and the UK, where he performed at festivals and clubs the pasty two years. Katapila brought Ghana's street party culture to audiences overseas; a wave of joy and happy dancers were left in his wake.
The EP's final cut is a track released with a an eye-catching music video this summer called "Monkey." Following radioplay in Ghana and demand from fans online, this track makes its debut on vinyl.
Awesome Tapes From Africa is proud to present new music from this unmistakably original artist with an honesty and unpretentiousness that feels good at this current point in history.
Professor Rhythm is the production moniker of South African music man Thami Mdluli. Throughout the 1980's, Mdluli was member of chart-topping groups Taboo and CJB, playing bubblegum pop to stadiums. Mdluli became an in-demand producer for influential artists (like Sox and Sensations, among many others) and in-house producer for important record companies like Eric Frisch and Tusk. During the early '80s, Mdluli projects usually featured an instrumental dance track. These hot instrumentals became rather popular. Fans demanded to hear more of these backing tracks without vocals, he says, so Mdluli began to make solo instrumental albums in 1985 as Professor Rhythm. He got the name before the recordings began, from fans, and positive momentum from audiences and other musicians drove him to invest himself in a full-on solo project. It was the era just before the end of apartheid and house music hadn't taken over yet. There wasn't instrumental electronic music yet in South Africa. As the '80s came to a close, that was about to change.
Professor Rhythm productions mirror the evolution of dance music in South Africa. They grew out of the bubblegum mold - which itself stems from band's channeling influences like Kool & the Gang and the Commodores - into something based on music for the club. His early instrumental recordings First Time Around and Professor 3 mostly distilled R&B, mbaqanga and bubblegum grooves into vocal-less pieces for the dance floor. Musically, these were a success and commercially the albums all went gold. There were countless bubblegum albums flooding the marketplace, with nearly disposable vocalists backed by mostly similar-sounding rhythm tracks. Most of the lyrical content was light and apolitical. But the keyboards used formed the musical basis for what would come next.
By the time Professor 4 and this recording Bafana Bafana - the name references South Africa's national soccer team - were released in the mid-1990s, kwaito had fully emerged. Access to instruments and freedom of expression helped its rise in influence among youth. According to Mdluli, "Once Mandela was released from prison and people felt more free to express themselves and move around town, kwaito was becoming the thing." Lyrically, kwaito championed the local township lingo while adapting "international music," house music, into the local context. "International Music," as house music and early kwaito were interchangeably known, in many ways reflects the sounds coming from America. But South Africans made it their own. Today, the largest part of the music industry is occupied by house music and its relatives.
At the age of 28, Awalom Gebremariam arrived in the United States, following a years-long journey from Eritrea. He'd made it to a refugee camp in Ethiopia several years ago and eventually attained asylum status for passage to America. But before he left his hometown, Eritrea's capital Asmara, he made his first and only recording so far, Desdes.
Awalom completed Desdes in 2007, not long before he departed Eritrea. Because Awalom left after the recording he never received any money for cassette and CD sales. But he also didn't get to find out how much of an impact the songs have had locally.
His songs appear to focus on love, but Awalom isn't speaking about romantic love per se. Much of the music Awalom heard growing up was intertwined with Eritrea's difficult and contentious split from Ethiopia.
He spent years waiting for the chance to escape economic and political turmoil at home. Now 29 and living in North Carolina, Awalom works in a restaurant and plans to bring his music to Eritrean communities across North America as well as newer listeners with whom his powerful sounds and remarkable journey will deeply resonate.
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.
Senegalese kora master Sourakata KoitÃ© began music from pretty much day one. "All the KoitÃ© are musicians!," he says. Indeed he is a member of a family of djÃ©li (or griot in french), the hereditary caste of musician-storyteller-historians in West Africa. After moving to Paris in the late 70s he began to play in different bands and for musicians like Manu Dibango, TourÃ© Kounda, Mangala, Mah Damba and more. During a festival in Holland, a music producer form Plexus Records heard him and asked to make a recording. In 1984 in an old chicken coop near Delft, KoitÃ© recorded the entire album in one take, including overdubs. The rich sonics and deep sound beautifully presents KoitÃ©'s virtuosic and entrancing renditions of traditional and original tunes. With the reissue of en Hollande, Awesome Tapes From Africa continues its mission of bringing tapes posted on the ATFA website over the years, including this one, to music fans all over the world.
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.
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 LindstrÃ¸m, 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 DÃaz-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.
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.
Capping several successful years traveling the world performing to audiences big and small, Hailu Mergia's Lala Belu has been a long time coming. It builds on Mergia's remarkable career resurgence over the past few years. Beginning in 2013 with the reissue of his dreamy Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument followed by the enormous success of his seminal Ethio-jazz masterpiece Tche Belew and continuing with last year's widely acclaimed Wede Harer Guzo, Mergia has received considerable accolades from listeners and press globally, including The New York Times, Pitchfork and The Wire. His old recordings are cherished revelations for Ethiopian music fans; however, Mergia's return to the stage has been just as inspiring and electrifying. Mergia's vintage recordings are known for an inherently mysterious and worn-in quality, while his new recordings echo his band's 21st century live show with modern instrumental interpretations of crucial Ethiopian standards and Mergia's own original compositions. Tony Buck (drums) and Mike Majkowski (bass), who have backed Mergia on tour throughout Europe and Australia, form the bass-drums trio on the recording. Having played venues from Radio City Music Hall and the Kennedy Center to jazz festivals, rock clubs and DIY spaces all over North America, Europe and Australia, Mergia and Awesome Tapes From Africa want to document this moment in his landmark career with a snapshot of Mergia's current sound.
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.
Musicawi Silt is the best known Ethiopian song from Addis Ababa's golden era of 1970s pop music. The insistent drive of the rhythm and the mighty blast of the horns - a sublime, angular burst - are unmistakable. Hailu Mergia's concept for the Walias first LP "Tche Belew" was to include compositions by various band members. Since Girma Beyene, a member of the Walias, wrote this addictive song in the mid-70s and the Walias band began including it in their sets, it has spread around the world, receiving cover treatments by bands of all kinds. The legendary track has never been available in its original form on a 7-inch single until now.
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.
Here's 12" single #2 from Ata Kak's now-legendary 1993 solo cassette, Obaa Sima. Released to much acclaim earlier this year after an exhaustive search for the musician, the tape has reached left-field music fans worldwide via the Awesome Tapes From Africa LP and CD. With this limited edition 12" for DJ’s and other nerds, the songs "Obaa Sima" and "Adagya" jump off the wax, inviting deeper examination. The two Ghana-by-way-of-Toronto dance tracks whip themselves into an unabashed frenzy, and sound like nothing else. As well, they capture some of the beautiful mystery behind the elusive auteur who'd been living quietly back in Kumasi (Ghana) the last several years since leaving Canada, where the album was recorded.
In the past year since ATFA founder Brian Shimkovitz finally tracked down Ata Kak after an 8-year search, efforts have been made to learn more about what made this very particular music happen. The image we've seen revealed is of an iconoclastic bedroom producer making music his own way, with a sort of DIY spirit - Ata Kak put together his own studio using second-hand instruments and gear, teaching himself how to make a record. This 12" features the singer/producer's ode to the ideal woman, "Obaa Sima," which sets the stage for the entire one-of-a-kind cassette. The B-side, "Adagya," exemplifies Ata Kak's inimitable collision of new jack swing, rap and scatting, all held down by minimal keyboard harmony and a timeless sense of highlife soul. Ata Kak maybe have made this visionary work more than two decades ago but its joyful, unpretentious creative spirit was well ahead of its time.
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.
Awa Poulo is a singer of Peulh origin from Dilly commune, Mali, near the border with Mauritania. Largely pastoral and often nomadic, Peulh- (or Fula-)speaking peoples are found from Senegal to Ethiopia but predominate in the Sahel region of West Africa. Awesome Tapes From Africa is proud to release Poulo's newest recording of highly virtuosic folk-pop, fresh from the studio, broadcasting her vision of Peulh music beyond the grazing grounds and central markets of her remote home region in southwestern Mali.
It's not very common to find a female singer performing publicly among the Peulh. But Poulo's mother's co-wife is Inna Baba Coulibaly, who is a celebrated singer most Malian music fans know. Coulibaly herself was brought into music by forces outside her control when a regional music contest required an entry from her village and she was chosen to be a singer. So, set in motion by a surprising series of events, young Poulo's entree into the music world was auspicious as she gained popularity across the region. After several locally released tapes and CDs, this record is Poulo's first internationally-distributed record.
Say You Love Me wasn’t "Om" Alec Khaoli's first solo recording but the 1985 EP solidified the bass player and songwriter's standing as one of South Africa's most consistently innovative pop auteurs. He built a career on ubiquitous rock, pop and soul hits with groundbreaking bands like the Beaters, Harari and Umoja. But Khaoli's seemingly endless fountain of music continued outside these ensembles, where he usually played bass and contributed songwriting and vocals.
Khaoli released several successful solo works while he made records with Umoja and worked on other productions with friends. This creativity was aided by Khaoli's own recording studio. He was the first South African to have a privately-owned studio. As black artists were forced to record during lunch breaks and didn’t get sufficient access and time in the white-owned studios, having his studio allowed Khaoli to develop in his own way. Hence his productive output during the 80's and early 90's, releasing 5 LPs with Umoja and 5 solo LPs, along with numerous singles and EPs.
There's something broad and dynamic about the almost epic pop sound Khaoli creates on Say You Love Me. Being the first South African to take control his recording process and thereby free himself from one of apartheid's many strictures, he took his vision of music to new realms and made timeless music for the dance floor in the process.