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."
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.
There's no other producer in West Africa like DJ Katapila. His album Trotro, reissued in March on Awesome Tapes From Africa, demonstrates a wild combination of breakneck rhythms steeped in his native Ga traditional dances. But the spiritual affinity his music share with the minimal sounds of early house and techno have not gone unnoticed by listeners worldwide. Ghana's tireless producer and DJ, aka Ishmael Abbey, singularly consolidates flavors. As new sounds wind their way from West African neighbors into urban Ghana - particularly the hectic and humid metropolis Accra - Katapila has absorbed and analyzed their insidious influence on local dancers and filtered them into his own works. The result is astonishing.
Two of the tracks here haven't been on wax before. This 12" single made specially for DJs and collectors adds to the lore of Katapila's days-long DJ sets and intensely original and (slightly bananas) FruityLoops-crafted minimalist productions. The two previously-unreleased tracks build on Katapila's international oeuvre significantly, painting a broader picture of what the iconoclastic road warrior dj-producer has been doing the past few years: making his own kind of electronic music that's both deeply personal and wildly international.
Hailu Mergia & Dahlak Band's Wede Harer Guzo is the third release on Awesome Tapes From Africa for Ethiopian keyboard and accordion maestro. In the years since Shemonmuanaye, Mergia has revamped his touring career, playing festivals and clubs worldwide, including a recent tour supporting Beirut. By 1978, Addis Ababa’s nightlife was facing challenges. The ruling Derg regime imposed curfews, banning citizens from the streets after midnight until 6:00 am. But that didn't stop some people from dancing and partying through the night. Bands would play from evening until daybreak and people would stay at the clubs until curfew was lifted in the morning.
One key denizen of Addis' musical golden age, Hailu Mergia, was preparing a follow-up to his seminal Tche Belew LP with the famed Walias Band. It was the band's only full-length record and it had been a success. But his Hilton house band colleagues were a bit tied up recording cassettes with different vocalists. Still Mergia, amidst recording and gigs with the Walias, was also eager to make another recording of his instrumental-focused arrangements. So he went to the nearby Ghion Hotel, another upmarket outpost with a popular nightclub. Dahlak Band was the house band at Ghion at the time. Together they made this tape Wede Harer Guzo right there in the club during the band's afternoon rehearsal meetings, with sessions lasting three days.
Dahlak Band catered to a slightly more youthful, local audience, while Mergia's main gig with the Walias at Addis' swankiest hotel had a mixed audience that included wealthy Ethiopians, foreign diplomats and older folks from abroad. Therefore, their sets featured lighter fare during dinnertime and a less rollicking selection of jazz and r&b. Meanwhile, Dahlak was known more for the mainly soul and Amharic jams they served up for hours two nights a week to a younger crowd.
Mergia released Wede Harer Guzo ("Journey to Harer," a city in eastern Ethiopia) with Sheba Music Shop, which was located in the Piazza district but has long since shut down. His cassette copy is the only known source we could find. Jessica Thompson at Coast Mastering managed to restore the recording to clean up layers of hiss, flutter and distorted frequencies, made worse by years of storage. Although there are some remaining sonic artifacts of the era's recording and cassette duplicating quality, this reissue captures the band's inimitable vibe.
Recalling the audience's positive reaction to Wede Harer Guzo's novel arrangements, he says it sold well and found many fans. However, as no trace of the tape can be found online, there’s no indication as to why the cassette appears largely forgotten until now.
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.
DJ Katapila makes Ga traditional music using electronic sounds instead of live percussion to create his own kind of what he calls house music. In the context of Ghana's pop music landscape, Katapila's music is singular. The uptempo, bass-heavy, Roland 808-rooted sounds echo early 1990's Detroit techno and Chicago acid house more than the contemporary hiplife productions blasting across Ghanaian airwaves currently.
However, the structure of Katapila's sound directly descends from Ga musical lineage found around Accra. Neo-traditional dance music forms gome, kpanlogo and gyama are there.
DJ Katapila didn't start producing music until he was 39 years old. Around 1998, began chanting and rapping in Twi and Ga during instrumental breaks of songs he was DJing. He added Yamaha DD11 electronic drum pads and sampler and invented new creations on the fly. Katapila then began experimenting with program beats using Fruity Loops on his laptop.
His music reflects his love for the international dance pop that filtered into Accra's radio waves in the '90s: Inner City's "Big Fun"; C&C Music Factory's "Gonna Make You Sweat"; Crystal Waters' "Gypsy Woman"; even Rick Astley hits, among many others. Katapila mixed international tunes with highlife - J.A. City Boys and AB Crentsil - as well as hiplife, Ghanaian gospel, Jamaican dancehall, soca and regional Francophone hits. This blend helped set the stage for Trotro and the inspired yet minimalist dance music Katapila now creates.
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.
SK Kakraba is master of the gyil, Ghanaian xylophone made of 14 wooden slats strung across calabash gourd resonators. The buzzy rattle emitted with each note comes from the silk walls of spiders' egg sacs stretched across holes in the gourds, called paapieye in Lobi language. The gyil's earthy sound can be heard in parts of Upper West and Northern Regions of Ghana, as well as CÃ’te d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and beyond, where it goes by other names.
The characteristic buzzing timbre might sound odd to foreign ears. But this distortion is just one of the beautifying sensibilities crucial to SK's gyil music, which he learned as a child from elders in his Lobi community in the far northwest reaches of Ghana.
Although the gyil is sometimes played in pairs and with drum and bell, SK lives in Los Angeles these days and plays alone quite often. Songs of Paapieye surveys a deliberate snapshot of SK's hereditary Lobi repertoire heard through the lens of a stripped-down, and sometimes spare-sounding, solo gyil. The album focuses on a selection of SK's favorite song cycles, funeral dirges, improvised interpretations on traditional songs and original compositions - and combinations thereof.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.