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AWESOME TAPES FROM AFRICA

In the 1980s, Abidjan's Jess Sah Bi & Peter One became one of the most popular musical acts in not just the Ivory Coast (Cote d'Ivoire), but broader West Africa, eventually performing with a full band to stadium-sized audiences at home and throughout Benin, Guinea, Mali and Togo. Although they'd been popular radio and television performers for several years prior, the catalyst for Jess and Peter achieving this new level of stardom was their debut album, Our Garden Needs Its Flowers, recorded and released in 1985.

In contrast with the heaving funk, disco and reggae sounds of the day, Our Garden Needs Its Flowers was a lush fusion of traditional Ivorian village songs and American and English country and folk-rock music. Jess and Peter sang in French, English and Gouro, delivering beautifully harmonized meditations on social injustice and inequality, calls for unity across the African continent, an end to apartheid in South Africa and the odd song for the ladies, all set against lush guitar riffs, rustic harmonica and rollicking feel-good rhythms. Surprisingly, it's the first time the album has been re-released in a high-fidelity, legally licensed form. Jess and Peter had shared experiences of loving and drawing inspiration from the traditional and ceremonial songs they remembered their mothers singing in their respective hometowns of Barata and Ono. In addition, hearing imported country and folk-rock music over the radio in the early ‘70s was a lightbulb moment for both of them. Jess recalls DJs playing Kenny Rogers, Don Williams and Dolly Parton on the radio in the morning, while Peter notes the significant presence Simon & Garfunkel, Cat Stevens, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Creedence Clearwater Revival had in his listening life.

Country music and folk-rock weren’t very popular with the general public. But interest was bubbling up within the growing student population, who connected with the protest sentiments expressed by many English and American artists of the era and loved the sound as well. “It’s very nice music, with very nice harmonies, and it’s different from what you hear every day,” Peter says. “The language was a big barrier though. You had to learn English to understand the songs, and the students were the ones learning English.” Having access to education along with their awareness of growing social and political inequality and injustice made students the perfect audience for folk music in Ivory Coast

Hailu Mergia

Yegojam Marnesh / Yegle Nesh

Awesome Tapes From Africa come through with some strictly limited (100 copies worldwide folks) bonus business from Ethiopian hero Hailu Mergia. This high demand 7" serves up two extra tracks as a sonic complement to Hailu Mergia’s new album. Where the album scales angular heights between modern jazz and Ethiopian harmonies, these two tracks explore the heavier side of Mergia’s trio work with drummer Tony Buck and Bassist Mike Majkowski. The band has toured the world together over the last few years following Mergia’s reissuing some of his classic recordings via Awesome Tapes From Africa. On the A-side "Yegojam Marnesh" shuffles through the kind of loungey Afro-jazz you'd expect from an outerplanetary resort bar, while B-side "Yegle Nesh" treats us to stomping funk percussion, twisted organ lines and heavyweight bass, bursting through the speakers like a Dilla-sampled Placebo workout. 

FORMAT INFORMATION

7" Info: Very Limited bonus 7” (100 copies only).

South African mbaqanga and bubblegum instrumentals for the dance-floor. First time available outside South Africa. Cult favorite among collectors. Follows the successful reissue of “Bafana Bafana” last year. Professor Rhythm’s 1991 recording Professor 3 is a vivid reflection of urban South Africa as apartheid was ending. Thami Mdluli’s production project had young and old dancing to a sound that sought to unite Blacks within Southern Africa. “Our music gave hope to the hopeless,” he says. Mdluli’s third instrumental album (which contains some background vocals, to be exact), portrays the moment when the dominant mbaqanga and American R&B-based bubblegum sounds being produced in Johannesburg and other urban centers were transforming into house and hip-hop-inspired kwaito. The pop of the 80’s and all that went with it—from the models of synths and drum machines to the lyrical style—gave way to a changing melodic emphasis and new, much slower tempi using a completely different rhythmic skeleton. Upbeat, chipper bubblegum, often with double-time breakdowns and upstroke syncopations, faded and the sounds began to more closely resemble those of contemporary Black America—where hip-hop was slowing down and the bass-lines and melodies were getting moodier, darker in general.

At the same time house music had briefly reached mainstream acceptance in the States and that popularity continued to feed into awareness overseas. These two influences blended with the burgeoning house music scenes in Johannesburg and Pretoria as Professor Rhythm 3 was being produced in March 1991 (the same year apartheid ended). Mdluli explains, “We were Influenced by foreign bands and so people updated their sound.” According to Mdluli, the evolving sound was bolstered by widening availability of house and rap records from abroad while, most importantly, an increasing sense that apartheid might soon be finished was met with a new positivity vibe society. “1991, ’92, ’93… Mandela was released. People were upbeat, they were happy, the music was good.” Professor 3 came out on vinyl as the LP business was dying in South Africa and sold around 20,000 copies. It was mainly distributed on tape, which sold closer to 100,000. 

STAFF COMMENTS

Millie says: 'Professor Rhythm' is no exaggeration, pure funky-disco goodness on this record. It's aim was to uplift everyone and it certainly does that with the upbeat playful rhythm. A pure joy.

FORMAT INFORMATION

LP includes MP3 Download Code.

Fresh off the label Awesome Tapes From Africa, Hailu Mergia brings us his first new LP in over 15 years. Modern Ethiopian jazz built on ancient scales and standards. Capping several successful years traveling the world performing to audiences big and small, Hailu Mergia’s ‘Lala Belu’ has been a long time coming and fifteen years overdue. 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 document this moment in his landmark career with a snapshot of Mergia’s current sound. Since he emigrated from Ethiopia and built a life in Washington, D.C. around 1981—where he remains working as an airport taxi driver when he is not on tour—Mergia’s career has followed a humble trajectory. He made a few recordings in America but they didn’t easily reach fans back home. He kept making music on his own and with friends but after the early 80’s his gigs in the U.S. mostly dried up. It wasn’t until he began working with Awesome Tapes From Africa and putting together bands with the help of booking agents and musicians in Europe and the U.S., that he was able to chart a new path. With a broad audience of young listeners in diverse venues and distant locales, at age 71, Mergia is enjoying his comeback and is not slowing down.

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.



STAFF COMMENTS

Patrick says: Another Awesome Tape From Africa transferred to the vinyls! Dating to the mid-90s, the eight tracks on "Bafana Bafana" boast the slow, synthy and irresistibly rhythmic idents of Kwaito - the finest form of African house music. Currently going down a storm in the good ship Picc, this is likely to fly.

Though "Say You Love Me" wasn't "Om" Alec Khaoli's first solo recording, 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. 

STAFF COMMENTS

Patrick says: Another rarity reissued by the erm...awesome... Awesome Tapes From Africa, kicking off with the emotional pop of "Say You Love Me", a shoulder rolling love song which could easily have found its way onto the end credits of many an 80s buddy movie. "Make Me Your Lover" fuses a little Paul Simon style songwriting with traditional African styles (oh the irony), while "Crosslines" is an oddball synth funk freakout a la Herbie Hancock. Last but not least we feel the force of the show-stealing "Enjoy It", a dreamy bit a Afro-cosmic for the Balearic crowds.

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." 

STAFF COMMENTS

Patrick says: There's a special place in my heart for Afro-synth stuff, and this set of Bubblegum business from Umoja is right up my alley. Sparkling synthwork, cheesy melodies and uplifting vocals - what more could you possibly want from life?

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'. In 2006, Awalom began to teach himself two of Eritrea’s most recognizable and important folk instruments, the wata and the krar. Although they have roots in traditional music, they are heard in most Eritrean folk and pop recordings. 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. In 2012, during a trip to Switzerland to help promote a film about biking in Eritrea, ATFA was given a copy of 'Desdes' by fixed-gear bicycle athlete Patrick Seabase, the documentary’s protagonist. Seabase gave a copy to ATFA founder Brian Shimkovitz as a gift and it later appeared on the ATFA blog. A few years later Shimkovitz was contacted by some agencies in North Carolina, where Awalom had settled. Through a translator very one decided to work together on a reissue of his recording. It took many months to source a clean master but now the album is ready and Awalom’s goals are clear. He spent years waiting for the chance to escape economic and political turmoil at home. Now 29 and living in North Carolina, he 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 - JA 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.

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 C'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 legendary tape 'Obaa Sima' introduced one of the greatest left-field dancefloor jammers of all time, "Daa Nyinaa." Now available on 12" single for the first time, the song Ata Kak recorded in his Toronto apartment in 1993 lives on. The artist was cloaked in mystery until very recently; he created a joyously idiosyncratic balancing act of highlife, R&B, rap and house music that resonated with listeners many miles and several years away. The single is backed with the tape's final song, a minimalist electronic instrumental dripping with lo-fi rhythmic soul called "Bome Nnwom." The journey that lead to this 12" - which also took many miles and many years - shows the extent to which music can inspire and excite, regardless of background or experience. After years of searching, Awesome Tapes From Africa tracked down the artist's family in Canada. His recording was the first to be posted on the ATFA blog back in 2006, and has been an underground obsession for many diehard internet music fans ever since. The singer/producer - whose real name is Yaw Atta-Owusu - became happily aware of the distance his music has traveled since it was quietly released in 1994. Obaa Sima was released worldwide this March after a years-long wait and a brilliant restoration and remastering, by Jessica Thompson at the Magic Shop NYC, of one of the few remaining playable cassette copies in known existence. With this special release, we hone in on the genius elements that make Ata Kak's nearly-forgotten music so remarkable.

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, electro-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.

FORMAT INFORMATION

LP includes MP3 Download Code.

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.

FORMAT INFORMATION

LP includes MP3 Download Code.

Hailu Mergia is a one-man band. In 1985 master accordionist and veteran Walias Band leader / arranger / keyboardist released the Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument 'Shemonmuanaye' cassette. The tape is a nostalgic effort to bring back the vintage accordion sound of his youth. Hailu was already celebrated for his work with the industry-shifting Addis Ababa ethio-jazz and funk outfit the Walias Band, and he pressed forward using new tools to reshape the popular sounds of the past. Adding a Moog synthesizer, Rhodes electric piano and rhythm machine to the harmonic layering of his accordion, he creates hauntingly psychedelic instrumentals. These songs draw from famous traditional and modern Ethiopian songs, as Hailu matches Amhara, Tigrinya and Oromo melodies to otherworldly flavors soaked in jazz and blues. The result is a lush, futuristic landscape, balancing Ethiopian music's signature pentatonic modes and melodic shape with beautiful analog synth flair.

Hailu Mergia was born in Debre Birhan, Ethiopia in 1946. He went to school in Addis Ababa and then joined the army music department. He was later singing in small bars as a freelance musician when he joined a casual band, touring across the Ethiopian provinces as a singer and accordion player for almost a year. After the group broke up, he started performing in nightclubs across the city. He and his mates formed Walias Band and did something no other band in Ethiopian nightclub history had done: they started buying their own musical instruments. Until then the club owners were supplying the instruments and had the power to fire musicians at will. Following eight years playing at the Hilton Hotel, Hailu and Walias Band went to the United States and toured widely in 1982-1983. Despite breaking ground as the first private band to tour the States and play state dinners at the Derg government palace, some of the band stayed in America while others went back to Addis. After settling in America, Hailu made a one-man band recording with accordion for the first time, mixing in Rhodes electric piano, Moog synthesizer and a rhythm machine. That was 1985. This recording was inspired by the early memories of his first instrument, the accordion. Nowadays he's making his living as a self-employed taxi driver at Dulles International Airport while continuing to record and practice his music as often as possible.

The reissue of this recording brings back a moment when Ethiopian music was shifting from acoustic-based performances to recordings using more and more synthesized elements. While the resulting sound of that shift has its critics Hailu Mergia's initial experiments with "switched-on" solo instrumentals based on Ethiopian folk and popular music captures a singular feeling dripping in ambiance and a very human emotional energy.


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