Interviews December 6, 2013
ATFA's Brian Shimkovitz on Ghana, Synthesizers, Hailu Mergia, and More Synthesizers

The research for our "Afro-Tech" program relied heavily on the invaluable aid of a dedicated group of researchers. In the face of often overwhelming skepticism, they spent literally innumerable hours digging through the detritus of the 1980s in search of audio gold. Particularly useful in this process was Brian Shimkovitz, the founder of Awesome Tapes from Africa, a website and label specializing in cassette-based music from across the continent. Producer Sam Backer's conversation with Brian was far-ranging, and this interview is divided into its geographic areas of focus: Ghana and Ethiopia.


Sam Backer: Let's start from the beginning. Do you know when synthesizers were first introduced into Ghanaian popular music in a meaningful way?

Brian Shimkovitz: It was around the late '70s, when there were a lot of Ghanaians going to visit and live and work in Hamburg, Germany. It became one of the largest enclaves outside Ghana. At the time, there was a messy government that was making life difficult for artists. So around the late '70s, early '80s--because of musicians who had gone over to work in Hamburg, or who had families that were living in Hamburg--certain elements of drum machines and electronic synthesizers started to make their way back to Ghana. Certainly, recordings that were made in Hamburg and London during that period featured more synthesizers than people had heard in previous years. I’m sure that at some time in the early '70s in Ghana somebody got their hands on a crazy synthesizer and did stuff, but as far as I know, the use of synthesizer in highlife music started in the late '70s with what they call burger highlife, which insinuated itself into a lot of other types of Ghanaian popular music in the early '80s.

So it really entered via the diasporic community, as far as being a meaningful period of pop music and not a strange one-off. 

As far as I’m aware, yes. It became a branch of highlife that’s widely recognized and called burger highlife, and even to this day--a lot of highlife that you hear on the radio--certain people of a certain age group will say, “Oh, that's burger highlife.” Highlife with a lot of electronic and more Western disco and r&b rhythm elements. And to this day, most highlife that you hear on the radio now and that’s being made now is almost entirely electronic in nature.

When I was exploring burger highlife, the disco influence was pretty prominent. That mirrors to a certain extent what was happening in Nigerian music at the time period. Was disco popular in Ghana?

Oh yeah. Just like a lot of places in West Africa during that period, they had clubs and dance music. They were hearing records that were coming from London and America. They didn’t really have open national airwaves at the time, meaning that radio wasn’t yet privatized, so there were certain quotas on how much foreign music you could play. But definitely a lot of the hits that were popular over here made their way at some point, whether it was through records or over the radio. And of course that includes disco. Like I said, the prominent influence on burger highlife is the disco beat and synthesizer.

What were the motives behind the incorporation of synthesizers into this music? Why were people so quick to adopt them? 

Well, I inquired a lot about what the attraction to electronic instruments and these electronic sounds were and continue to be, and a lot of people--both young and old--said that there was an attraction to sounding international and cosmopolitan and more connected to the wider world--sounding futuristic and being at the cutting edge. So maybe there’s more of an attraction to that.

I know that during this period, the live music scene in Ghana also underwent some pretty serious changes, primarily because of the imposition of military curfews. My understanding is that after that, most of the live music moved into the churches. How does that impact the spread of synthesizers? 

I haven’t asked about that directly, but from the evidence of all the recordings that exist, it seems as though for a while, music became much easier to deal with in the churches, because the church and military were exempt from import duties. At that point, the kind of musical processes that were happening out on the street began interacting with gospel music. For example, for years, reggae has been a very popular music in Ghana and during this period, it became infused in gospel music in a big way. Most of the reggae beats that you hear on the radio are actually backing up gospel music. And over the years, a lot of gospel music has taken up more synthesizers and drum machines. At the same time, most of the instruments that I have seen in Ghana--drums and guitars--have been inside churches. But I’ve also seen electronic keyboards of all shapes and sizes.

So they perform live with synthesizers and drum machines? Have you ever seen that?

No, I’ve never seen it. But you can hear that on hundreds of gospel Ghanaian recordings from the late '80s on.

My understanding is that the studios changed also--that by the mid '90s or early 2000s, there aren’t a lot of studios that can even handle live bands in the way that they used to.

Yeah. By the late '90s, there are really only one or two in the entire country that were set up to be big acoustic studios-that had the instruments, that had the space, that had the recording technology for those purposes. So what you see is a democratization of studios in the way that we see it around the rest of the world. People can do it the bedroom, they can do it in a studio complex, and, for a long time, these places where there are three or four studios in one building or one house, and they are all digital studios with a vocal booth and a desktop computer a keyboard and ProTools and Fruity Loops and those types of software. They’re just not set up to even accommodate a band with drums and guitars and things like that.

So this democratization of the industry--did it come at the expense of the major labels? Were there major labels in Ghana in the '70s the way that there were in Nigeria?

I guess it depends on what you mean by major labels. Major Nigerian or Ghanaian labels, or do you mean the major international labels? Because the major international labels were in Nigeria and Ghana up to the early '80s, when cassette and piracy made vinyl LPs no longer viable in that region. It no longer was possible to have LPs because Philips, Decca, Warner Brothers, EMI, etc.--these companies couldn’t really operate in Africa anymore. So they abandoned making vinyl. I don’t know how directly or indirectly that impacted local record labels and local music production, but I imagine it took some of the wind out of the sails because the budgets shrunk. But it also probably made it possible for smaller players to enter the scene and compete by creating more of a focus on regional music. And that's why I’ve always been obsessed with the cassette. The cassette is really what made it possible for any community with the wherewithal to record and distribute their music to do so, whereas printing and making records is obviously a lot more unwieldy.

The record labels hadn’t produced recordings of regional musics?

Well, I’m sure they did, but in terms of being able to say "we’re just from this one village and we’re going to do this thing" not as much. I think the record labels, in the same way that they do here, were just going after the stuff that was mainstream, that people would listen to from all over, and that would be on the radio. Cassettes make it possible for a small, specific community to reproduce their music even just amongst themselves--you have micro-musics, you have stuff that really isn’t of interest to people in neighboring communities. I’ve done a lot of reading about cassette use, and it doesn’t seem like companies like Warner Brothers were interested in that--they were trying to go after making deals with people like Fela and selling things internally, but they were also looking for things to ship abroad.

So, at the same time as cassettes began to proliferate, you also have a real expansion of synths in the music. Was there any one record that changed the scene in terms of the adoption of the synth or was it more of a gradual change over the course of a decade?

I’m sure there’s a Ghanaian out there who remembers the one record that really hit everywhere and changed the way people were thinking about things. I wish I knew what it was, but I don’t. I can see just by looking at the music overall that there was a gradual shift--it didn’t take place overnight, but did become pretty ubiquitous for a while, and then of course there was an attendant backlash. What's funny is that when I was doing interviews in the early 2000s with both highlife and hiplife musicians in Ghana, they all lamented how electronic the music had become, but nobody was offering up any sort of solution, either in practice and in discussion. Everybody just kept doing things the same way, and maybe that’s where it comes down to economic means.

One of the interesting things that happens in Ghana in the '80s is that after the government placed a really high import duty on musical instruments, there were fewer and fewer drums and guitars and horns and things available. And as a result, it seems that more and more people started to produce music with synthesizers, doing it on their own, and it became faster and cheaper. And after awhile there weren’t that many studios and there weren’t very many people who could still play instruments. I talked to people who said, “The saddest thing about these musical instruments not being available is that now the youth don’t know how to play them.” There’s not a guy on the corner who can play the guitar. Not as much. So that’s one of the sad things that’s happened with music in Ghana.

In general, the two things that people would say to me when I asked, “Why isn't there more live music," or "Why aren’t they using acoustic instruments with modern music" was point to the import duty and the curfews. I think that there were probably some aesthetic changes, but I don’t recall anybody saying, “We don’t want to use regular drums at all.” I’m not really sure. I just know that by the late '90s, there weren’t really studios set up to record those types of bands. Studios were just a room with a keyboard and a computer.


How did you first come across Hailu's music ?

I was traveling in Ethiopia in February this year, and I collected a lot of tapes, particularly in the cassette shops around Addis Ababa and a few of the largest cities. And while I was doing that, I came across a Hailu tape. Hailu's music was really striking to me and I purchased it, but I didn't really have much time to listen to all of the tapes at the time, so I brought it back to Germany, where I was living at the time, and listened to it. And then I got in touch with him.

Where did you find him?

He's living in the D.C. area, where he's a taxi driver. He moved to D.C. in the early '80s. At the time, he was a member of Walias Band, which is a famous Ethio-jazz and soul group from the '70s. When they went on their first tour to America, their first tour outside of Ethiopia, half of the band members didn't return at the end, and he was one of those. And so he's been living in Maryland since the early '80s.

So was the tape that you found the tape that you released, or was it a different tape?

No, it was that tape. I actually already knew about him, and I knew about Walias Band, but I was surprised by this tape because it's sort of this one man band recording where everything is coming from synthesizers, keyboards, drum machines and an accordion. And I had never heard anything like that from Ethiopia. The music, the scales and the harmonies sounded like Ethiopian music that I've heard before, but something about the timbre and the approach were just completely distinct. So I was like, “Man, I didn't know this guy did this record,” and I started doing some research, and I just couldn't find anything online about this particular recording.

Eventually, I just started Googling him in general, and it turned out he had a Blogspot page with his cell phone number on it. So I called him--it would have been just after midnight Berlin time, so like 6 o'clock D.C. time. I just called him up, and he answered the phone and was really excited to hear from me, because I was immediately saying how I'd love to get him performing live and give him a chance to show people the music.

Do you have a sense of how that tape was received in Ethiopia?

I actually don't. You know, that tape was recorded after he started living in D.C., in 1985. He produced it completely in America, but mainly distributed it in Ethiopia. He says that it was well known, and I haven't heard from anybody else that says it was or it wasn't. I didn't see it in any other shops, as far as I can recollect, and I didn't find anything on Youtube or anywhere else with these kinds of recordings on them. And you know, other things that he has done are fairly well distributed on the Internet, so I'm not really sure that it was a super popular thing at the time.

But it definitely struck you as pretty profoundly atypical for the Ethiopian music for this period?

Yeah, because the Ethiopian music that I've heard from the early '80s that uses synthesizers without using a full band seem to be a little bit more wooden. But I felt like this one kind of captured a sort of jazz approach in a more organic and humanistic way. It is using drum machine, but using a drum machine in a very sympathetic and sensitive way compared to a lot of the other Ethiopian and Amharic one man band keyboard recordings you can find, which start to happen toward the mid- to late '80s and beyond.

One of the things that really struck me about the record was the kind of trancey quality created by the drum machine beats. And I wonder whether in Hailu's case, the success of that approach might have something to do with character of Ethiopian music. I don't want to generalize, but those static kind of drum patterns seem to work with the kind of scales used in Ethiopian music, these kind of long, almost discursive melodies. I'm wondering if you heard that anywhere else?

It’s just so hard to say, because I feel like that record was so singular that I don’t want to generalize about what was happening elsewhere based on that record. Hailu certainly makes it sound like it was the first one of its kind. There might be others. Like I said, other people did things around the same time that are kind of similar but are a little bit less dynamic.

That said, I do think that there is something in Ethiopian music that lends itself to that style, whereas a lot of the music from Ghana from the '80s onwards has been either reggae beat based, or highlife beat based, or hip-hop, and this is kind of going for a different vibe. When you go around Ethiopia now, you don’t hear a lot of Mariah Carey, you don’t hear Ethiopian music that has that two-and-four backbeat, or really anything similar to Western music. And you'll hear all of that in places like Ghana, where there’s a lot more foreign music being heard ambiently. So I think that maybe in Ethiopia, the different types of indigenous rhythms they focus on just lend themselves better to a different styles of music. I don’t know if you can generalize about it, because there’s just so much stuff going on.

OK. Without generalizing too much, do you think you could give me a little bit of an overview of what kind of synthesizer-based or synthesizer-employing music was being produced in Ethiopia around that period ?

I can't confirm exact details of dates, but I'm aware of recordings that happened around that time, or shortly thereafter, that do something similar to what Hailu's recording does, but include even fewer actual instruments. Hailu's recording, I guess, stays grounded in a more instrumental world, because he is using a lot of accordion and a Rhodes keyboard, which gives it a different atmosphere. But these other recordings, a lot of them sound like they are generating a drum beat and a bass line and a harmony from the same instrument. So it's all coming from one instrument, instead of layering multiple instruments or different keyboards, or different samplers or drum machines or sequencers. And while some of that music is instrumental, the majority of it uses vocals--and I think part of why Hailu's recording was interesting to me was because it was 100 percent instrumental. And that's just not very common, from what I can tell, with Ethiopian music in general.

In its “Golden Age,” Ethiopia is well known for having fairly large bands, so having one man bands in the '80s is really a pretty intense departure, right? 

It seems like it was. I mean when I spoke to Hailu about it, and you probably got some words from him as well about the period earlier on, when organs were first introduced into the nightlife and the bands entertaining people in Addis Ababa, and how that created a real shift in the music. I don't have the details, because I haven't done research or asked deep questions out in the field in Ethiopia, but as was the case in a lot of places, sometimes it just becomes a little cheaper and easier to have one instrument represent a few people.

Just from listening to it, I think that the shape of the music also started to change after the '70s. You know we talk of the “Golden Age,” with these groups that sound like they are really effortlessly blending what we know as jazz and soul into things that sound very regional and Ethiopian in nature. And that's why that music is so popular all over the world--it just sounds amazing and really distinctive. I think when we get into the '80s and there are more electronics and more synthesizers, it takes on a less warm tone--both the music and the overall vibe. In my collection of Ethiopian music, just because I'm focused so much on cassettes--the earlier side has a lot of music that sounds a bit experimental, like people are just getting these new toys, and trying new things. And of course some of it works, and for some of it, the recording quality is really bad because parts of the bass are just way too hot and peaking out and just making things sound crazy. And other things are really ethereal and dreamy sounding, like I think this Hailu record turned out. So it's a really exciting time in music that hasn't really been looked at or discussed that much--just the '80s in general across Africa, where people were experimenting with these things, and creating new sounds but kind of still using the approach and the harmonies and the rhythms of what they were using just a few years before in what we think of as the “Golden Age” in these various places.

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