Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Not awesome, better off staying on tape

Brian Shimkovitz’s Awesome Tapes from Africa blog has done crate diggers around the world a great service by posting and promoting rare African sounds on his blog. Yaw Atta-Owusu aka Ata Kak’s Obaa Sima was the subject of his first blog in April 2006 – a stripped down but mercurial blend of late 80s drum machine groove, bright and bubbly synth and guitar lines and vocals from Ata Kak himself and Lucy Quansah. Shimkovitz has talked about how fresh African music can’t be shielded from ‘globalisation’ and the wider challenges of digitising (so you can download for free) and distributing (to give the artists ‘career enhancing’ opportunities) his favourite music. However genuine his reasons, in trying to monetise this curio ATFA got a few things wrong, as did I in paying scant attention to the blurb and reaching for the vinyl version.

‘You may never hear anything like this elsewhere’

It may have wowed ATFA’s fast growing community (among them respected global south tastemakers such as DJ Rupture), but making it work as a reissue proved trickier, to the extent that it barely matched the description of an awesome tape from Africa (this is somewhat churlish a point but read on for the reasoning). Ata got the tapes made up in Kumasi in 1994, but the whole project was recorded in Toronto. The liner notes suggest this never flew off the market stalls of Accra and Kumasi (as the blog acknowledged at the time); its muted reaction in Ghana matching the reception back in Canada. Ata Kak, who had been in a few bands around Toronto and Germany, but who had been working to get his own project out there, may have been somewhat chastened by the experience and, back in Ghana, only now writes songs for his own pleasure.

Twenty years later, when considering what to do with their ‘frenetic leftfield rap madness’, ATFA finally made contract with Ata Kak, but with the dat master tape far too degraded they recorded digital files from a normal tape that had possibly been pirated and sped up. They made the decision to go with the sped up version for the official rerelease. There is no hint that Ata Kak himself preferred the pitched up version. For my money, it makes more sense at the intended speed – the vocal delivery markedly less rushed and the whole ensemble sounding more crafted (in fairness vinyl buyers were given codes for digital files of the tracks at both speeds). To truly help it realise its potential and promote the artist as Shimkovitz intended, one solution would have been to pay Ata Kak to re-record everything on a decent set-up; the lack of a digitisable master ruling out simply putting a completely new vocal on it. It’s a shame, as what was clearly a thing of rare beauty for ATFA has not quite had the loving curation it needed, or, when the particular circumstances of this product became apparent, a more measured, less hyped reissue.

Make no mistake, Obaa Sima has a charm and Ata Kak himself a good groove and unique sonic vision going on, especially in the vocal style full of Twi and English bars making as much or as little sense as you want it to make. This is an AfPop find, an unpolished gem. But the vocal’s frequently muffled delivery and the sound’s overall underproduction will continue to deprive it of the wider audience the project could have merited if it had been revived in some way (certainly when I roadtested it with my music-teacher partner the reaction was not too positive). Without this it could remain restricted to smaller-scale appreciation from the fanboy coterie. But even these should save a few quid and steer clear of the vinyl lp or 12s (not to mention the t-shirts costing $41), and reach for the CD or MP3 only.

Read full review of Obaa Sima - Ata Kak on Boomkat.com ©

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