The first post on the music blog Awesome Tapes from Africa contains a promise: "You may never hear anything like this elsewhere." It was something of a defining ethos in the site's infancy, but Brian Shimkovitz—a one-time ethnomusicology student and researcher—was writing specifically about a track from a mysterious cassette that'd become something of an internet legend in the coming years. Called Obaa Sima by a musician known only as Ata Kak, it was a tape he'd purchased during a year he spent living in Ghana. The music, as promised, is something special, a high-energy and forward thinking hybrid of house, electro-pop, hip-hop, and traditional Ghanaian pop melodies, the sort of secret masterpiece that makes people start digging for obscure records in the first place. It was a spark for his ensuing decade as a DJ, writer, and the proprietor of a record label that shared a name with his blog.
He wrote at the time that none of the people he knew in Ghana listened to the "frenetic leftfield rap madness," that he found on the tape, which made the discovery all the more curious. He decided to look for Ata Kak, and mostly came up empty. The record's auteur hadn't released any more music since those 1993 recordings, and he wasn't playing any live gigs, but the tape developed a sort of cult fandom thanks to Shimkovitz's blog and the rapturous reception it'd begun to receive at his DJ gigs around the world. A Facebook fan page for Ata Kak even popped up, but the man himself was nowhere to be found.
After eight years of mostly fruitless searching that took him to Germany and Toronto among other places, Shimkovitz found the man born Yaw Atta-Owuse, now 56, living back in Ghana, understandably unaware that his music had become an object of worldwide fascination. Shimkovitz reissued Obaa Sima on the label arm of Awesome Tapes to international acclaim in 2015. The attention, and just the idea that people were out there listening to his work, renewed Yaw's interest in making music and sparked his first live shows ever, more than two decades after issuing his own recording.
Today, ahead of their month-long Los Angeles festival, Red Bull Music Academy is sharing Ata Kak: Time Bomb, a colorful documentary about the eponymous cult star's journey and Shimkovitz's search to find him. The doc gives plenty of screen time to the magnetic Yaw, who dances through the streets of Kumasi and sings and raps his oddball tunes, in a way that makes it hard to believe that he's never spent time in front of a camera or onstage. But it also touches on some of the conditions that led to his story, such as the blackouts in Ghana that leave residential areas without power for hours at a time.
Noisey spoke to Shimkovitz, 36, via phone last week about his journey seeking out Yaw and what he learned while making the documentary, which he calls a "once-in-a-lifetime experience."
"I just feel like people don't get a sense of what life can be like in developing countries," says Shimkovitz. "People make a lot of assumptions, and also people who listen to African music aren't too in touch with Africans in Africa! The main touchstone for me and everything that I do, is thinking about my friends in these places. That guides the decisions I make and how I run [Awesome Tapes from Africa]."
Noisey: Tell me about your search for Ata Kak.
Shimkovitz: It was about eight years. I just started calling all the phone numbers on the Obaa Sima insert. Years passed by, people told me different stuff. I tracked down, finally, an old man whose name was inside the cassette and who had printed and designed its covers. After many calls of stalking this guy, he mentioned the family had went to Hamburg. So I went to Hamburg and spent several days there riding a bike around, putting fliers up, going to every West African shop I could find, most of which were Ghanaian because there'd been a huge influx of Ghanaians there since the late '70s.
I spoke to them in Twi—the same language Ata Kak speaks—so they'd know I was serious and because I don't speak German, but nobody knew anything. I started to really lose sleep over it a few years ago. The record had become more and more popular, people would go nuts when I DJed. I just really had to find this guy. Finally I decided to go to fucking Toronto, where it was made.
How much money had you been spending on this?
Well, I was living in Berlin at the time and DJing a lot, so I just asked my booking agent to book a show in Hamburg and found a buddy to stay on his couch and borrow his bicycle. Then Toronto, yeah, I spent a little money on that. I bought a one-way ticket because I was like, "I'm not leaving here 'til I figure this out." I was cold-calling every African-owned business. I got really lucky and found some people that knew some names on the inside of the cassette: an assistant producer, a backing vocalist. A lady in a shop said that the guy upstairs knew some of these people.
At the same time, BBC Radio was doing a story about my search for him and had been following me for a few years, and the BBC presenter back in London went to the Ata Kak Facebook page that had been made by a fan, and just randomly asked "Does anybody know where Ata Kak is?" And sure enough, his son had somehow come across the page a few months earlier and Liked the page, and said, "Oh, that's my dad, he's back in Ghana." While I'm in Toronto.
I invested a lot of money in it but it's not about the money. I couldn't deal with the fact that all these people knew about this musician, who I was certain didn't know all these people were fans of him. And now we're great friends and his family is awesome.
The big question for me, after watching Ata Kak, was why did he stop making music after that one cassette? And how does this really ebullient personality who gets around—to Germany, Toronto—become obscure in the first place?
That's a really good point. The record didn't sell anything, and he came back to Ghana in 1996 or so and needed to make money. He bought a bore-hole drilling machine to drill wells, and then the machinery broke and was unfixable. He had been unemployed for many, many years. Me and the super-brilliant booking agent in the U.K. spent an enormous amount of effort getting him visas. One reason you don't see West African musicians performing in North America is because it's almost impossible to get them visas. In the U.K. it's a little easier but not much. You have to be making a lot of money and have a lot of shows booked.
Speaking of live performances, Yaw never performed when the original cassette came out in Ghana, right?
The tape was a classic bedroom recording: he got secondhand instruments, pulled them together, did the vocals in his bathroom, super DIY production, and he never performed the record. He said he did one karaoke-style performance at some family party, or maybe it was a wedding. For a little bit [after we found him] he was like, "Do people really know who I am? Is this a real thing?" I think it's now finally sunk in, to see all these people singing along and dancing. He'll eventually work on new music and hopefully it will translate… it's not the same as what the cassette sounded like but I think people are ready for it. He's been writing lots of songs.
Do you know why he never followed up the original tape in 1993?
He's living in a house with no electricity, first of all. I always get these guys who are like, "Can I send him a synthesizer? Can he do a mix?" and I'm like no, he doesn't have that equipment set up at home. He's an amateur musician in many ways; he's not somebody who went to school for it, or has spent time on the road. It's cool how he used one of the very first sequencing programs on an Atari computer to record the tracks and put it all together. He's one of those guys who doesn't want help from anybody, he just sits in the back and figures it out himself. But he didn't even start playing music until he landed in Germany and this dude came up to him at the post office and asked him, "Are you African? Do you want to be in my reggae band?"
Oh my god.
Only in Germany would somebody walk up to random black guys and say, "Would you like to be in my reggae band?" But he was like, "Yeah, sure! I would love that!"
In the film, there's a puzzling scene where Ata Kak's brother just matter-of-factly states that the tape had actually sold hundreds of copies in Ghana, but he never reported this to his brother in Toronto, and never says why.
We don't know! When we went to Ata P's house to interview him, that that was the first time Yaw had ever heard any of that. He had no idea. There must be some reason why his brother didn't tell him he was making some money. Or maybe he was exaggerating on film. But why would he exaggerate in the face of his brother, and basically admit that he'd fucked him over? It's kind of a dark moment. I was shocked. This whole time Yaw had been telling me only 50 copies were made, but when we were cruising around Kumasi, people were telling us they remembered these songs. [The tape] wasn't a hit, but it did appear on the radio and Yaw had no idea. I think the film opens up more questions than it answers.
Red Bull Music Academy's Los Angeles festival goes down October 6-29. Tickets are available here.
Dan Weiss is a music writer based outside of Philadelphia. You should send him all your weird rare tapes on Twitter.