Africa remains a musical mystery for many people. Yes, the internet can in theory answer any of your questions about the hundreds of musical traditions and genres of the continent, but many of the artists who progress or add to these traditions and styles of music aren't online. The simple fact is that that only 7% of Africa's population is online. To generalise, Westerners can like an artist's Facebook page, comment on one of their videos, download a song for free from SoundCloud, and stream a whole album without breaking a sweat - this is not the case for the majority of Africa, partly because there is no artist online, at least in some followable capacity, in the first place.

The digital divide between affluent nations and Africa is an intense gap, seemingly impossible to cross or breach in any way. Musical treasures of the past and modern musical talents tend to not reach Western ears, not often anyway, and as a result pretty much all African music can be labelled as, unfairly but understandably, obscure, or treated as an exotic oddity - as if it can't be held to exist within itself until it has been assimilated, altered and eventually accepted by the West.

That is why it would be a lot nicer if we could hear African music all the time, to dissuade its detractors and cease reductionist exoticism and usher it into the canon of the music of the world, of the internet, and even have it counted as popular music, dispelling any sense of Otherness that traditional African music makes some people feel.

Luckily there is a man named Brian Shimkovitz trying to make it so. He singlehandedly runs Awesome Tapes From Africa, a blog turned DJ project and record label. The man himself was happy enough to answer some questions about his experiences and ideas behind this fresh enterprise. Actualised after studying, doing music publicity, and traveling around Ghana and West Africa, the idea was as simple as it is now: "I wanted to share with people what music sounds like on the street in big cities in Africa," Brian tells me.

Now based in Los Angeles, he was born in Chicago, studied in the U.S. and Ghana's capital Accra, lived in Bangkok for a year, and began the Awesome Tapes project in New York City. "I had done my first traveling outside the US in Ghana and so my focus on popular music had been based first there," Brian explains why the focus turned out to be on Africa. "So when I went back to university after studying abroad in Accra I ended up doing more papers and wanting to learn more, so I returned to Ghana. So more study and time there brought me kinda deep into the music."

Awesome Tapes From Africa was born and has moved steadily forward ever since, orchestrated singlehandedly by Brian himself. "It's just me," he says. "Most of the day is back and forth between Skype and email and the post office. I try to digitise tapes for the blog as much as possible but the work falls behind a lot as I work on upcoming releases and doing the promotional and marketing ideas to push them along. Espresso and ganja and phone calls all day." Busy days augmented by the efficiency of coffee and the oft-necessary chill of weed. It's a lifestyle choice.

And an understandable one at that for a guy who has shouldered himself with the quite huge task of making African music more known, introducing new listeners to the music. Of course, some people are already going to know about it with varying levels of generality and specificity, and these people have reacted fantastically to the project. Some of them are the "nerds" that originally made up part of Awesome Tapes' audience, but Brian also counts "expats from various parts of Africa, longtime world music fans, my record collector buddies" among those who "have been very supportive, [helping to] spread the word among their friends."

In fact, the task is not so much one of awareness as it is one of true growth, as Brian affirms: "Now I am very much aiming to make the market for African music larger."

The diligence and ambition that shines through from Brian is impressive and inspiring in itself, however: the enterprise becomes a different thing, a much bigger and complex one at that, when it comes to speaking about markets. But although the digital divide might be standing in the way of progress (on all levels) in Africa generally speaking, Brian has seen its exponential improvement firsthand.

"Tapes have been the focus because when I was doing research tapes were the main format. Most of my friends around West Africa had tape decks so it was always the currency," he explains. "Internet moves much faster now and more people have smartphones so it's much easier to share music now, but when I first went to Ghana you often could not hear music unless you caught it on the radio or found the tape. That was 2002."

As such, answering what about the music is relevant today, he spoke more about the ever-changing nature of the continent: "It is impossible to pin-point a specific thing about African music that is relevant apart from that it is a reflection of what's happening in a very complex and rapidly changing and fascinating place." That alone is enough to pique anybody's curiosity, but in truth it's a more serious message that really gives value not just to music from the African continent, but to all music.

"Overall there is a lot of value in listening to anything that sounds striking to one's ears," he continues. "If you're a creative-type and you're looking for inspiration, follow your nose. If you're the emotional-type, follow what moves you. Whatever it is, there is more music available to us than ever before so the hardest and most crucial part is choosing."

And in that spirit, he makes the music he finds as accessible as possible - not just in that the music released via Awesome Tapes can be purchased as an MP3, CD, vinyl, or indeed tape, but also in that he ensures that he truly believes in what he's releasing. "I spend a huge amount of time and effort tracking down artists. I choose the record based on whether I am in love with every song on a record and if I can locate the person who made it," he explains. But it seems even at this early stage of the process, if an artist is hard to track down, then it can't be done. Whether that's to do with the difficulty of marketing a release without its artist, or if it's simply safeguarding against releasing music without an artist's permission - or a bit of both - is unknown.

What it does show is the extent to which creators can get lost in the gap between here and there, something that isn't unheard of in the West (take Rodriguez or Nick Drake, to an extent), but that is not usually the case; artists disappear, leaving behind only the relics of their creative output and a few scattered family members.

It isn't the typical artist / label relationship - each release with a new artist feels like a collaboration more than anything else, and it comes through in Brian's meticulous and thoughtful correspondence. "I always deal directly with the musicians who wrote and performed the music and make sure no one else has conflicts with that," he explains "All the profits are split 50/50 and it's been working quite well for the musicians."

Since its inception and growth, Awesome Tapes has been steadily gaining notoriety around the world; the project itself is genuine and innovative, and its creator is more than happy to share the music he finds through the medium of mixing. Most of these are as interesting as the actual project is: in July this year, he mixed a bunch of popular 1950s Egyptian songs (listen here) for New Direction's publication of Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim's novel, Stealth, centred around "the turbulent years before the 1952 revolution that would overthrow King Farouk and bring Gamal Abdel Nasser to power"; the summer before saw him live in session for Boiler Room (which you can also watch as well as listen to & download for free); he also did a show for Carhatt Work In Progress on Carhartt Radio in September last year.

In these mixes, it's very clear to see that Brian has amassed a wealth of sounds from a whole host of genres that dot the African continent, always impressing the organisers of these events and their attendees alike - incidentally, he shared with me some of his favourite musical styles:

  • Fuji (from Nigeria, based on improvising a certain type of music played to wake Muslims before dawn during Ramadan, e.g. this),
  • Hiplife (from Ghana, a combination of older, jazzy genre highlife and hip-hop, also incorporating elements of dancehall and reggae; here's a hiplife mix),
  • Takamba (a kind of desert folk music with frenetic guitar and popping percussion, something like this),
  • • Soukous (melodic dance originating in 1940s Belgian and French Congo, influenced by Cuban Rumba; here's something by Orchestre Kiam)

Brian Shimkovitz's project Awesome Tapes From Africa is self-explanatory: it's in the name. Its simplicity does not diminish its message and direction, its sense of sharing and of spatial and temporal connections. Even Brian is modest about it: "ATFA wasn't serious when it began, and in many ways it still isn't," he says. Digital divides, real social and racial issues aside, it is about one thing and one thing only: music. Awesome music.

"I want people to hear the amazing diversity of sounds out there and let people know about music that isn't what western record labels have pushed on them in the past," he explains. "Above all I am obsessed with music of all kinds from various parts of Africa, so it's a never-ending passion for me."

I can't really do anything else except direct you to SoundCloud and let you do a little exploration of your own. We thank Mr Shimkovitz for his time and look forward to his future endeavours.