Thirty years ago a frustrated drummer, burned out on playing Ghanaian highlife covers in a Toronto trio, decided to write and record his own music. The resulting homemade cassette, “Obaa Sima” by Ata Kak, became an international sensation — it would just take a lot of time, and the Internet, before anyone noticed.
The tape was an energetic mix of highlife, electro-funk, and the hip-hop Ata Kak had loved since seeing Grandmaster Flash on TV in the ‘80s. He first tried rapping in English before realizing his flow was much better when he rhythmed in the Ghanaian language Twi. (Born Yaw Atta-Owusu in Ghana, his stage name means “younger twin.”)
Ata Kak sent the recording to his brother, who duplicated copies on cassette, long one of the dominant formats in Africa until digital distribution came along. The songs got some local airplay, but sales may not have cracked double digits.
“I’d invested my time and money to make this album, and I was expecting some good results,” says Ata Kak, 62, on a call from his current home in Kumasi, Ghana. “When you’re young, you’re looking for fame. But after it came out, the response was silence. I didn’t hear anything, and it turned me off for a while. I was frustrated.”
Ata Kak moved back to Ghana in 2006 and started a business, having no idea that in April of that year, his music would be posted by an American music blogger and be heard around the world.
That blogger, Brian Shimkovitz, made “Obaa Sima” the first post on his website Awesome Tapes From Africa, where he has shared hundreds of tapes he bought while studying ethnomusicology in Ghana. The blog, which spawned an important African reissue label, features “what music sounds like in Africa,” Shimkovitz says.
Many of the artists featured on Awesome Tapes were stars at home, even if they never got to tour the world. But Ata Kak proved to be a mystery.
“For about eight years I kept asking anyone who might know, and no one had heard of him,” says Shimkovitz. The inside of the cassette included a long-disconnected Toronto phone number, so Shimkovitz went looking there. The same week, a BBC producer making a radio documentary about the search posted on an unofficial Ata Kak Facebook page. Someone replied saying Ata Kak was his father.
“I was certainly surprised when Brian called me,” says Ata Kak. “These were songs that it seemed like nobody had liked, and I’d forgotten about them. I really couldn’t believe it, but I talked to my wife, and she said, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ ”
Soon a contract arrived that allowed for “Obaa Sima” to be reissued on the Awesome Tapes label. With dance floors filling up whenever DJs played one of the tracks — collectively, the album’s songs have been streamed more than 8 million times on Spotify — Shimkovitz floated the idea of Ata Kak performing at a few festivals. But that scenario required him to find a way to bring to the stage music he had made long ago and never performed live.
“I was nervous, I never performed for a big crowd before,” says Ata Kak of his first 2016 dates. “But I said I’m a musician, and this is what I wanted to do, so I had to overcome my nervousness. On the first show I wore shades because I wanted to be able to close my eyes and rap without forgetting any of the words. And now wearing shades has become my signature.”
After successful shows in Europe and Australia, Ata Kak mounted his first US tour earlier this year. A second round of dates brings him to Sonia in Cambridge on Sunday. Videos of recent tour dates show the now gray-bearded Ata Kak and a band led by London DJ Esa Williams playing to exuberant crowds of young dancers. “It is fun, ecstatic music, and even if people don’t know the songs, there’s a magnetic aspect to the way he performs,” says Shimkovitz.
Ata Kak has recorded some new songs. “He wants to make more music, although I’m not a producer, so I’m not so helpful in that respect,” says Shimkovitz.
The copy of “Obaa Sima” that Shimkovitz bought at a market and shared with the world turned out to be a pirated copy dubbed at a faster speed than the original. “I listened to it and thought ‘Is that me?’ But my audiences are used to the faster tempo, so I try to sing it that way,” says Ata Kak. “The way it turned out is certainly working for me — that’s why you’re interviewing me now, so I guess it was for my own good.”
At Sonia, 10 Brookline St., Cambridge. Oct. 2 at 8 p.m. Tickets $20 advance, $25 day of show. mideastoffers.com