Mulatu Astatke – King of Ethio-Jazz

By Allston Mitchell, September 15, 2011

Mulatu Astatke - photo by Redheadwalking

Mulatu Astatke - photo by Redheadwalking

Mulatu Astatke, the father of Ethiopian Jazz, is finally hitting the big time with two recent CDs. In 2009 he recorded "Inspiration Information" with the Heliocentrics and a year later his own "Mulatu Steps Ahead" with members of Either/Orchestra.

Mulatu Astatke had been on the fringes of the limelight for over 50 years until he finally got the recognition he deserved following from the 2005 Jim Jarmusch film, Broken Flowers, which featured seven of his songs, including one performed by Cambodian-American rock band Dengue Fever.

Ethiopia, the UK and the USA
Born in Ethiopia in Jimma and originally destined for a career in engineering, Mulatu Astatke ended up studying music at Lindisfarne College in Wales, Trinity College of Music in England and Berklee College of Music in Boston, USA. While in England he made his way on the London scene meeting up with Tubby Hayes, Frank Holder and Joe Harriott and the stints in New York and Boston widened his horizons and he started to combine western jazz with his own Ethiopian sound. Towards the end of the 1960s he went back to Ethiopia with a whole new Ethio Jazz sound. He took the Addis Ababa scene by storm.

Mulatu Astatke quickly became the leading light of Ethiopia’s musical scene. His Ethio-jazz sound was perfected in the “Swinging Addis” era in the 60s and 70s, successfully combining western jazz and funk with traditional Ethiopian folk songs.

Astatke became a soloist and a bandleader playing the vibraphone, congas and keyboards. He was a great innovator – and still is. Working with various artists in a variety of countries, arranging and playing on recordings by Mahmoud Ahmed, and even appearing as a special guest with Duke Ellington and his band during a tour of Ethiopia in 1973.

Inspiration Information
In 2009 he surprised everybody, he came out with Inspiration Information in collaboration with the Heliocentrics, the UK jazz, funk, psychedelic and avant-garde collective. The CD is the third in Strut’s ‘Inspiration Information’ studio collaboration series which this time coupled Mulatu Astatke, with the The Heliocentrics. It was a great hit not only with jazz lovers but with the world music crowd too. This album features select covers from Astatke’s landmark 1970s albums and 45s released on the Ethiopian Amha imprint and later compiled on the “Ethiopiques” series, as well as original songs written by the Heliocentrics and arranged by Astatke.

Inspiration Information on Strut (2009)

Inspiration Information is part psychedelic jazz with some hints of funk and rock, a perfect fusion of a variety of musical cultures. This is traditional jazz with a touch of hip hop. The music has been described as a mix of Sun Ra, James Brown and Fela Kuti – with some truly impressive drumming and piano. The end result is a perfect mix of old time Astatke with the experimental touches of the Heliocentrics. Some songs think nothing of jumping from ethnic folk singing to heavy funk – the first track ‘Masenqo’ begins with some beautiful vocals by Yezina Negash then follows up with some funky jazz piano by Oliver Parfitt which is followed by Mesafnit Negash on the Masenqo (a single stringed lute played with a bow). It works beautifully. A big favourite with just about everyone is the track “Live from Tigre Lounge” which can only be described as Afro psychedelic funk.

Mulatu Steps Ahead
Following immediately on from his album with the Heliocentrics, Mulatu Astatke last year came out with his own Mulatu Steps Ahead, recorded with members of the American 10-piece jazz band the Either/Orchestra in Boston which also features some guest musicians from Ethiopia and England (Yezina and Mesafnit Negash and Byron Wallen, for example). There were also contributions from members of The Heliocentrics and some of the UK’s leading jazz and African players during the final sessions in London in November 2009.

Mulatu Steps Ahead on Strut (2010)

There are fewer funk and psychedelic touches here (compared to ‘Inspiration Information’), this is smoother, more deliberate jazz but still unquantifiable. Keep your ears open for some fantastic horn arrangements – as on “Green Africa”. The track “Assosa” adapts traditional music from the Assosa tribes in North-Western Ethiopia and “Mulatu’s Mood” re-works a Mulatu jazz fusion composition from the early 90s into a new swinging Afro highlife arrangement. “I wanted to use West African styles within this version and try new ways of using the beautiful sound of the kora”, explained Astatke.

Mulatu Astatke & The Heliocentrics on Youtube – Cha Cha

Inspiration Information and Mulatu Steps Ahead, are two adventures into experimental western jazz coupled with the ethnic sounds of Ethiopian jazz and they have both been a huge success. Mulatu Astatke is a mere 67 years old and still experimenting and pushing back the frontiers. He could be forgiven for resting on his laurels but hopefully that is the furthest thing from his mind.

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