Saturday, May 1, 2010

Mulatu Astatke, the father of Ethio-Jazz

This weekend I'll get a chance to catch one of my musical heroes, Ethiopian jazz master Mulatu Astatke. The 66-year-old bandleader and vibraphonist is a true innovator and maverick. His focus on instrumentals is unusual; Ethiopian folk music places primary focus on singing, and there was virtually no tradition of orchestral music outside the State theatre, military and police bands. He was also widely respected as the first Ethiopian to study music abroad, intending originally to study engineering in London but being drawn to music instead, a pursuit that also took him to New York and Boston.

His path of musical awakening has interesting parallels with the father of Afrobeat, Fela Kuti. Kuti was sent to London (and later New York) around the same time to study medicine, but turned to music instead, and fused Ghanaian highlife and the music of his native Nigeria with jazz and the propulsive hard funk of James Brown. Mulatu also picked up on the funk, but with more emphasis on jazz and Latin. His music fuses those elements with traditional Ethiopian-inspired melodies, using a five-tone scale system. The effect is beguiling and evocative. Many Western artists have been influenced by Mulatu's unique take on the groove; hip-hop artists have sampled his recordings and productions (I posted about that here), while hip New Yorkers the Menahan Street Band are virtually a Mulatu cover act. Jim Jarmusch made Mulatu's music the soundtrack to his film Broken Flowers.

Of course, it's better to let the music speak for itself:

Tezetaye antchi lidj ("Baby, my unforgettable remembrance") from 1974.

Ene alantchi alnorem ("I can't live without you") also 1974.

More recently, Mulatu toured and recorded an album with British psych-jazz-funk band The Heliophonics. Below is their live rendition of his 1969 track Yekermo sew.

If you are in Melbourne, you can catch Mulatu performing live at Federation Square at 3pm today (Saturday May 1st). It's free. He's backed by The Black Jesus Experience, some local guys who are obviously big fans. He's playing at The Forum on Sunday the 2nd and Monday the 3rd, and is giving a Masterclass at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Monday afternoon.


  1. Argh, I couldn't quite afford the Forum shows (having already signed up for Peter Brotzmann and Han Bennink et al) and now I realise I was at Fed Square just moments after his Saturday appearance!!!

    I'm one of those people who belatedly came to his music 5 years ago via Jim Jarmusch.

    I trust he was awesome...

  2. ^ Awesome indeed - I saw teh Fed Square gig, because I'm too tight to fork out $72. I think a lot of people were really impressed. Only played 3 songs, unfortunately, but that's what you get when it's gratis.