The King of Ethio-Jazz


William Mullally


Michael Tsegaye


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There’s a timelessness to Astatke’s music. A song like ‘Yègellé Tezeta’ sounds just as fresh when used in Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Broken Flowers’, or on a 45 in 1972, as it does sampled in ‘As We Enter’ by Nas and Damian Marley. It’s revelatory, and though those studying music could delve deeper into its brilliant fusion of European and Ethiopian scales, even a layman can recognise that there’s something that just works about his music. It sounds both foreign and familiar, as if by linking Latin, jazz and traditional Ethiopian music he found a way to look into the heart of music itself, at its root, and find the very thing that appealed to us in the first place, and always will.

Despite this, without the move that changed the course of Astatke’s life, it’s possible that Ethio-jazz may never have been gifted to the world at all. Mulatu, or Dr. Mulatu, as he prefers to be addressed after he received an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music in Boston in 2012, spent his first 16 years in Ethiopia before his parents moved him to England. If he had stayed in East Africa, he explains, he most likely never would have been able to explore music as a serious subject of study.

‘There are big educational problems in what we call “developing nations,”’ says Astatke. ‘In most third world countries, music, art and theatre are not usually compulsory at school.’

‘In general, institutions without these programmes do not produce complete people. A complete person is a guy who has studied music, art and culture in tandem with physics and chemistry and other subjects,’ Astatke continues, with passion, ‘I did not have this chance when I was in Ethiopia.’

Music was so far from his life that he did not even consider studying music when he began his studies after his family moved to the UK. ‘My family actually sent me to a very well-regarded school in the UK to study engineering. I was very good at math and physics and I wanted to become an electrical engineer.’

In the UK, Astatke was able to discover parts of himself of which he had not been previously aware. ‘That was a very great institution because they really focus so much on making each person a complete person,’ he says. ‘I had a chance to study everything. But it was in my musical studies where I excelled, and that’s where I found out about my talent.’

His teachers recognised his natural ability and affinity for music as much as he did, but his family was not as ready to recognise it. ‘The school told me, “Mulatu, I think if you become a musician, you will become a great one”, but I had problems with the family because they wanted me to become an engineer or a doctor.’ Ultimately, family didn’t stand in his way. ‘I convinced them,’ Astatke says.

At Trinity College of Music in London, he discovered jazz, immediately recognising a strong link to the traditional music of Ethiopia. ‘It was suggested that I study jazz because the connection to jazz is African. As we know, Africa contributed so much to the development of modern music, and since I am an African, I felt that I should concentrate on jazz music. From there, I applied to Berklee in Boston in 1958, becoming the first African at Berklee.’

In the 1960s, Astatke’s innovations began to take shape. In 1966, he recorded his first albums, ‘Afro-Latin Soul Volumes 1 and 2’, with the Ethiopian Quintet, a group he formed while still at Berklee. There, he developed his style further, and by the early ‘70s, Ethio-jazz emerged fully formed.

Astatke blended the melodies and scales of Ethiopia with those of European musical structures, performing the music primarily on the European instruments used in jazz and Latin music. ‘The best thing about this is that when you are mixing the two, you can easily lose the colour and the beauty of the Ethiopian mode. But I actually fused both of them so nicely that people loved and enjoyed and came up with a different flavour and different sounds than the music of that time.’

Astatke rates his accomplishments accurately – Ethio-jazz, from its earliest days, was intoxicating. In the early ‘70s, Ethiopia was opening up to the world. Astatke contributed to this cultural awakening, bringing new instruments and styles that fit so well they felt like they’d always been there. Internationally respected artists like Duke Ellington toured Ethiopia with Astatke performing as a special guest. Amha Records, Ethiopia’s first independent record label, released Astatke’s revered albums such as 1972’s ‘Mulatu of Ethiopia’.

But in 1975, Amha stopped producing records altogether, as the Derg junta and the socialist movement brought Ethiopia into one of the bloodiest periods in its history. Though many fled the violence and turmoil, Astatke stayed and kept playing music. Even to this day he tends to shy away from discussions of politics.

Astatke refused to abandon music in Ethiopia, but by the 1980s most of his music had been forgotten outside of Ethiopia’s borders. But Ethio-jazz was too powerful to remain hidden for long. Parisian label Buda Musique started heavily promoting Ethiopian music with its Éthiopiques series in the late ‘90s. Its fourth volume, which focused entirely on Astatke’s work from 1969 to 1974, was a massive hit, bringing Astatke renewed acclaim and new audiences hungry for his work.

Into the noughties, Astatke’s music caught fire in the US as well, finding its way into Jim Jarmusch films and onto NPR, as well as extensively sampled by the likes of Kanye West and Madlib. To this day, few listeners can resist its draw.

‘There was a time a long time ago when I tried this Ethio-jazz, and people told me to get off from the stage,’ he says. ‘Now it’s a different story. There is more Mulatu and more of Mulatu’s music. Appreciation is becoming great, my friend.’

Since the birth of Ethio-jazz, music fans in Ethiopia have gained a greater appreciation for what the world has brought to the musical conversation as well. ‘Ethiopian listeners have changed very much. Music schools exist, and different FM stations which play all kinds of music. I had my own FM program which I ran for around seven years – teaching the public about classical music, about jazz, about world music, about the African contribution to the world. And I think in Ethiopia a lot of people have a growing understanding and are enjoying music from different parts of the world,’ says Astatke.

Despite his international education, Astatke is still very much an Ethiopian at heart. ‘I very much feel that Ethiopia is still my true home. If you keep away for long, you can lose your touch and you can lose your feeling.’

Forty-five years into the creation of Ethio-jazz, Astatke has shown no signs of slowing down, or of resting on his previous accomplishments. In his work with The Heliocentrics, and his latest compositions for 2013’s ‘Sketches Of Ethiopia’, Astatke sounds looser, even more willing to improvise and innovate than he did on his earliest recordings in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. ‘I’ll always say, never stop trying in music. The more you try, the more you work. The more you love what you are doing.’

His pace belies the fact that he is a 70 year old man who has entered a stage in his career where he could easily rest on the legendary status he has gained. In the month of March 2014 alone, he visited both London and Colombia to share his music at different festivals. And on top of that he still composes new work, even as new listeners are discovering his original recordings every day. ‘I’m still working. I just keep on working now. Never stop. Never stop,’ he says with a laugh. Like that of his music, the energy of Astatke never seems to fade.

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