Mulatu Astatke

BY David DacksPublished Apr 6, 2010

Mulatu Astatke is the godfather of Ethio-jazz ― a low-down but sophisticated brew of funky rhythms, pentatonic scales, and vibraphones. Perfect ingredients for breakbeats, really, as witnessed in songs by K'naan, Nas and Damian Marley, or as a setting for modal jazz constructions in the spirit of his new album Mulatu Steps Ahead, on Strut Records. A further new release comes as part of a three-DVD set of tribute concerts mounted in Los Angeles called Timeless (Mochilla), in which an all-star band takes on Astatke's arrangements. Astatke has worked steadily over six decades, with a notable highlight being his early '70s collaborations with Duke Ellington. Over the past ten years he has gained an even more international audience with the reissue of his music in the Ethiopiques series of compilations on Buda Musique, collaboration with Either/Orchestra and the Heliocentrics, and through his music's inclusion in the soundtrack of Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers. Exclaim! reached Astatke in Addis Ababa.

What turned you on to jazz, and specifically Latin jazz? Was it a popular music in your youth?
As you know, in most Third World countries music, art and theatre are not compulsory in schools. I was one of those lucky people in Ethiopia to go to high school in England. In (those) high schools, all those subjects were compulsory. I left (Addis) to study aeronautical engineering; they found out that my talent was music so I persuaded (the school to switch my studies). I became very successful when I started studying. Jazz was my favourite music because of its roots in Africa. Latin jazz also has roots in Africa. I started listening to those musics when I was in Europe, and finally I created a music called Ethio jazz.

When did you first start developing your concepts of fusing Ethiopian styles with jazz?
Forty-two years ago in New York. I formed a group called the Ethiopian Quintet and recorded three albums for Worthy Records. I performed on TV and radio.

Why did you choose to work with the vibraphone?
It has a beautiful sound, which I really loved and it also reminded me the African musical instruments called balafons.

How popular was Ethiopia's music relative to the music of other countries in Africa?
Not very much in the world, because Ethiopia was very much closed for a long time as far as music and culture were concerned. Our music was not known as much as Western African countries. These days we are really catching up!

Were the '60s and '70s truly a golden age as they are often described? Can you describe the trends that were influencing bands at the time? What was government's attitude towards this music? What about toward your music?
The band was formed in a big band formation with four trumpets, four trombones and five saxophones and all musical arrangements were acoustic, like Duke Ellington, Count Basie kind of music. We also had European music teachers. At that time the [popular] music being played was [based on] common forms; the people loved it and [there were] no problems with the government. As far as my music was concerned, it was totally different from what the other bands played. At the beginning there was a problem with people understanding, but now it's very much loved.

Tell me about the three albums you made in the States. How did they come about?
Well that was the beginning of Ethio jazz. After a lot of research and hard work I managed to come up with the blend of five-tone music against twelve-tone music. As you can understand, it's not easy to blend two cultures and you have to make sure that one doesn't dominate another one. But Ethio jazz has beautiful colours [because of] pentatonic or Ethiopian modes [being] dominant, with beautiful twelve-tone harmonies.

What was it like working with Duke Ellington?
Duke has been my hero for years and years. When we studied music at Berklee, we used to do a lot of analyzing of big band works, some of which were Duke Ellington. To play my arrangement with his band was my happiest day in my life.

Last decade, a turning point in your career came about when you first worked with Either/Orchestra. How did they get in touch with you?
I met Either/Orchestra in Ethiopia, they gave me a call when the arrived to play at the Addis Ababa Hilton. They were following my work for years and asked if we could play one of my musical arrangements together. That was a beautiful concert. After that I was in Harvard as a fellow, since the band was stationed in Boston. We travelled together to perform many concerts in the USA.

When did you find out that Jim Jarmusch wanted to use your music? Did you have any idea what he was going to do with it? What did you think of the movie?
Jim was a person whose work I admire. He was also responsible for my successes. His secretary called me up when I was in New York to perform at Wintergarden [theatre]. She told me that Jim Jarmusch and his crew would like to come to the concert, and they did. At the end of the concert, Jim came backstage to discuss using my music for his film. I was so privileged to say yes. Finally he came up with the list of music he wanted to use. The film became very successful, and I always thank Jim for doing that. A great success for Ethio jazz.

How did you get together with the Heliocentrics?
I met (DJ/promoter) Karen P in Canada. The Red Bull Music Academy called me up [to see] if I could come over to London for a concert, and she arranged for me to play with the Heliocentrics. That is how our meeting started. We did a beautiful CD, which is a very successful in the world. When we did a concert at the Cargo, Quinton Scott, who is a representative of K7!/Strut, in the audience who was interested our first CD. I give my thanks to Karen and Quinton.

What was it like lecturing at the Red Bull Music Academy? Did you meet a lot of like-minded people?
It's a fantastic program. It gave me a chance to meet young, talented musicians and interesting people.

What are the musical concepts behind your new album?
This is the best and most developed Ethio jazz music.

How do you feel about K'naan sampling your songs? Is your music popular in Somalia?
I have never met K'naan, and he hasn't even requested to use my music on his CD. I hope I will meet him in the future to discuss that.

What would you still like to accomplish in your career?
I have finished an opera based on the Ethiopian Orthodox Church that will be shown throughout the world.

Are you surprised that you, an instrumentalist, are arguably the best known figure in Ethiopian music, internationally speaking, more so than legends like Tilahun Gessesse and Mahmoud Ahmed ― or any singer for that matter?
I leave this question to your magazine, especially for yourself.

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