Mulatu Astatke: the man who created ‘Ethio jazz’

Ethiopian tuning, Latin rhythms, the wah-wah pedal – ahead of a festival of African culture, Richard Williams hails a composer who likes to mix it up

Mulatu Astatke on stage at the Big Chill festival, Herefordshire, in 2011. Photograph: Andy Sheppard/Redferns
Mulatu Astatke on stage at the Big Chill festival, Herefordshire, in 2011. Photograph: Andy Sheppard/Redferns

Richard Williams
The Guardian,September 5, 2014

Everybody knows that Ethiopian jazz is the only kind worth listening to these days,” a bored Roman socialite remarks during one of the many party scenes in Paolo Sorrentino’s film The Great Beauty. It sounds like an epitaph. How could something so special, so original, survive the embrace of people so devoted to superficiality, so quick to move on to the next sensation?

As a fashionable novelty, Ethiopian jazz may indeed have had its moment in the spotlight. As an evolving form, however, it demonstrates greater resilience. Its roots lie deep within the musical culture of a country that, with the exception of a brief period under Italian occupation between 1936 and 1941, has enjoyed 3,000 years of independence. The first to realise that its distinctive indigenous modes and textures could be blended with those of American jazz was Mulatu Astatke, the composer and bandleader whose early recordings began to attract a cult following 15 years ago, after being unearthed and reissued by an enthusiastic Frenchman.

Astatke, whose appearance in London on 13 September will be a highlight of the Southbank Centre’s Africa Utopia festival, was supposed to devote his life to aeronautical engineering. Instead, he invented a musical genre and became the central figure in an enormously successful series of anthologies that dug deep into the origins of a fascinating but long-hidden world.

The 16-year-old Astatke had arrived in Britain in 1959, sent from Addis Ababa to North Wales by his wealthy parents, first to Lindisfarne College and then to Bangor University. But music got in the way of those initial career plans, and his gifts took him to Trinity College of Music in London, where he studied piano, clarinet and harmony, and to the Eric Gilder School of Music in Twickenham, whose pupils included the Ghanaian saxophonist Teddy Osei – later to found Osibisa, the pioneering Afro-rock group – and Labi Siffre, the singer-guitarist. He began playing vibraphone and piano in the clubs of Soho with expatriate African and Caribbean jazz musicians, and in dance halls with the popular Edmundo Ros orchestra.

Leaving London in 1963, he enrolled as the first African student at the jazz-oriented Berklee College in Boston, whose alumni include the vibraphonist Gary Burton and the pianist Keith Jarrett. Moving to New York, he pursued his interests in jazz and Latin music.

When he returned home in 1969 it was with the idea of creating a more ambitious musical fusion. In Addis Ababa he discovered an upsurge of activity in the world of the arts and entertainment, and a booming night-life scene that offered plenty of scope for experiment. He called his new music “Ethio jazz”, and his recordings from the period show him using local musicians, steeped in the four basic pentatonic modes with which they grew up, to impart a new flavour to the structures he had brought with him from America.

“There’s an obvious influence from people like Duke Ellington,” says Alexander Hawkins, the 33-year-old English pianist who has been a member of Astatke’s band for the last five years and is featured on his most recent album, Sketches of Ethiopia. “Duke is one of Mulatu’s heroes. But it’s all filtered through this African rhythmic sensibility – sixes against fours and threes against twos in the music on a deep level – and also the other elements of the Ethiopian sound, in particular the modal language, which is probably the thing that most conspicuously sets it apart from other African traditions. The Ethiopian modes have an almost Arabic feel to them, this strange harmonic minor twist with a flat sixth and a sharp seventh, which gives the music a very unusual tonality.”

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