12 November 2009

Ethio Magic

Mulatu Astatke: New York - Addis - London: The story of Ethio Jazz 1965-1975 (Strut)

If you were there, if you saw Mulatu Astatke live 40 years ago when his Ethiopian jazz first slithered into the unsuspecting ears of Americans and Europeans, why are you reading this? I'm a latecomer to the wonders of Ethiopian music, enticed by the Ethiopiques series and the more contemporary work of Gigi, Bole 2 Harlem, and the like. This music is a product of contradictions: there's influence from the trade routes from Asia and Arabia, though the landlocked country is relatively isolated on an elevated plateau. The artists who developed Ethiopian jazz and pop clearly were listening to Western music, but used traditional melodies and chords to such an extent that the result sounds like a completely new genre. Like they'd hiked along the jazz river through the funk desert on the way to jazz mountain, but got bored with that and took off through the bush, forging their own path.  

However it happend, Ethiopia developed a modern sound that's unique in the world and far removed from the musics of its neighbors in North Africa, Arabia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Mulatu Astatke is one of the pioneers of this music, and has been featured in the Ethiopiques recordings. This recording is, we're told, "the definitive Mulatu career retrospective." Astatke has a fascinating history as a traveling musician, teacher, even radio broadcaster. But you don't need to know any of that to know that his music is golden.

Whether he's playing keyboards or vibraphone or just leading the band, Astatke's music was funky and innovative. Take the 1969 tune "Yegelle Tezeta / My Own Memory," which was featured in the Jim Jarmusch film Broken Flowers. It sounds like Dengue Fever doing Afrobeat with its thick organ lead and tight horn lines. A couple songs later, you're transported a different part of the world with the Afro-Caribbean feel of "Asiyo Bellema," complete with conga and steel pan, which is every bit as funky as any New York boogaloo being released at the time. My early favorite, though, is the track "Mulatu," which was the opening song on his 1972 LP Mulatu of Ethiopia. Funk guitar and staccato horns provide the rhythm as Astatke's vibes shimmer above, alternating with sax and flute. It's the kind of song that sounds ridiculous when described, but is nothing short of delicious when heard. That's the magic of Ethio jazz, and particularly of the astonishing Mulatu Astatke.

More Mulatu Astatke:
Buy CD
website (with song samples)
Astatke's page on Strut website

Interview on youtube:

And while I can't explain it, I kind of like the Jungle Book gang dancing to Astatke's music:

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