Perfect Sound Forever


Swing from Abessinia
by Michael Freerix
(October 2010)

Born into a wealthy background, 16-year-old Mulatu Astatke left his native home in Ethiopia for England to finish school and study aerial engineering at the end of the '50's. "Science, like biology or chemistry, was given more importance in the education system. Actually, I had an early desire to become an aeronautical engineer, so I had the opportunity to go to an international school in North Wales that gave its students the freedom to try all different types of subjects, including music and the arts."1

His mother taught him the piano as the child, but he never dreamed of becoming a musician: "I didn't necessarily grow up with music; actually, I was really involved in mathematics and physics." But in England, everything was different: "I heard music all the time, all the kids at school listen to all kinds of music. Finally my interest also turned to music" 2 His teachers supported him. They found he had a talent for music. "I still studied science subjects for two to three years, I was playing in school bands at the same time."3 Schoolmates took him to London: "There was a wonderful club in Soho called the Metro. Quite a lot of Nigerians and Ghanaians were there, playing their music. I used to sometimes sit in playing congas. Even then, I thought, why doesn't anybody know Ethiopian music?"4 He decided to focus on music. "I was studying, and at the same time, I was trying to persuade my family that I should be a musician because that's what I was told. Finally they said, 'Okay, if you want it that much you should go study it,' so I went to London. I went to a community college and studied classical music for a while. I was playing with great musicians in London."5

He went to Trinity College, where he studied clarinet, piano and harmonics. He eventually found his way into the London scene, working with many of the leading British jazz players of the era, Tubby Hayes among them. At one point, he was even a member of Edmundo Ros's Latin dance band.

But he wanted to try to compose, and play and write and promote Ethiopian music. "I had a few musician friends and I said, 'Look, I have a background in classical, but I want to study jazz—do you know any places in America where I can go to learn more about that?' Finally, I came up with Berkeley College in Boston, which was the only jazz school in the world at that time. So I went to Berkeley and that's where I really worked my tools."6

As the first African student at Berkeley College in Boston, he thought "that if I blend Ethiopian music and jazz directly then it would sound like two cultures going at the same time. It took me time but I somehow managed, somehow I put them together."7 He called the integration of the pentatonic-scale-based melodies of Ethiopia with the 12 tones, on which Western music is based, 'Ethio-Jazz'. The result, to Western ears, has an eerie, exotic, almost trance-like feel to it, coupled with more familiar jazz, Latin, and soul rhythms and harmonies. Lithe and devoutly sensual, its dreamy melodies are chanted by un-tethered horns and echoed by rippling electric piano.

"During the mid-'60's, no one was really fusing Ethiopian music with jazz," he remembers. "There was Heile Selassie's First National Theatre Orchestra and the police and the army had orchestras. Then there were bands like the Echoes and the Ras Band. The musicians at the time were playing melodies around the four Ethiopian modes using techniques like 'cannon' forms, with melody lines echoing each other. With Ethio jazz, I consciously wanted to expand and explore the modes. My music brought in quite different harmonic structures and a different kind of soloing."8

After some years of study, he moved to New York, because its jazz scene was so exiting. He saw most of his idols like Miles Davis and John Coltrane live on stage and Dizzy Gillespie and Tito Puente especially impressed him very much. They influenced him to open up to other musical influences besides jazz.

He established his 'Ethiopian Quartet,' which was mostly Puerto Rican, and in the '60's, they recorded two albums for a small New York label called Worthy (Afro-Latin Soul 1 & 2), and in 1972, another one, Mulatu of Ethiopia. He jammed with Dave Pike, who was Herbie Mann's vibraphonist at the time. Curiously, the music on these three records doesn't really sound like a mixture between Ethiopian music and jazz, but more like a blend between jazz with funk, Latin music and traditional Ethiopian five-tone scales.

On a trip back to Ethiopia, he realized that the atmosphere in Addis Ababa had changed. Since the social turmoil of 1960, Haile Selassie was forced to allow some liberal changes in society. Imported music from Europe and the USA had a marvelous effect on the music scene. Addis Ababa turned into a 'Swinging Addis.' The local music charts were dominated by pop music 'made in Ethiopia,' with local stars like Alemayehu Eshete, Getachew Mekuria or Mahmoud Ahmed. Mulatu decided to go home: "the longer you're creating something outside of your country, the harder it is for your people to understand it."9

Upon his return, he went on a field trip to the South of Ethiopia. In Berklee, everybody said Charlie Parker invented modern jazz by playing octatonic scales like Debusy. In South Ethiopia, there was a tribe called the Darasha, "which played music with octatonic scales, which are very importation for improvisations in Jazz. So I went out to the bush, to the huts of this tribe and tried out all sorts of things. These people played octatonic scales, 24 musicians playing bamboo tubes of various lengths."10 In retrospect, he remarks "we should turn back and give our respect to the bush people. These people are our scientists."11

Back in Addis Ababa, he met Amha Ashèté, head of the local Amha Records. He became songwriter, arranger and producer for the label. Between 1969 and 1974, there was hardly any recording published on Amha Records without his participation.

His return was initially greeted with mistrust. By introducing the Fender Rhodes piano, vibraphone and wah-wah pedals into the music, he was accused of imposing western sounds on traditional styles played on centuries-old instruments. Since Ethiopia was the only African country to avoid European colonization (save for Mussolini's brief occupation), it had largely avoided cultural 'contamination.' "But I never thought of jazz as American music," Astatke shrugs. "It was born in Africa and then went somewhere else. So why shouldn't I take it back there?" 12, guardian Instead, he felt like a jazz ambassador, by bringing the Hammond Organ and the vibraphone to Ethiopia. "I changed the whole Ethiopian music," he said without shyness, "combining jazz and fusion with the Ethiopian five-tone scales." 13

And he started a new band under his own name. With 4 trumpets, 4 trombones and 5 saxophones, it sounded similar to Duke Ellington's orchestra, one of his masters: "Mostly we were playing international music at hotels and weddings but I also presented concerts of ethio-jazz. At first people didn't like it, but eventually the music got quite a following." 14 The bulk of his output on Amha Records was released on 7" singles as well as one LP in 1974 entitled Yekatit Ethio-Jazz.

In 1970, he had the chance to meet Duke Ellington himself who was on tour in Africa. "I was assigned by the Embassy to be Ellington's escort while he was in Addis. We both stayed at the Hilton in Addis and, whatever he needs or wants to know about Ethiopia, I was his guide."15

During his music studies in Boston, Mulatu had analyzed his work in detail. "We were due to play an evening concert so I discussed with him if he would consider playing one of my arrangements. I wrote an arrangement of 'Dewel' for his band, a different version which included some beautiful voicings on the horns. He found the structures so interesting and I remember him saying, 'This is good. I never expected this from an African.' He made my day. His visit to Ethiopia remains one of the greatest moments in my life."16

By being a popular person and appearing in Ethiopian TV, he even brought musicians from four different tribes together into an Addis Ababa television studio and orchestrated a cross-tribal fusion performance. Even today, confronted with this ethnic music, the wind instruments are captivating for a Western ear and eye. They include long trumpet-like wooden horns called malakat and end-blown flutes that each produce one pitch and together a complex melody.

But times changed drastically after Emperor Haile Selassie was dethroned by a military coup in 1974, and replaced with a dictatorship known as the Derg. It transformed Addis's musical landscape. Not only did the city's social life end abruptly at 10PM, government bureaucrats also painstakingly examined song lyrics before recording sessions were allowed to take place, fanatically weeding out any critical content. As an instrumentalist with a distinct style, unlike other musicians with troublesome lyrics, he didn't fall afoul of the authorities, who arranged for his band to play at official ceremonies.

During the following years, many musicians fled the country and try to establish themselves as musicians somewhere in Europe or in the USA. Astatke stayed in Ethiopia though. "I'm not saying I approved of the regime, but I just concentrated on making music," he says.17 "But it wasn't like before. You know how the Communists are - choirs shouting, flags waving."18

Mulatu taught for a living, though he was pressured out of one university job for promoting "imperialist music," because he was analyzing jazz-arrangements with students.

Although he did not release any records during this period, his three American recordings became collector's items among DJ's. Since it was being played in clubs worldwide, his music prevailed.

In 1991, the regime collapsed and Ethiopia became a democracy. A slow economic and cultural revival developed. Despite being cut off from the world, Ethiopian music had found fame among music fans fascinated by the music of Africa. In 1998, producer and record-collector Francis Falceto started with the re-issue of Ethiopian recordings from the '60's on the French label Buda Musique, which has run up to 23 volumes up to this day.

Volume 4 of the Buda series runs with the title Ethio Jazz and Musique Instrumental, 1969-1974, Mulatu Astatke. With this record, American musician and composer Russ Gershon was smitten by the Ethiopian sound. "They feel this music," he says, "and they really play it so nice."19 He frequently collaborates with the Massachusetts-based Either/Orchestra, one of jazz's longest running and most important large ensembles. Since 1985, the ten-piece group has traversed the history and stylistic range of jazz to make great music out of unexpected connections between styles and approaches to music. Like the late Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, the E/O has been a kind of graduate school of jazz, whose alumni include John Medeski, Matt Wilson, Josh Roseman and Miguel Zenon, among dozens of other significant players. Gershon went on to include arrangements of Ethiopian tunes on the Either/Orchestra CD's More Beautiful Than Death and Afro-Cubism. "There's not that long tradition of high-level jazz playing that they're coming out of," Gershon says of the Ethiopian instrumentalists he heard on disc, "so there's a sort of simplicity to the playing that I really like... It's sort of all vibe, all feeling, coming through relatively simple technique."20 Gershon's records with Either/Orchestra got noticed by Falceto and in January 2004 they where the first Americans ever invited to the Ethiopian International Music Festival.

On their arrival, the band immediately met Mulatu and invited him to play at their concert, with results that surprised and delighted the audience and critics. Since that time, the E/O and Mulatu have performed together in the UK, Holland, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Canada and the U.S.. The E/O's live festival performances with various Ethiopian musicians, including Mulatu, makes up volume 20 of the Ethiopiques series.

Even American filmmaker, and ex-musician, Jim Jarmush discovered the music of Mulatu Astatke through the Ethiopiques series. In 2004, he was in pre-production for his film Broken Flowers and looking for music that would work for long car-rides that the main character, played by Bill Murray travels through the U.S. by car. "When I was writing Broken Flowers, " he said, "I was listening to a lot of his music, and I was thinking, 'How do I get this music into a film that's set in suburban America?' It even led me to make the character of Jeffrey Wright of Ethiopian descent."21 In the film, Mr. Wright's character, Mr. Murray's next-door neighbor, gets him started on his journey and hands him the disc. Mr. Murray then heads off for a trip around the USA, trying to find his son.

Jarmush met Astatke after a gig with Either/Orchestra in New York. "'I loved the show. I want to use your music sometime,'" Astatke remembers Jarmush saying. 22 "A few months later, his crew called me up. 'We want to use this one, we want to use that one, we want to use this one... ' It was great!" 23 Several songs by Astatke are used prominently in the film, and are on the soundtrack album, released by Decca. "The film's been seen all over the world and Ethio-jazz went with it. It started big things for me."24 Vol. 4 of the "Ethiopiques" series has seen a bump in sales since Broken Flowers was released. It is now selling about 1,800 copies a week; that is equivalent to the sales of a new album by a world music star like Youssou N'Dour.

In 2008, Mulatu went to Canada to lecture. There he met Karen P., who is a producer in England. Back in Africa, he remembers, "I got a call and she said 'would I like to go and make a concert in England?' I said 'Okay I'd be very glad to come over ‚but I don't have a band.' She said 'I have a band.' So that's how I met the Heliocentrics." The Heliocentrics is a future-jazz collective, based in London. "We only had one day of rehearsal, but we had a fantastic concert there at a place called the Congo. It was a very successful one, and there was someone from K7 records and they asked me if we could do a CD. So we did a CD together. It was recorded in just 10 days, in the Heliocentrics studio in London."25

Bassist Jake Ferguson says, the Inspiration Information Record "is the meeting of two totally different musical worlds, which meant a lot of work and regular re-evaluations. And the occasional heated word."26, guardian Drummer Malcolm Catto agrees: "He is a lovely, very humble man and we all embarked on this musical expedition with mutual respect and open minds - we're still learning from Mulatu. He was and is an inspiration."27

Working with Either/Orchestra or Heliocentrics involves a totally different chemistry, Astatke says. "It's a different groove, different passion. I like both, and that's why I felt connected, and it came off authentic. The music reflects the connection."28

Malcolm Catto, the drummer who is the driving force behind the Heliocentrics says "He's very open-minded — he'll give anything a chance. When we were working with him, we would play festivals where the support bands were pretty wild. You'd be checking them out, then you'd turn around and discover he was standing right behind you, listening."29

But with his new record, Mulatu Steps Ahead, Astatke moves toward his origins, to jazz of the '60's, where it's all coming from for him: "I still listen a lot to Gil Evans," recalling the musicians who affected him most in those seminal years. I love George Shearing very much -- I like his changes, I like his approach to his 12-tone music. I was listening a lot to Randy Weston. Coltrane I was listening to a lot. And Miles. Those are the people who really influenced me."30 Yes, the Miles Davis of Miles Ahead is the true inspiration, but with a special touch from Astatke. Only he can compose pieces like "Green Africa" or "Ethio Blues" that merge jazz from the sixties with unique African sounds. Back in the sixties, Mulatu used to play piano, but today his main instrument is the vibraphone because "its sound resembles that of the African Balafone."31

Today, his life is absorbed by music. In Addis Abeba, he has established his 'African Jazz Village,' a combination between a music school and a club. "It's a beautiful place, a beautiful venue,"32 Mulatu said later. He hopes the school will help fuel Ethiopia's current jazz revival, a trend that has seen many Diaspora musicians return to Addis and means that today, music fans can tap their feet and dance along to live jazz at clubs and hotels across the city pretty much any night of the week. "There's one kid who plays there on Saturdays called Bebesha, a guitarist. He has a good future and he is a great fan of Ethio-jazz."33

At night Astatke DJ's on the only country-wide music station, except when he is teaching at Harvard, where he is also doing research for a project: "the idea was to write a book of what Ethiopia has contributed to development of music and arts. During my time there, I made a lot of talks to 30 fellows of Harvard, with three other composers, some from Japan. We had great researchers and professors. As a team we gave presentations and discussed at length the development of classical music and jazz and the music, customs and instrumentations happening in Ethiopia that pre-date all of this by many centuries." 34

But he does not have too much time for research, because he is on tour all around the world with his new band because he receives a lot of offers.

At Harvard, he started to write an opera, "The Yared Opera," based on Ethiopian Coptic Church music, written around 380 A.D., which will be conducted using the mekwamia, an ancient conducting stick. "There's a beautiful church, called the Lalibela Church. It's made out of one big stone, built up and carved out of one big stone. I really want to open an opera inside that church. I've got to go through about 80 or 85 people to get the permission from the government. So I'm working on that now."35 And he hasn't figured out who might perform this opera. "I have been contacting a few quartets in Europe and also America. I don't know, maybe even the American embassy could sponsor these guys. So I'm talking with the Norwegian embassy, going to talk with the American embassy and the British embassy. They might be able to bring me those quartets. But, this is not going to be a jazz thing, this is very symphonic. It's music from 360 A.D. against the 21st century—it's a continuation."36

The first section of "The Yared Opera" was premiered at Harvard's Sanders Theater in Boston in April 2008. Writing an opera has opened another perspective on music for Astatke: "I think of music as a science. There is no difference between musicians and scientists. They deal with chemicals, we deal with sound. When you're writing for 60 or 70 orchestral musicians, you have to imagine so many counterpoints, so many rhythms, so many instruments. The combination of all those sounds equals this. The chemist combining chemicals equals that. So where's the distinction?"37


1. Ulrich Stock "Jazz by Mulatu Astatke" (Zeit, October 23, 2009)

2. John Doran "Afrosonic: A Column About Mulatu Astatke And Ethio Jazz" (The Quietus, May 6, 2009)

3. Ibid

4. Peter Culshaw "Mulatu Astatke: the lounge lizard of counterpoint" (Telegraph, March 24, 2010)

5. Doran

6. Ibid

7. Ibid

8. Ben Sisario "Film Puts a New Focus on the Master of 'Ethiojazz'" (New York Times (reprinted at Nazret), October 15, 2005)

9. Tassell

10. David Pais "Mulatu Astatke" (Arte, September 17, 2009)

11. Clive Davis "The rediscovery of Mulatu Astatke" (Times Online, March 28, 2010)

12. Nigel Tassell "Jazz? It Was Born in Africa" (Guardian, May 1, 2009)

13. Doran

14. Culshaw

15. Doran

16. Ibid

17. Culshaw

18. Tassell

19. Either-Orchestra "The Leader: Russ Gershon" (Either-Orchestra website)

20. Ibid

21. Sisario

22. Tassell

23. Ibid

24. Ibid

25. Doran

26. Tassell

27. Ibid

28. Davis

29. Ibid

30. Doran

31. Alison Herd "Ethiopian jazz veteran Mulatu Astatke inspires new generation of Ethio-jazz bands" (rfi, April 23, 2010)

32. Tristan McConnell "Inside Ethiopia's fusion jazz scene" (Global Post, June 29, 2010)

33. Doran

34. Ibid

35. Ibid

36. Ibid

37. Tassell

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