Mulatu, on his first international release, bears witness to an extraordinarily rich career, that has him hailed as the father of Ethio-Jazz. From his musical studies at Trinity College London and Berklee College of Music, through groundbreaking recordings for the legendary Amha label in Addis Ababa’s golden age, to his contribution to a recent Jim Jarmush film, his adoption by the musical youth of Europe and the States and sampling by hip hop royalty, Astatke has a unique musical history. His new album, Sketches of Ethiopia, brings to mind the great arrangements of Gil Evans and late Ellingtonian tone poems and is an homage to the rhythms and dances of Mulatu’s homeland that still provide the engine for his music. It’s also evidence that the grand old man of Ethio-jazz is not standing still. Still finding new ways to express his music, he’s brought together a top team of the UK’s golden generation of young improvising talent, some of the finest new Ethiopian voices and the unique vocal talents of Malian diva Fatoumata Diawara to create the strongest album of his late flowering.
Sketches of Ethiopia. Listening to Mulatu Astatke, it is clear he chose this album title for a reason. “The music creates a whole array of emotions, a multi-coloured palette. Each harmony and melody evokes a very distinct feeling. That was why I chose this title, which highlights the spiritual diversity that gave birth to the music, and which encompasses the idea that I am talking about all of Ethiopia, from North to South, from East to West. And even about the diaspora communities! The same is true of the sounds used which range from Ethio-jazz to the most experimental musical forms. All these elements align to sketch a portrait of Ethiopia.” Without a doubt, these eight tracks come together to create a unique panorama which puts into perspective the diversity which characterizes the Horn of Africa, and the way this diversity resonates beyond its place of origin. Certain listeners will not fail to notice echoes of Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis, a reference underlined by the elusive trumpet-playing of Londoner, Byron Wallen. But this latest work just as easily brings to mind the great African Suites of the father of jazz, often compared with Mulatu Astatke, Duke Ellington.
This album, in both its musical execution and its raison d’être, is above all a journey through Ethiopia, a country where there are as many “instruments as there are tribes”. The masinko, a single-stringed bowed lute, the antique krar, a six-string lyre, and the washint, a bamboo flute, being the most emblematic, are all featured here. But each harmonises naturally with the piano, the bass and the saxophone, even with the classical cello of Eric Longsworth and the virtuoso kora of the aptly named Kandia Kora! Always remaining faithful to his musical roots, Mulatu has built a bridge between divergent points around the globe, between the pastoral melodies of the Ethiopian highlands and the harmonies of the capital, between Latin percussion for which he was renowned in the mid-1960s and English groove.
From the opening track, ‘Azmari’, written by the leader of Either/Orchestra, Russ Gershon, which alludes to the nocturnal singers of Addis Ababa, to ‘Surma’, composed by Astatke in homage to the pastoral ethnic group of the same name, the album takes us on a journey through the foundation music of Ethiopia bringing the unique musical traditions together to create a contemporary soundtrack. ‘Gamo’ is a feverish rhythm inherited from the southern Ethiopian people of the same name: “Some of the music
is meant to be danced to, some to be listened to. I’ve always thought of music in these terms. By no means monotone or monochrome. Music is a journey, and should allow you to experience vibrations at numerous different frequencies.” Thus the voice of guest singer Tesfayé travels through several registers, the perfect incarnation of the intentions of the album’s host. “This singer understands and can adapt his style to all the different genres of Ethiopian music. It is time that the whole world recognised his talent”.
The other guest singer is Malian Fatoumata Diawara, whose distinctive high voice is tuned to the sound of Addis Ababa. “I wrote an arrangement especially for her, which she manages to transcend. This young woman is always seeking to innovate from the basis of her own roots. An approach I share. Our collaboration was that much easier because there are similarities between the singing styles of our two countries.”
The music surges from the spiritual jazz vibe of ‘Assosa Derache’ which anchors the album amidships to the cutting edge fusion of trad northern Ethiopian village music and jazz funk that is ‘Gumuz’. Motherland Abay introduces improvisational elements to the mix but underpinning all is the constant questing of one of the key African musicians of the 20th and 21st centuries – a man who refuses to conform, or to settle down.
Mulatu Astatke (born 1943) is an Ethiopian musician and arranger best known as the father of Ethio-jazz. Born in the western Ethiopian city of Jimma, Mulatu trained in London, New York City, and Boston where he combined his jazz and Latin music interests with traditional Ethiopian music and became the first African student to enroll at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music from where he received an honourary degree in 2012. Astatke led his band while playing vibraphone and conga drums—instruments that he introduced into Ethiopian popular music— other percussion instruments, keyboards and organ. His albums focus primarily on instrumental music, and Astatke appears on all three known albums of instrumentals that were released during Ethiopia’s Golden ’70s. He collaborated with many notable artists in both
countries, arranging and playing on recordings by Mahmoud Ahmed, and appearing as a special guest with Duke Ellington during a tour of Ethiopia in 1973. His Western audience expanded even further when the 2005 Jim Jarmusch film Broken Flowers featured seven of Astatke’s songs. Hip hop artists have also sampled Astatke’s songs extensively, for example in the works of Nas, Damian Marley, Kanye West, Cut Chemist, and Knaan. He toured with US band Either/ Orchestra in 2006 and in 2008 recorded an album with the Heliocentrics and completed a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship at Harvard University, where he worked on modernizations of traditional Ethiopian instruments and premiered a portion of a new opera, The Yared Opera.