by Natalie Shooter
photos by Roland Ragi
As the father of Ethio jazz and master vibraphonist, Mulatu Astatke’s legacy stretches back to the mid ‘60s, when after graduating from the legendary Berklee College of Music he started experimenting with a new style of Latin jazz with his Ethiopian Quintet, fusing traditional Ethiopian music elements with American jazz. Though he’s released scores of albums throughout his career, a late ‘90s revival with the release of Buda Musique’s “Éthiopiques” compilation series – one of which is dedicated to the work of Astatke – helped him to reach new audiences. In 2005, the release of Jim Jarmusch’s feature film “Broken Flowers” – with a soundtrack punctuated with the sultry melodies of Astatke – helped him connect to a wider audience still. Now at 71, Astatke shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. The musician’s appearance in Lebanon at the beginning of August, as part of the Byblos International Festival, was just part of a seemingly never-ending tour as he continues to share the style that created his legacy.
The combination of the pentatonic scales of traditional Ethiopian music with the 12 of American jazz that Astatke first explored back in Berklee continues to ground his melodies. Live, his compositions are elegant, subtle and at times marked by a deep melancholy. With an open-air stage set on Byblos port that overhangs the sea, the balmy evening with a gentle breeze and part-clouded moon seems almost part of the stage set. To a packed out audience, Astatke plays alongside his band, gliding through some of his most well known tracks, such as “Yèkèrmo Sèw” – a brass-driven slow-builder and the funk-touched “Yègellé Tezeta,” sampled on Nas & Damian Marley’s 2010 single “As We Enter,” that opens with a groove-filled Hammond organ solo and shuffling drum beat, before circling saxophone melodies takeover. Astatke’s compositions are sophisticated and subtle; they snake along with rhythms winding back and forth teasingly, building into gentle crescendos until the chorus melody hooks back in and stretches endlessly on. His vibraphone solos have strength in their fragility; the haunting shadow-forming vibrations are the breathing space between, like words left hanging in the air.
Astatke himself has that same understated elegance as his music. He’s assured, but humble. He lays back into the sofa, dressed all in white and speaks with a whisper, his words snaking along with their own melody. Astatke began life a million miles from where he is now, studying aeronautical engineering at Lindisfarne College in Wales in the ‘50s. Though he’d always had a love of music it was only while studying in the UK his eyes were opened to other possibilities. “The problem with developing countries is that music, theatre and the arts are not compulsory like subjects such as physics, chemistry and maths in school,” he says. “That musical education is not there. Imagine all the great musical talents that are lost.”
After discovering his own musical talent he went on to study classical music in London’s Trinity College, before being accepted at Berklee in Boston. Beyond laying the groundwork for what was to become Ethio jazz, Astatke was also a pioneer of another sort, as the first African to study at Berklee in the late ‘50s, for which he received an honorary doctorate in 2012. For him, developing Ethiopian music was a way to highlight its unacknowledged influence on the world’s music. “I always felt like Africa had contributed so much to the development of modern music and yet there was nothing about Ethiopia, so I decided to make research and develop the music,” he says.
When he first brought Ethio jazz back to his home country in the late ‘60s, Astatke notes it wasn’t immediately taken to – “When you’re doing something new, it’s always a problem,” he says. It’s the late ‘60s and early ‘70s though, that is considered by many as the golden age of Ethiopian music, the period under the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie had a certain freedom that blossomed a rich musical output before the harsh regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Artists such as Muluqen Mellesse, Tèshomé Meteku and Mahmoud Ahmed, who Astatke played alongside in the ‘70s, gained popularity with sounds rooted in funk-infused Latin-jazz. There’s something intensely emotional about the desperately fast-paced melodies and all-engulfing soulful vocals of this era.
Astatke though, is one of the few Ethiopian musicians around in this period that now has a globally exportable name. He’s also unique in his ongoing influence on contemporary Ethiopian music. Astatke established The African Jazz Village in Addis Ababa, a music school with a program on Ethio jazz. It’s helped to train a younger generation of Ethiopian musicians in jazz and continues to contribute to developing the country’s musical output.
For artists who have created their own legacy and achieved icon-like status, sometimes their past success can become a burden, with the weight of expectation lying on their previous output and on maintaining originality. Though Astatke could happily sit back and ride his past success, he remains dedicated to pushing Ethio jazz forward and finding new outlets for the country’s musical development. At 71, he continues to compose new material, releasing “Sketches of Ethiopia” at the end of 2013, an album that gets closer to the roots of traditional Ethiopian music. He also keeps connected to the younger African generation, the song “Surma“ on the same album features Malian singer, Fatoumata Diawara. “Malian music is a little bit similar to ours and I wanted to make a program of East meeting the West of Africa,” he says. “I really want African musicians to be united, work together and develop together,” he says.
Astatke’s also long been dedicated to opening up the possibilities of traditional Ethiopian music through its instruments. In 2007, he received a Harvard fellowship to develop traditional instruments such as the krar, on which he added strings to open up its compositional potential. “The people who play that instrument are called the Azmaris. [They] never had the chance to play more than five notes. With this Krar they manage to play many more,” Astatke explains. “Now instead of young musicians going to play guitar they can go to the krar and still have the opportunity to do what they want to do.”
Astatke though, is certainly no purist. Where Éthiopiques producer Francis Falceto openly criticized contemporary Ethiopian music for leaving behind traditional Ethiopian instruments in favour of one-man bands using synthesizers, Astatke doesn’t believe the electronic shift necessarily brings a negative impact on the contemporary scene. “If you are a musician you should be left alone to be free to do whatever you want to do. If you want to do electronic or acoustic you can do it. You shouldn’t [limit] the artist,” he says. “Then maybe they can come up with something new, like what I did with Ethio jazz.”