Mulatu Astatke

  •     Artist: Mulatu Astatke
  •     Album: New York-Addis-London: The Story of Ethio Jazz 1965-1975
  •     Country of Origin: Ethiopia
  •     Released: 2009
  •     Genre: Jazz
  •     Available on:  Spotify, Google Play, Amazon CD/mp3, iTunes, Pandora
  •     Recommendation by Varun Badarinath

Jazz had always struck me as a Western idea. Early on, I had heard of the greats like Miles, Coltrane, Brubeck, but they were all standards when it came to Jazz. I knew Jazz had some deep African roots, so I figured that was a good place to start.

The first time I actually heard Mulatu Astatke’s music was in the Hip Hop single As We Enter by Nas and Damian Marley (Bob Marley’s son). They used the song Yegelle Tezeta as the main instrumental break for the single. Nas and Marley tried to create a vibe similar to some African music, where they had no complete verse, but rap in a call-and-response fashion. I had heard Hip Hop used traditional Western jazz as a small sample, so I was surprised to hear most of the track was Astatke’s song. He was even given writing credits for As We Enter.  I knew that I had to find more.

The essential style of Ethio jazz was to use Western instruments while playing African and Latin melodies, and this, in effect, is the style of music created by Mulatu Astatke in the 1960s. Mulatu was born in the western Ethiopian city of Jimma in 1943. In the late 1950s, Mulatu’s parents sent him to Wales to study engineering. Instead, Astatke’s deep love of music since childhood drove him to study music at Lindisfarne College (Wrexham) before earning a degree in music at the Trinity College of Music in London. After this, Mulatu jumped across the Atlantic to Boston to study at Berkeley School of Music, and also spent some time in New York City. While in the U.S., he was exposed to a broader range of sounds that he was never able to hear back home in Jimma. The influence of jazz and harmonics fueled Astatke’s idea for a new form of jazz, blending traditional and new age.

When Mulatu was in New York, he struggled to find white musicians to work with. He eventually found a number of Puerto Rican musicians, and they brought a different style to Astatke’s technique. As a bandleader, Astatke put out a few albums called Afro-Latin Soul. The title says it all in terms of the genres which influenced Ethio jazz. He also performed in guest spots with Duke Ellington in the early 1970s. When Astatke returned to Ethiopia, the city of Addis Ababa was developing rapidly with Western influence and a big night life scene was close to follow. Using what he had learned in the U.S., Mulatu began writing and arranging his own music in private while frequently writing and recording instrumentals for popular singers at the time.

New York-Addis-London: The Story of Ethio Jazz 1965-1975 is a compilation album which was re-issued in 2009. As the title mentions, the songs were recorded in the U.S., Ethiopia, and the U.K. over a number of years. A majority of the album is instrumentals, making it easier to listen to without understanding the language. The record covers the range in style of Astatke’s career. The opening track Yekermo Sew starts with a Latin melody on overdubbed saxophone and jazz guitar, adding a distorted guitar in the background without consuming the rest of the song, almost like a Carlos Santana tone. I Faram Gami I Faram gives off a bossa nova feel (Brazilian samba with heavy melody), accompanied by light vibraphone and vocals. Mulatu comes along with deep funk bass and a reggae beat. It was great how both saxophones used a call-and-response technique during the song, also incorporating a little blues in the mix. Asiyo Bellema reminds me of 1970s Bollywood music with Caribbean steel drums. If you’re looking for some styles that you wouldn’t normally think of, give Mulatu Astatke a try.

Key Songs: Yegalle Tezeta, Yekermo Sew, Tezeta

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