Bringing it home from Mother Africa

The father of Ethio-jazz, Mulatu Astatke pushes the musical envelope.

Astatke_311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It would not be stretching a point too far to say that Mulatu Astatke is one of the most influential musicians ever to come out of Africa. The 67-year-old vibraphonist-percussionist is known as the father of Ethio-jazz, which blends the diverse range of musical styles from Ethiopia with funk and other jazz-based strands. On May 31 Astatke will make his first appearance in this country when he gives a one-off gig at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv, in the company of an eight-piece Ethiopian band.
Astatke – who gained worldwide attention following his contribution to the soundtrack of Jim Jarmusch’s 2005 film Broken Flowers, starring Bill Murray – came across the notion of marrying Ethiopian music with jazz and Latin influences in the 1950s. He first developed an interest in jazz while he was still in high school but, at that time, opportunities to hear jazz, let alone actually perform it, were very thin.
Astatke realized he had to get out into the Western world. But he had to overcome a domestic obstacle before furthering his musical education in more jazz-friendly cultural climes. “At that time, families didn’t accept you becoming a musician, so my other interest was to become an engineer,” he says.
Astatke duly relocated to a university in Wales to study engineering and happily discovered that there was plenty in the way of music courses at the institution as well.
Berklee College of Music in Boston was the next stop on young Astatke’s musical journey, and it was there that he began fusing jazz and Latin sounds with traditional Ethiopian music. In fact, the cultural exchange worked both ways and he started introducing non-Ethiopian instruments, such as vibraphone and keyboards, to the music of his homeland. “When I was in Boston, I started thinking about blending Ethiopian music and jazz,” Astatke recalls. “I thought that if I blended them 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.”
Astatke’s initial recordings were based on Latin jazz, and he made his first two albums, Afro-Latin Soul, Volumes 1 & 2, in New York in 1966. He plays vibes on the albums, with piano and conga percussion support, and almost all the tracks are instrumental. The one exception, “I Faram Gami I Faram,” has Spanish vocals.
It was in the early 1970s that Ethio-jazz took on a more defined form and, after performing with many leading American jazz musicians of the time, Astatke brought his new musical baby back to his homeland and put in a guest appearance with Duke Ellington and his band there in 1973.
History tells us that when new schools of artistic thought emerge, the established genres and styles often flex a muscle or two, and this happened with Ethio-jazz too. “There were some people [in Ethiopia] who weren’t so happy about what I was doing, but now people are with it.
People are sensitive to different types of music. Educated people are playing world music, classical music, jazz, jazz fusions, African music. Now they have a great fondness for Ethio-jazz. It’s really lifting up.”
Naturally, Broken Flowers helped to get the word of Astatke’s work out to a greater global audience.
“[Director] Jim Jarmusch is definitely a great man. He’s one that is really here for me and speaks for my efforts for years and years. We’ve been working for years, and finally it’s all over the world. It’s so great that this music is really coming up now. We just keep on pushing and playing it out.”
For his Barby gig, Astatke will benefit from the heavyweight sideman services of seven mostly UKbased instrumentalists who combine an upbringing in classical music, jazz, funk and numerous ethnic strands and will perform material from the Ethiopian’s latest CD, Mulatu Steps Ahead. As Astatke says: “We just keep on pushing and playing it out.”
Mulatu Astatke will perform at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv on May 31. Doors open at 9:30 p.m. For tickets: