From Ethiopia and back

Mulatu Astatke’s concert will take place at the Tower of David on September 21 at 9:45 p.m.

‘The father of ethiojazz’: Mulatu Astatke (photo credit: ALEXIS MARYON)
‘The father of ethiojazz’: Mulatu Astatke
(photo credit: ALEXIS MARYON)
The annual Mekudeshet (Sacred) Festival is almost upon us, and will run from September 4 to 23 at various locations around Jerusalem. A quintessentially local cultural event that simply could not take place anywhere else in the world, it features a wide range of types of musical entertainment, spiritually uplifting gatherings, performance slots and the odd art installation.
The musical offerings are diverse, both in terms of the variety of concerts lined up and in the nature of the sounds and sensibilities that will be rendered to the audiences of some of the individual shows.
Mulatu Astatke’s concert, which will take place at the Tower of David on September 21 at 9:45 p.m., is an example. “I am called the father of ethiojazz,” declares the 72-year-old musician, “so I am the one who has to protect that.”
As you may have already surmised, the genre appellation is a fusion of “Ethiopian” and “jazz.” Considering that Astatke hails from the lofty western Ethiopian city of Jimma, which nestles at a height of close to 1,800 meters above sea level, the nationality part of the hybrid epithet is self-understood. However, one may wonder how an Ethiopian of Astatke’s generation got a handle on the definitively African-American art form.
The vibraphonist, keyboard player and percussionist has been reeling off toe-tapping, pelvis-shifting numbers for over half a century. He got his first inkling of the magic of jazz as an adolescent in his native Ethiopia.
But his career die was irrevocably cast when he was sent by his parents to study in the United Kingdom in the late 1950s.
Like any traditionally minded parent, Astatke Sr.
wanted his son to get a good profession, and the youngster was dispatched to Lindisfarne College near Wrexham, Wales, to get an engineering degree. But the young man had other ideas, and he eventually secured himself a geographic and educational relocation and ended up earning a music degree from Trinity College of Music in London.
It was a good time to be a jazz fan in London. The famed Ronnie Scott’s jazz club was up and running, and doing good business in London’s bohemian Soho district. The eponymous bebop saxophonist opened the joint in 1959, and it quickly attracted some of the biggest names on the global scene, including many of the Stateside-based giants, trumpeter Miles Davis, diva Sarah Vaughan and pianist/ big band leader Count Basie.
Astatke’s strongest memories of that era in London jazz history are of a local lad, tenor saxophonist Tubby Hayes, and the sounds of acts from Mother Africa.
“I really got into jazz in London,” he recalls.
“I heard Nigerian bands and also Ronnie Scott. That really changed my life.”
By that time, Astatke had acquired a wide and solid foundation for his later musical exploits, studying Western classical music before learning African musical composition.
Before long, Astatke had crossed the pond to further his musical education and to catch acts of some of his idols in the flesh.
“I really wanted to keep the jazz going, so I went to Berklee College [in Boston]. I was the first African student at Berklee,” he adds with more than a hint of pride.
After completing his two-year course there, it was time for the young man to get himself to where the action was really taking place.
“I moved to New York,” he says, adding that, while he may have gained a top-notch education in jazz, it was important for him to maintain his cultural roots.
“A teacher I had at Berklee said: ‘Be yourself,’” he explains. “I remembered that and, when I was in New York, I began fusing and mixing African music with jazz.”
The youngster brought quite an arsenal with him to the New York venues he graced over the years. In addition to his rich mix of cross-cultural textures and rhythms, he played several instruments, including congas, vibes and keyboards. He also had a decent idea of how woodwind instruments work and what they could add to the musical proceedings, having studied clarinet in London. For Astatke it was all grist to his evolving musical mill.
“I also studied arranging. It is so important to know how different instruments work, and what they bring to a score,” he notes.
Astatke made good progress in the Big Apple, regularly playing with a wide variety of artists, including some of the big guns of the time. However, he felt his place was back in Ethiopia, and he returned home.
“I am an Ethiopian and an African, and Africa has created all these emotions, and all this beautiful music, and given it to the world,” he states. “You know there was an African piano, before there was a western European piano.” The instrument in question is the diminutive African thumb piano, or mbira.
Astatke went back to Ethiopia and enriched the local scene with all the experience he had accumulated, including interfaces with legendary saxophonist John Coltrane. There were moving exciting encounters in store back in his homeland, too.
“I met and played with [iconic pianist, composer and band leader] Duke Ellington in Ethiopia. That was a great moment for me, and he had a great band with him. It was so beautiful to play with him.”
The Duke was in Addis Ababa on a US State Department Jazz Ambassadors tour.
“They asked me to come up to play with them, and they played one of my arrangements,” recalls Astatke.
“That was a great honor for me.”
Ellington passed on in 1974 but, thankfully, Astatke has kept on doing his thing all over the world with a wide variety of artists and bands. The Ethiopian’s international profile went up several notches in 2005, when Jim Jarmusch’s film Broken Flowers featured seven of his songs, including one performed by Cambodian- American rock band Dengue Fever.
The younger crowd has also latched on to his captivating rhythms and textures with hip-hop acts, such as Kanye West, Nas and Oddisee using excerpts of his works as the launching pad for their own commercial offerings.
The evergreen Ethiopian is keeping an open mind, and keeping his horizons as wide as possible.
“I research all kinds of music – African, Asian, Jewish, Indian. All kinds. You should expand your music, but not too much, otherwise you get swamped.”
Astatke’s Jerusalem audience probably won’t mind being a little swamped by his music.
For tickets and information about the Mekudeshet Festival: