Wellington Jazz Festival, Opera House, Friday June 10th
Returning to Ethiopia in the late 1960s after years abroad studying music at Berklee, and gigging and recording in New York, Mulatu Astatke discovered a flourishing music scene. It was the period of the final years of the Haile Selassie reign when the country’s capital was nicknamed “Swinging Addis”, tiny record labels set up makeshift studios in peoples’ front rooms and American soul and rock’n’roll infected the local airwaves. Local groups had evolved, transitioning from military style marching bands, to swing orchestras before finally becoming independent Ethiopian pop groups, fusing the traditional songs with the new beats and sounds they heard on the radio.
Astatke, a vibraphone player and percussionist by trade, quickly became widely used as an arranger for the local scene. He was respected for his developed harmonies and international musical education. He was able to write punchy intros and use jazz harmonies, transforming traditional troubadour ballads such as “Sabye” into sophisticated and driving contemporary hits.
But Astatke’s dream was to combine the jazz and Latin music he had learnt in the States and Europe with the music of his homeland. Drawing on Ethiopia’s distinctive five note scales, Astatke was able to make a modal type of music, with zesty horns, swirling organs and rhythms that ranged from James Brown influenced funk to Latin groove. This was the era of Miles Davis’ electric experimentation, Sun Ra’s Egyptology synthesizer jams or the ECM label’s focus on world fusions. Little did they know that some musicians in Addis Ababa were ahead of the game, producing sonic explorations into Afro-Futurism that combined electric modernity with something very authentic which seemed to be rooted in ancient unplaceable traditions.
In 1974 the communist Derg party ousted Selassie and a new regime took over in Ethiopia. Nightlife was shunned and a curfew imposed. Record labels were shut down. If many were hopeful for the new order, the effect on music was catastrophic. Various Ethiopian musicians, such as former bandmates of Astatke’s in the Walias Band, Hailu Mergia and Girma Beyene took asylum in the US. Astatke remained, and was able to perform and even tour as part of state sanctioned visits, but his recorded output diminished.
It is only since a French record label re-released his 1970s music on the Ethiopiques series in the late 90s and Jim Jarmusch’s 2005 movie Broken Flowers, which featured his music, that the rest of the world has become aware of Mulatu Astatke.
Talking to him briefly about his Wellington gig, Mulatu is obviously thrilled to be touring to new places at the age of 73. “People are coming from around the world to my club, people are listening to Ethio-Jazz, they are coming to my concerts, all my concerts are very popular wherever I go,” he says. He will be accompanied by Australian group The Black Jesus Experience, who are no newcomers to Ethio-jazz: “They’ve come to Ethiopia and we’ve recorded together. I’ve toured Australia with them. They are like family now”. Astatke is equally generous when talking about the many artists, such as Nas and Damian Marley, that have sampled his tracks. “It brings young people to the music”, he says, “and eventually the young people come around to check out the real thing.”
Astatke continues to take musical risks; one of his most successful recordings in recent years is a collaboration with London-based electronica ensemble the Heliocentrics, which takes the unique combination of Astatke’s music – the distinctive Ethiopian five note scales, the memorable horn lines, the infectious rhythms and a swirling electronic sonic landscape – to a whole new level.
Black Jesus Experience band leader Peter Harper says we can expect some of the old
and some of the new at the Wellington Jazz Festival gig on Friday 10 June at the Opera House.
Astatke’s music remains somewhat underground, and perhaps thankfully he hasn’t been turned into a Buena Vista Social Club or a Sixto Rodriquez just yet. Because it’s the underground where his music naturally resides; intriguing, mysterious and multi-layered, like a kind of sonic chimera that shifts and transforms just when you think you have grasped its sense.
Lucien Johnson is a jazz musician, educator and writer.