Words by Birikiti Pegram, Songlines intern
Last Wednesday evening at the Royal Geographic Society, an audience was treated to a whistle stop tour of Ethiopia’s contribution to global music, culture and science by Ethio-jazz founder Dr Mulatu Astatke. From the discovery of ‘Lucy’, the world’s oldest known evidence of a human skeleton, on Ethiopian soil; to his own personal story of the evolution of Ethio-jazz; plus a sprinkling of wonderful random facts like the tef flour of national staple, injera, being the food of ancient Egyptian pharaohs; and the largest world export of roses coming from Ethiopia… it seemed he only just scratched the surface of the country’s rich heritage.
“Music is a science, and our African indigenous musicians are scientists of sound.”
He argued that the diminished scale made famous by great jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker has been a centuries old foundation of the Dirashe tribe’s repertoire – long before it became a signature sound of modern jazz, or used by great composers such as Debussy and Bach. Similarly, the ancient horns and pipes of so-called ‘primitive’ tribes are merely the first trumpets, saxophones and flutes of the world, while the movements made with the mekwamia (ancient conducting stick) in directing church music are a demonstrable predecessor to traditional Western conducting of classical orchestras and military marching bands.
Delving deeper into the very scientific nature of Ethiopia’s musical system, Dr Astatke attempted an explanation of its complex notation structure – again, probably the oldest in the world: a set of eight ornate figures in which you can see potential origins of some Western notational symbols.
He blitzed through the four musical modes that are the foundation of all Ethiopian songs. These modes are the basis of his own established ‘rules of Ethio-jazz’, a fusion of Ethiopian five tone scales played against the Western 12 note scale.
He also touched on his current krar modernisation project. He is developing the pentatonic (five tone scale) Ethiopian lyre to accommodate a 12 tone scale in an attempt to encourage the youth of the nation to take up the instrument over guitar – similar to what has happened in Western Africa with the modification of kora tunings – to play with Western instruments.
An intriguing talk, unfortunately made more so by the straining necessary to catch every word uttered by the mumbling genius, over a badly synced audio-visual display. My only regret was how much better the experience might have been with the basic consideration of audibility being taken by the organisers.