Chris Menist speaks to Mulatu Astatke, the godfather of Ethio-jazz, about his pioneering music, and how he so expertly treads between innovation and tradition. Plus, check out our Legends of Ethio-groove playlist on Apple Music.
Much as the bent strings of a blues guitar solo can transport us straight to the banks of the Mississippi, so are the pentatonic notes of the Ethiopian tezeta mode just as evocative and recognisable nowadays – be they blown out in the urgent saxophone playing of Getatchew Mekuria or delicately sounded out on the vibraphone of the legendary Mulatu Astatke. It is Astatke’s take on the tezeta mode, which he calls Ethio-jazz, that has proved to be the entry point into Ethiopian music for many Western ears.
At a time when Ethiopian sounds and modes are regularly being aped by groups far and wide, it seems like a good moment to catch up with one of the key figures of the country’s golden era. Paying a visit to the UK late last year to give a talk at The Royal Geographic Society in London and play a gig at London’s KOKO a few days later as part of a European tour, Astatke appears keen to wave the flag for more recognition of his country’s contribution to global music, as well as underlining his own contribution.
Born in 1943, in Gimma, south-west Ethiopia, he came over to North Wales to continue his education aged 16, focusing initially on the sciences, with a view to becoming an aeronautical engineer. “It is so hard to find out about your talents when you are living in a third-world country,” he states, “because music, arts and theatre are not academic subjects in high school.” Encouraged by one of his teachers to pursue music, and after overcoming initial opposition from his family, he moved to London to continue his studies. “I tried trumpet, I tried clarinet, keyboard – I was playing everything there. After I finished school, I went to Trinity College. I started playing different clubs in London and hanging out with jazz musicians – Tubby Hayes, Joe Harriott and Ronnie Scott. I was good friends with [the Guyanese-born] Frank Holder. It was a beautiful time. I started seeing people coming from Ghana, Nigeria, Trinidad, trying to promote and expose their music to a European audience. They had a connection with England because of the Commonwealth. But Ethiopia was left out from that – I was the only one! That also influenced me to concentrate on promoting Ethiopian music. It was with that feeling that I went to America.”
For many Afro-American artists of the late 50s and early 60s, ‘Africa’ was a signifier; a physical place, obviously, but also a metaphor and inspiration. Art Blakey, Yusef Lateef and Randy Weston studied and played there, bringing a freshness to their music on their return. Conversely, the Nigerian Babatunde Olatunji, whose percussion leant itself so memorably to Art Blakey and Max Roach’s music amongst numerous others, made the opposite journey, teaching many musicians in the US how to understand the roots of their music.
“In 1958 I went to study at Berklee College in Boston,” Astatke continues. He was the first African to enrol there. “I wanted to create something so I could be identified like those musicians I’d seen in England. I had to create something that could be me. And that was Ethio-jazz.”
After Astatke concluded his studies at Berklee, he moved to New York, forming a group called The Ethiopian Quintet around 1963. By now a multi-instrumentalist, he ultimately focused on vibraphone and percussion. The band, which consisted of himself and Afro-American and Puerto Rican musicians, recorded two volumes entitled Afro-Latin Soul in 1966. As well as harmonising five-note Ethiopian melodies with the 12 notes of the Western chromatic scale, his idea was also to underline the African roots of Latin music.
As in London, he started to rub shoulders with key musical figures of the era, such as John Coltrane, whom he met at Birdland. “One of my heroes. He had a big respect for Africa. He was so nice to greet me, to talk to me, exchange ideas about music. Olatunji was [also] a friend. He used to teach African drums. He had a school in New York. I used to admire him as he was one of those people promoting African music in America. I met Hugh Masekela too, Armando Peraza and Mongo Santamaría.”
After gigging around New York, he returned to Addis Ababa with these experiences and ideas fresh in his mind, and set about making new arrangements of traditional Ethiopian tunes and songs. Whilst he was not alone in seeking to bring the Ethiopian canon up to date, the finesse that he had honed through his studies and experiences abroad remains uniquely his, not least because he was one of the few to create solely instrumental releases. This focus and trajectory has continued right up to the present day.
Ethiopia’s musical golden era, as it has been subsequently termed, was a period rife with experimentation as the censorship and constraint of Haile Selassie’s reign softened, before sliding alarmingly into the era of the Communist-inspired ‘Derg’ administration of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Members of state bands, such as those of the army and police force, moonlighted at clubs playing a taut, East African funk, and independent labels like Amha and Kaifa were set up, capturing this exciting, but sadly brief, phase in the country’s musical history. “Amha and others wanted to upgrade our music and arrangements. I started using counterpoint, nice solos and chord changes to give a good backing to the singers. Different to the military bands.”
The occasional famous musical face passed through Addis during this time, including Duke Ellington (it is he adorning the cover of Ethiopiques 4, with a youthful Astatke) and Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane’s wife, a talented pianist and harpist, who was recording for Impulse back in the US.
“Nobody knew Alice when she came. They had this transcendental meditation happening in Addis, and somebody had opened up an office. She came over just to check the branch and who was running it, because she was involved. I told her I had met her husband in New York, and I took her to meet other Ethiopian musicians. I arranged a radio programme for her for an interview and she said ‘Why don’t we play on the radio?’ So we jammed together, she played the piano and we recorded together on air. She was a great harp player; great piano player as well.”
The talk at the Royal Geographic Society was an attempt to draw together various Ethiopian musical innovations, with a view to having the country’s role in history, and in global music, reappraised. Interesting examples were shared, such as footage of Ethiopian Orthodox priests using a mekwamia, akin to a baton, to direct church music, which Astatke cites as a predecessor of the Western tradition of conducting orchestras. Similarly, the Derashe tribe, with their hand cut bamboo pipes, had sussed out the diminished scale way ahead of Charlie Parker. Serious points aside, there appears to be some knowing mischief in these pronouncements, and his research has apparently ruffled a few academic feathers along the way.
But was he suggesting direct connections with these points, or merely highlighting intriguing coincidences? “I wish I knew!’ he exclaims. His intention is to get the information out there, to make it part of the wider debate about music. One of the most interesting bits of footage during the talk was Astatke directing a big-band, jamming with traditional Ethiopian musicians. A troupe of Derashe make an appearance, playing their traditional scale, as Astatke and the group play a jazz arrangement against it to emphasise the point. It was a fascinating juxtaposition.
Whilst Ethiopian music is certainly unique, it nevertheless exists in a wider context. Listen to East African taarab, Malaysian kroncong or Thai luk thung, and you’ll hear scales and arrangements that could easily sit next to the tezeta in their form and feel. “I went to Thailand about 20 years ago,” he recalls, as I play a few Asian music samples for his consideration. “I was doing a project for Ethiopian Airlines, in-flight music. In Bangkok they had a beautiful recording studio, I really enjoyed working there. I saw some people in a club with crazy musical instruments, so I brought them to the studio and did a fusion with them. It sounded so nice. I’ve been to clubs in Thailand, where I’m just sitting listening to the band, watching what’s going on and everything. And some of those songs, if you were to just put Amharic lyrics on them…”
For him, what counts is culture and approach. The modes might be similar, but it’s the background of the musicians that determines the music’s uniqueness. “[It’s] the way you feel, the way you eat, the way you move. The same music, but it will have a different flavour. Years ago we had trade relations passing through India, passing through Africa, I think that’s how this happens. Listen to [Buddhist] monk chants, it sounds like our church music. There is some similarity. In Addis you see those old buildings, which have Indian influences and so forth. I’m working on how this happened… they could have taken it from us. Who knows?”
With his new album, Sketches of Ethiopia, as well as his contributions to this year’s excellent album by Family Atlantica, Astatke is far from resting on his laurels. Since a new wave of interest following his music’s inclusion in Jim Jarmusch’s film Broken Flowers, he has recorded with The Heliocentrics, released new music on Strut, and been sampled by Nas & Damian Marley. The gig at KOKO saw Astatke’s band stretching the framework of his arrangements into much jazzier and more avant-garde territory, before snapping back into the main melody. This approach breathed new life into compositions that could have sounded over-familiar in different hands. It underlined that his musical project, as well as his exploration into Ethiopia’s musical history, is still very much evolving.
“What is jazz? Jazz is freedom. We have the Ethiopian modes. Ethio-jazz is a music I created 43 years ago. It’s five tones against 12-tone music. You have to be careful; we have beautiful Ethiopian modes. How do you combine these two things and keep the colour of those modes? You have to use different kind of voicings, beautiful progressions. I want my music to be different. I always want to go up and up.”
This article originally appeared in Songlines #95. To find out more about subscribing to Songlines magazine, please visit www.songlines.co.uk/subs