Posts Tagged ‘Mulatu Astatke’

Mulatu Astatke: the Ethio-vibe

Posted on September 1st, 2016 in Features, Recent posts by .


Mulatu Astatke (photo: Alexis Maryon)

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.


Mulatu Astatke with Duke Ellington on the cover of Ethiopiques 4

“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

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London Roundhouse to stage In the Round concert series

Posted on December 3rd, 2015 in Live, News, Recent posts by .


Roundhouse’s introduces a new series – In the Round – which will feature intimate performances January 28-February 6

London’s iconic music venue, Roundhouse, will begin their 2016 music programme with a week-long series of intimate concerts called In the Round. The series will feature some of the world’s best artists in an intimate setting, turning the central arena into a seated concert space. 

The series will kick off with a rare solo show by Mercury Prize-nominated singer-songwriter Gaz Coombes. There will also be performances from Irish musician and actress Camille O’Sullivan, Ethio-jazz maestro Mulatu Astatke, and Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré, who will be performing new material from her forthcoming album Né So.

Ticket prices range from £12.50-£45 and are available on the official website.

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September 2014: Top 10 UK Live Events

Posted on August 29th, 2014 in Live, News, Recent posts by .

After a brief hiatus for our festival-packed summer, the Top 10 gig guide is back, with a list of ten of the best concerts happening this September, so you don’t miss out!

Swanage Folk Festival

O'Hooley & Tidow black and white

Set in the majestic surroundings of Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, Swanage Folk Festival is a three-day affair featuring both local artists, and acts from further afield. The incredibly infectious Blackbeard’s Tea Party will be performing twice over the weekend – including a Saturday night ceilidh – and Songlines favourites O’Hooley & Tidow (pictured) will play on the Sunday evening.

Where & When: Across Swanage, Dorset, September 5-7, More info.

Tashi Lhunpo Monks


The Tashi Lhunpo Monks started their mammoth European tour last month in Dorset, but return to the UK for a further 19 dates this September. The monastery which was forced out of Tibet following the national uprising in 1959 is now based in Karnataka, India. Cultural exchanges are occasionally organised by various trusts worldwide, and this is a great chance to see some wonderful performances by the Tibetans.

Where & When: Across The UK, September 6 – October 18, More info.



This September offers a rare opportunity to catch Celtic superstars Altan at an intimate venue in London. Cecil Sharp House will play host to the Irish group who have been a stalwart of the Irish traditional music scene for the past few decades.

Where & When: Cecil Sharp House, September 11, More info.

Africa Utopia


Africa Utopia at the Southbank Centre celebrates the influence of the African diaspora upon ideas on how to improve our world through ways of thinking about culture, sustainability, technology and community. There are talks, debates and workshops across the weekend – including a bustling street market – and performances by the Kinshasa Symphony (pictured), and five-piece Simply Soweto Encha.

Where & When: Southbank Centre, London, September 12-14, More info.

Mulatu Astatke


With a glistening career spanning 50 years, Mulatu Astatke has established himself as one of the finest musicians and bandleaders in Ethiopia. Last year’s Sketches of Ethiopia was a Top of the World, not to mention a personal highlight, and he recently headlined the brilliant Shambala festival. Catch him at the Royal Festival Hall this September for what promises to be an outstanding show.

Where & When: Royal Festival Hall, London, September 13, More info.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo with members of the Royal Ballet in Inala


This unique collaboration at the fabulous Sadler’s Wells Theatre sees the award-winning choreographer Mark Baldwin work with choral superstars Ladysmith Black Mambazo to produce a brand new production, which fuses South African and Western cultures on stage. Its combination of contemporary dance and choral mastery will prove to be a unique experience, so make sure you catch the show during its four-day residency this month.

Where & When: Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, September 17-20, More info.

Lulo Reinhardt


The grand-nephew of Gypsy-jazz legend, Django Reinhardt, takes to the stage this September for a tour across the UK. He combines a variety of different influences in his work, including flamenco, Latin, and Brazilian jazz.

Where & When: Across the UK, September 17-October 29, More info.

The London African Music Festival


This September sees the 12th London African Music Festival take place. Spread across 16 venues over ten days, the festival features some fantastic performances from world-famous acts including Niger’s Bombino, Guinea’s Sékouba Bambino, and Ghana’s King Ayisoba. There is a London debut for Malian songstress Mamani Keita, and the British-Ghanaian funk band Yaaba Funk (pictured) are set to tear up Rich Mix on September 19.

Where & When: Across London, September 19-28, More info.

Çiğdem Aslan


Following the success of last year’s Mortissa, Çiğdem will tour the UK this September and October. The ‘Making Tracks’ tour opens at the Brighton Dome, and finishes up at Cambridge’s Junction three weeks later.

Where & When: Across the UK, September 21 – October 7, More info.

Sahara Soul


Following last year’s sold-out event, Sahara Soul returns to the Barbican with a younger generation of artists set to take the stage. Western Sahara’s Aziza Brahim (pictured) has been going from strength to strength recently, having released Soutak her first album for Glitterbeat Records – earlier this year. There will also be performances from Noura Mint SeymaliNabil Baly Othmani, and Touareg band Tartit. Read more about all these artists in this issue’s cover feature (#103, October issue).

Where & When: Barbican Centre, London, September 27, More info.


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Live | Shambala Festival 2014 begins next week

Posted on August 15th, 2014 in Live, News, Recent posts by .


Photography by Carolina Faruolo

Femi Kuti, Mulatu Astatke and Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita among the acts heading to Shambala this coming bank holiday weekend, August 21-24

Sequins, glitter and party hats on standby, we are ready to experience Shambala Festival (August 21-24) for the first time and become honorary Shambalans. Once again we will be hosting artist signings and meet-and-greets with acts playing across the weekend.

To find out more about the festival’s commitment to sustainability and passion for creativity, head over to the official website.

The event has sold out, however we have whipped together a playlist to give you a taste of what we’re looking forward to. Keep track of our Twitter and Facebook pages for all the latest shenanigans.

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