Mulatu of Ethiopia coming to NZ

By Christiaan de Wit

With an amazing ability to bring together different streams of music, vibraphone master Mulatu Astatke is recognised as the orginator of his own invention: Ethio-jazz. Ahead of his first New Zealand show, Volume talked to the Godfather.

Mulatu Astatke is due in New Zealand on November 25. Photo / Supplied
Mulatu Astatke is due in New Zealand on November 25. Photo / Supplied

The Ethiopian music scene has always stood out because of its incredible diversity.

Spend a day listening to the many volumes of Buda Musique's Ethiopiques series and you'll end up not seeing the wood for the trees; from Latin influenced rhythms to exotic strings and a cappella sounds reminiscent of the Arabic peninsula, it's all there.

So don't expect a taste of typical Ethiopian music when Mulatu Astatke's grinning face appears on stage at The Powerstation next month; there isn't any. What Astatke's Ethio-jazz stands for is a blend of Latin jazz and Deep South swamp funk decorated with delightful, mysterious vibraphone melodies similar to those you used to hear whenever things got really scary during an episode of Twin Peaks.

"The vibraphone is an extension of the balaphone, an African instrument that's also played with two stakes," Astatke says. "As an African I like to stay close to my roots, which is part of the reason why I chose to play the vibraphone."

While Astatke has reached a legendary status in recent years, recognition hasn't always come naturally for him: "I really struggled to get people to understand my music when I started more than 40 years ago. It's probably because of these difficult times early on in my career that I really appreciate to see my music flourish now."

And flourish it does, with a busy touring schedule and two full lengths released since 2009. This is the sort of thing that makes a musician proud, and Astatke isn't too keen on sharing the kudos: "This is Mulatu's music, and no-one else's. I play a multitude of rhythms and combine those with unorthodox tonalities you don't hear in any other kind of music - all of this happens in perfect harmony. It's only me who can play Ethio-jazz; there haven't been any successful copycats so far."

After having spent decades in relative anonymity, around 2008 Astatke began to record again. As part of the Inspiration Information series, named after the seminal Shuggie Otis album, Mulatu released an album with British band The Heliocentrics, an eclectic group that treads in the footsteps of jazz and funk visionaries like Sun Ra, David Axelrod and Funkadelic. Recording Inspiration Information Vol. 3 got Mulatu started again: "The joint repetition started even before I had seen these guys play solo, but the period of recording and touring turned out to be dynamic and fun."

While Mulatu was the central figure in the collaboration with The Heliocentrics, a great deal of their joint efforts feels like a struggle for power between the Godfather of Ethio-jazz and the musical freedom fighters that are The Heliocentrics. Good on Astatke, therefore, for being offered the opportunity by German label Strut to record a new solo album, 2010's Mulatu Steps Ahead. Although a few members of The Heliocentrics helped put the record together, there's no sense of democracy on this album: Mulatu is the chief and the band just rocks around his signature vibraphone sound.

His newly recognised Godfather status led Astatke to head to Harvard University on a Radcliffe Institute fellowship. Back in the States, he worked on the modernisation of the krar, a traditional Ethiopian string instrument.

"It hurt to see how much the krar became oblivious among young musicians from my country. More and more people decided to play guitar rather than krar because of its greater range. With a group of people at MIT we succeeded in extending the range of the instrument, and you can now actually play modern music with it. To demonstrate the results of my work, I got a student to play a number of jazz standards on the krar as part of my final presentation at MIT."

Of course, Astatke's second Golden Age didn't start at an academic level. Jim Jarmusch's 2005 movie Broken Flowers featured seven of his songs and Mulatu-samples can now be heard in songs by the likes of Damian Marley, Kanye West, Quantic and Madlib. And on the evening of Friday 25 November, the pioneer of these sounds will ask the audience if you've seen a certain movie, raise his drumsticks, and kick start a night of intoxicating Ethio-jazz.

* Volume presents Mulatu Astatke live at The Powerstation in Auckland on Friday 25 November - tickets from Ticketmaster and Real Groovy.

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