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Mulatu Astatke
Mulatu Steps Ahead Frances Morgan , May 17th, 2010 12:02

Ethiopian jazz is so synonymous, at least for dilettantes like me, with the sound of the saxophone, that the instrument of one of its founding fathers always comes as a bit of a surprise. But since the 1960s, Mulatu Astatke's vibraphone has provided a nimble counterpoint to those snaking, pentatonic sax lines, its opaque tones laying down insouciantly funky patterns of light and shade that ripple and dapple across his compositions.

There's something magical, glamourous, about tuned percussion – perhaps it's the slight overtone on each note; perhaps it's the fluidity, the constant motion of the playing; perhaps it's tiki-bar nostalgia for an imagined primitivism; or just a childlike joy in things that sparkle or things that sound like they sparkle. In any case, in a jazz or funk ensemble, a vibraphone or marimba adds this odd delicacy, a kind of feminine shimmer and shimmy, the way a flute can – and, like a flute, it can be rococo and almost kitsch, or it can be simply sublime. On Mulatu Steps Ahead, Astatke, now in his 60s, grooves masterfully between these extremes with the support of the ten-piece Either/Orchestra and guests who incorporate traditional African instruments – washint, krar, masenqo, kora – into a standard jazz line-up brass, wind, piano and percussion.

Mulatu Astatke - Green Africa by theQuietus

The fusion of traditional Ethiopian musical forms and Latin-tinged jazz instrumenation has been central to Astatke's music from the Hammond-infused Mulatu Of Ethiopia (1972) – which, and not just because of the titles and the Hammonds, always puts me in mind of organist Larry Young's Lawrence Of Newark, released just a year later. Like Astatke, Young took a customarily 'background' instrument and put it at the forefront, overturning its cocktail-lounge associations – via Eastern influences, high volumes and fierce guitar from James 'Blood' Ulmer in Young's case; Astatke by drawing on the intricate harmonic and rhythmic forms of his own country to create a new hybrid. Both were equally bold moves, and are equally astonishing records. More recently, Astatke has included traditional instruments in his ensembles – an ongoing concern that was the basis of a 2008 Harvard residency that generated much of Steps Ahead.

Any exercise in fusion, however well-intentioned, is in danger of going tits-up – through dilution or misunderstanding – but here, it's Astatke's traditional instrumentalists who keep Steps Ahead from sounding staid. Their presence that results in some genuinely intriguing meetings of sound and texture: on 'Green Africa', cello and masenqo (a one-stringed violin) converse in scrapes and swoops; on a reworking of bossa nova-ish classic 'I Faram Gami I Faram', singer Gashaw's searching, wordless vocals provide an emotive contrast to the punchy, urbane brass stabs. Finding out that most of the Ethiopian musicians were recorded separately, at Astatke's Addis Ababa studio, doesn't quite dispel the illusion of alchemy: it certainly doesn't make the playing and engineering any less sensitive and skilled.

With the African instruments less to the fore, tracks like 'The Way To Nice' and 'Mulatu's Mood' (which, unforgivably, reminds me of that time I worked in a bookshop and had to listen to Manu Chao) are strictly laid back rather than blissful, and might trip up those who like their jazz more wayward and angular – and, indeed, anyone expecting the rawer grooves of the 1970s would at these points be forgiven for scuttling back to their Ethiopiques comps, where the smoothness is scuffed by age. Yet Mulatu Steps Ahead's quietly accomplished lustre is pretty hard to resist. I blame the vibraphone itself, chiming like a lazy waterfall behind the slow swagger of 'Ethio Blues'. It's an instrument that, in its understated way, doesn't quite know how not to be gorgeous.

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