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Mulatu Astatke
Sketches Of Ethiopia Richie Troughton , September 16th, 2013 06:00

Always pushing forward, Mulatu Astatke still envisages new paths for his Ethio-jazz music. Speaking to The Quietus earlier this year Mulatu, in his seventieth year, said the purist form of the music would be based entirely on traditional and developed Ethiopian instruments. Sketches Of Ethiopia sees him get closer to his goal, and while some may be content at this stage to rely on former glories, Mulatu continues to create and expand on his pioneering vision for Ethiopian music.   With Sketches Of Ethiopia Mulatu Astatke has taken inspiration from all kinds of Ethiopian music, using a wide range of experimental local instruments to explore the rich cultural palette of the East African country (home to around 90 different languages). Among the Ethiopian instruments used are masinko (single-bowed lute), krar (six-string lyre) and washint (bamboo flute), alongside traditional jazz instruments including piano, bass, saxophone, trumpet and cello, and the west African harp-like kora. The music itself mixes urban club tempos with traditional rural folk styles, with Mulatu's trademark Ethio-jazz fusion of Latin percussion and Afro-funk rhythms.

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Mulatu introduced the Hammond organ and the instrument he is best known for playing, the vibraphone, to Ethiopia after studying music in London and Berklee School Of Music and time spent playing and releasing records in New York . His return from the US in the late 1960s coincided with the end of Emperor Haile Selassie's reign, a period recognised as a 'golden era' for the country and music of that time. The Éthiopiques, Vol. 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale, 1969-1974 collection, released in 1998, provided an invaluable primer to his work from this period. While turbulent times followed during the reign of Mengistu's corrupt Marxist regime from 1974 to 1991, Mulatu has always publicly side-stepped political issues and let his music do the talking. He reached a wider audience still in 2005 when Jim Jarmusch prominently featured several of his tracks in his film Broken Flowers.  

Sketches Of Ethiopia sees Mulatu at the helm of a 12-piece group, with a large cast of guest musicians, keeping alive the big band traditions of Mulatu's musical heroes such as Duke Ellington, who Mulatu guested with on his visit to Addis Ababa in 1973. The Step Ahead Band, while taking their name from Mulatu's 2010 LP Mulatu Steps Ahead, is an all new set of musicians from those sessions, apart from trumpet player Byron Waller, and includes London-based jazz musicians Alexander Hawkins (piano), John Edwards (double bass) and drummer Tom Skinner. While the last album was largely instrumental, here there are several tracks with singers, perhaps primed for the busy schedule of worldwide festivals the ensemble have played over the summer, and showcasing emerging Ethiopian talent, like singer Tesfayé.   

Opener 'Azmari' takes its inspiration from the nocturnal singers of Addis Ababa and was written by Russ Gershon, leader of Mulatu's sometime touring companions Either/Orchestra, with dramatic arrangements demonstrating multilayered polyrhythmic movements that tease and weave with a dark intensity. Tantalising motifs build up as the track progresses into free-form passages, each instrument clear in the mix. Second track 'Gamo' – named after an Ethiopian ethnic group, whose name translates as "lion" - features the first of several appearances by Tesfayé, whose voice can impressively hold several registers as he chants, shivers and shimmies through the energetic song. Throughout its eight tracks, the album continues in this sequence of instrumental followed by vocal track. A reworking of the traditional Ethiopian composition 'Hager Fiker' allows plenty of space for Mulatu's mesmerising vibraphone playing, alongside flute solos and a deep percussive groove, while melodies are carried by James Arben's saxophone. Illustrating Mulatu's interest in all aspects of Ethiopian art, the piece shares its name with the oldest indigenous theatre in Africa, based in Addis Ababa. The album guides the listener on a tour of Ethiopia 's diverse culture and 'Gambella' pays tribute to the western Ethiopian region with seductive repetitive rhythms.   

The album's longest track and centrepiece 'Asossa Derache' clocks in at just over 10 minutes and is a deep exploration of the key ingredients that make up Ethio-jazz, groovy and hypnotic, with deep jazz breaks, choppy riffs and lots of space for the different instruments. A haunting introduction unwinds into rhythmically complex passages by mixing traditional Ethiopian five-tone pentatonic scales, with the 12 from American jazz scales, although Mulatu has countered that the Derache tribes from  Ethiopia of the title had been using these scales years beforehand. It is a deep journey of spiritual jazz, its inspiration sourced from many years and continents, and sits comfortably alongside any of Mulatu's timeless and heavy meditations.  

The smooth jazz funk of 'Gumuz' offers something of a stylistic departure, with a contemporary makeover of traditional music from the Gumuz tribes of western Ethiopia . Tesfayé is once again on lead vocal duties, this time backed by chanted female vocals, creating a head-spinning wooze as the cool melodies subtly speed up. 'Motherland Abay' is another long instrumental that blissfully opens up with gentle flutes, vibes, violins and shakers that form layers of dense sound. The flutes make way for spiralling sax as the busy percussion provides the foundation for the improvisational passages of the suite. The album is not just a celebration of Ethiopian music, which Mulatu says has "contributed so much to the development of modern music in the world," but also Africa , with the vocal talents of Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara on album closer 'Surma'. Of the collaboration Mulatu said: "I wrote an arrangement especially for her, which she managed to transcend." Citing the similarities between the singing styles in their two countries, Fatou's soulful voice perfectly compliments Mulatu's dynamic arrangement, as shuffling grooves make way for bold sax lines, steering the tune in dizzying directions.   

While always busy as a musician, Mulatu has also worked on developing traditional instruments like the krar, increasing the number of strings and tones so Ethiopian musicians can experiment, providing an alternative to western guitars. In addition to running a music school and presenting a radio show in Ethiopia , Mulatu is also working on The Yared Opera, highlighting the importance of another Ethiopian contribution to the music world – the conducting stick. Sketches Of Ethiopia presents Mulatu at the peak of his powers, taking more than half a century of music-making into new and innovative directions. While the Ethio-jazz movement may have inspired many young musicians in Ethiopia to pick up instruments, this album serves as a reminder that the original architect of the form is still the undisputed master.