Afrosonic: A Column About Mulatu Astatke And Ethio Jazz

In the second of his occasional columns on African popular music, John Doran interviews Mulatu Astatke

Ethiopia is still recovering from the after effects of civil war and dictatorship. Even though it is now 18 years since the end of Mengistu’s corrupt Marxist regime, the repercussions of draconian censorship, curfews and incessant civil war are still being felt on this exciting African musical culture now. But it is good to see that at least now the leading (some would say sole) proponent of Ethio jazz, Mulatu Astatke is being recognized in the same terms as, say, Fela Kuti or Hugh Masekela, amongst European music fans.

There are a couple of factors that have been relatively important to bringing this softly spoken figure to mainstream audiences. The first was the relatively unexpected popularity of the Ethiopiques series on Buda, with Volume 4, acting as an introduction to the composer and jazz musician. Secondly was the use of Astatke’s music as the soundtrack to the Jim Jarmusch film Broken Flowers.

Even though his oeuvre doesn’t really bear much more than a passing resemblance to the music produced by other Ethiopian musicians from the "Golden Era"; it is still bound up in the traditions of the pentatonic scale, having a spacious feel that comes from large intervals and an unresolved vibe. Add to this the big band sound of the Haile Selassie era and to Astatke’s musical education in Wales, London and New York then you have a signature sound of profound weight.

I caught up with him recently to have a cup of tea and chat about Alice Coltrane, Ronnie Scott and Ethio-jazz.

I wondered if I could ask you a bit about your background as perhaps many people will only have become aware of you recently because of your work being featured in the Ethiopiques series and on the Broken Flowers soundtrack. You came to the UK from Ethiopia at quite a young age – moving to Wales wasn’t it?

Mulatu Astatke: “Yeah. I had a chance to come over to study at a high school here. My elder sister was already here at a high school in North Wales. I had a chance to come and study in at a college in North Wales. My parents said for me to go ahead and study there.”

Eventually you ended up becoming involved in the jazz scene in London.

MA: “When I came over from Ethiopia I wanted to become a musician but my family wanted me to study. The problem at the school [in Ethiopia] is one of cultures – music, art and theatre have never had the proper recognition in third world countries. Usually these subjects are taken out of the curriculum or they are not taken as seriously as science and are not taken as an academic subject. So that is where I found my talent, at a college in North Wales. As well as the academic subjects I was also taking lessons in music and dance. Through my teachers I found that I could be a better musician. I decided to concentrate on my music and when I finished there I carried on in London. It was difficult because I was fighting with my family who didn’t want me to become a musician but eventually they agreed.

"They came to London and I went to Trinity College of Music. While I was here I made good friends like Tubby Hayes, Frank Holder, Joe Harriott and Ronnie Scott. I took up playing the conga at night a lot while I was still playing the clarinet in college during the day. We used to jam every night in different nightclubs every night with different musicians. I used to play in the Metal Club on Regent’s Street and in Ronnie Scott’s club. And then I had a chance to go and visit America.”

From your perspective living in London was there a noticeable African influence on music in the capital because of post war immigration?

MA: “I would say that around that time which was 1956 and 1957 there were Africans living in London and I used to play in an African club. It was a Nigerian club that played Nigerian music that used to stay open very late, after 4am and we would go there. But the African influence wasn’t as big as it is now and perhaps the African influence in Europe at the time was in France because they had colonies. And as regards to the music that broke through, it was mainly the West African music from Nigeria. Music like Fela and Hugh Masekela in the mid 60s. We were all pushing African music in different directions. I had my Ehtio-jazz, Fela had his hi-life music. African music was not all that developed in the 50s and 60s but we were trying our best you know!

“After this I went back home and there was a very great challenge. I really wanted to go back and to share my knowledge with Ethiopian musicians. I wanted our music to come up from Ethiopia and not from somewhere else when we presented it to the world and actually this didn’t go as far as I wanted it to go but I did manage to create something new for our audience back in Ethiopia by creating what I called Ethio-jazz. The thing that I came up with then was different; different rhythms, different chord structures, different ways of improvising and soloing using our four different modes. So I think that in the history of Ethiopian music I had managed to do something original.”

It’s almost immediately obvious when you’re listening to Ethio-jazz – it has a very distinctive sound. What to your mind are the essential components of this sound?

MA: “Well, I went from England to America to further my studies, which was at Berklee College in Boston. My teachers said they would only give us the tools . . . but what we wanted to do was up to us. So that’s where I came up with Ethio-jazz. After there I went to New York where I played with the Ethopian Quintet. So the main thing about Ethio jazz is . . . it’s like twelve against five. Which means twelve tones against the five of the Ethiopian scale. And the rhythm . . .well, some people say the rhythm is Latin but I never thought that because these rhythms are the rhythms of Africa also! The cha cha, the mambo, the Latin rhythm, the Ethiopian rhythm, the 12 tone, the five tone . . . this forms Ehtio jazz.”

Did you see John and Alice Coltrane as kindred spirits?

MA: “John Coltrane was a musician that I had always admired. I had the chance to speak to him in Birdland in New York. I found him to be a very peaceful, very interesting man. And he was very interested in the African people. But also Alice, his wife, actually came over to Ethiopia. I think she was involved in the transcendental meditation movement in an official capacity. So when she was over for a meeting I had a chance to meet up with her also and we got together with some musicians and made a recording. She is very interesting, a very great lady. I really wanted to do a project with her, some Ethio-jazz fusion but it never worked out.”

How much did you lose in the way of recordings or creative time and effort because of the Mengistu Marxist regime?

MA: “Well, you know, I’ve never really involved myself in politics and I always believe that every citizen is for his country and has a place. And my place is music and promoting Ethiopian music to the world. Many should research us because in the terms of music and culture, we are a very rich country! This is what I want to help with presenting our music to the world. Politics? I leave politics to the politicians. That is what I have learned.”

Did Jim Jarmusch get in touch with you before he made Broken Flowers?

MA: “Yes. What happened was, we were playing a concert in the New York Winter Gardens. A friend told me the film maker Jim Jarmusch was coming to the concert. I didn’t know who he was but I said please come over and see us. After the concert Jim and the whole crew came over to see us backstage, he had some CDs of mine that I signed, he said he enjoyed the show, said it was a beautiful concert and said ‘I have something in mind, I want to use some of your music in my film.’ I said, ‘Please do. You’re welcome. Just let me know how you get on.’ So we shook hands and he left and after a few months he contacted me and said ‘I’ve selected the songs. It took me six years to find the right music for this film! Now I have the right music!’ So that’s how it happened. He gave me a few films of his, they are so different, so interesting. He is a very creative guy. Different to other people. Different in everything he does. Finally the film went out and won Cannes Film Festival. I thanked him so much for the chance to show people the Ethio-jazz.”

Has it surprised you how popular Ethiopian jazz, funk and soul has become around the world – not just through this film but also via the Ethiopiques series of CDs.

MA: “It has really surprised me. It took me about 40 years or something to get this music recognized in the world. I came over here recently to play at Cargo [East London venue] and there were so many British youngsters who were making noise and shouting because they loved this music so much. After we played there were some really young guys who had really surprising questions about 40 years ago, like who was playing the saxophone, who was playing the drums. I was so surprised at how much they loved music generally. It made me very happy to hear that. After so many years to come to England and be accepted so nicely by people who have a good idea of what you have done is really pleasing."

The excellent album Information Inspiration 3 by Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics is out now on Strut

You can see the great man in action with The Heliocentrics on the following dates:

  • May 20: Worldwide 10 at Koko, Camden, London
  • August 8: The Big Chill Festival at Eastnor, Herefordshire
  • August 29: Beachdown Festival at Brighton

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