A Conversation With Mulatu Astatke: On Heliocentrics, Ethio-Jazz and Ellington

Rivaling Fela Kuti, King Sunny Ade, Franco, Tabu Ley Rochereau, and a handful of others, Mulatu Astatke ranks among the most influential African musicians of all-time.

The father of Ethio-Jazz, the Berklee-trained Mulatu was the first of his countryman to fuse American jazz and funk, with native folk and Coptic Chuch melodies. The leading light of the "Swingin' Addis-"era, Astatke is often acknowledged as the star of the epic Ethiopiques Series, At least, according to filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, who included songs from the Mulatu-arranged and composed, Vol. 4, in his ode to midlife melancholia, Broken Flowers.

His latest album, Mulatu Astatke & The Heliocentrics-Inspiration Information 3, finds him collaborating with the titular UK-based jazz-funk eight-piece. Born out of a serendipitous turn that led to the band backing Mulatu's first UK gig in 15 years, Mulatu and the Stones Throw-signed outfit decided to record a new album composed of originals and re-worked older compositions. Released yesterday on Strut, the finished product ranks among the year's finest, and adds another succesful chapter to Mulatu's unimpeachable legacy.

How did you and Heliocentrics decide to collaborate the first place?

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I was in Boston, lecturing for the music academy [from 2007-08, Astatke had a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship at Harvard University, where he worked on modernizations of traditional Ethiopian instruments and unveiled an opera, "The Yared Opera."] Karen P invited me to play a show on London, so I did There wasn't much time to meet with Heliocentrics. We only had one day of rehearsal, but after the show was over, we felt we should collaborate. The album was very hard work. It was recorded in just 10 days, in the Heliocentrics studio in London.

How would you compare the chemistry you had with the Heliocentrics, with Either/Orchestra?

It's not clear. They're a different band, one who I'd been with for a long time. It's a different groove, different passion. I like both, and that's why I felt connected, and it came off authentic. The music reflects the connection.

During the 1970s, Ethiopia was ruled by a fairly repressive government. How did the political situation affect your music?

It didn't. I've always said, 'leave the politics to the politicians.' It takes all kinds of professional people to build a country--my role is to develop the culture and introduce the whole world to Ethio-jazz.

You've spoken in the past about meeting Duke Ellington in the early 1970s. What was the experience like? Did you play together? Talk about music? Exchange tips?

I was assigned by the Embassy to be Ellington's escort while he was in Addis. We both stayed at the Hilton in Addis and, whatever he needs or wants to know about Ethiopia, I was his guide. I had always admired him as an arranger, composer and bandleader. During my music studies, I had analyzed his work in detail. During his visit, I showed him some of the cultural musical instruments, which he found really interesting. Some of our cultural musical players jammed with Ellington's guys - we went to the U.S. Information Centre in Addis and played together. I then took him to the King's palace and he was given a medal by Emperor Heile Selassie. It was a big ceremony.

We were due to play an evening concert so I discussed with him if he would consider playing one of my arrangements. I wrote an arrangement of 'Dewel' for his band, a different version which included some beautiful voicings on the horns. He found the structures so interesting and I remember him saying, 'This is good. I never expected this from an African'. He made my day. His visit to Ethiopia remains one of the greatest moments in my life.

What was the inspiration to create Ethio-jazz. In addition to your American counterparts' jazz fusion styles, what native influences and past Ethiopian composers helped inspire the new sound?

During the mid-'60s, no one was really fusing Ethiopian music with jazz. There was Heile Selassie's First National Theatre Orchestra and the police and the army had orchestras. Then there were bands like the Echoes and the Ras Band. The musicians at the time were playing melodies around the four Ethiopian modes using techniques like 'cannon' forms, with melody lines echoing each other. With Ethio jazz, I consciously wanted to expand and explore the modes. My music brought in quite different harmonic structures and a different kind of soloing.

You've amassed an incredibly rich discography, but do any records or songs stand out as personal favorites?

'Dewel' would definitely be one. 'Mulatu's Hideaway' and 'Yekermo Sew' of course. I'm always really happy that these older compositions stand the test of time. At my recent European gigs with the Heliocentrics and in L.A. at the recent 'Timeless' concert, the reaction is still so great when I play these.

Does it feel rewarding that American culture has finally discovered the music from Ethopia in recent years. If so, why do you think it took so long?

It's been so nice, yes. America is a country of privileges for people. To have access to that privilege and have the opportunity to record Ethio-jazz all those years ago is something I always appreciate. I'm not sure why it took so long. I personally was never discouraged, I always just kept on playing. It needed people to find the original music and make it available in the right way. The 'Ethiopiques' series and film director Jim Jarmusch ('Broken Flowers') gave it a great chance to be heard and Karen P, Strut Records and the Heliocentrics are carrying the flame forward. The live shows I do now have shown me how this music is now accepted all over the world. It gives me great encouragement and I love to do this for Ethiopia and for Ethiopian culture. Ethiopia itself is slowly waking up to the music too. Africa is emerging and Ethio-jazz is in the best position to fly the flag for the future of Africa. I really believe that.

Are there any young and notable Ethiopian musicians that you've worked with, whom you think may not have yet crossed over but should?

I play with a number of different musicians at my club in Addis, the African Jazz Village. There's one kid who plays there on Saturdays called Bebesha, a guitarist. He has a good future and he is a great fan of Ethio-jazz.

You recently completed a Radcliffe Fellowship at Harvard. Can you talk about what led you to pursue that, and your work on the project?

This has been great for Ethio jazz. The idea was to write a book of what Ethiopia has contributed to development of music and arts. During my time there, I made a lot of talks to 30 fellows of Harvard, with three other composers, some from Japan. We had great researchers and professors. As a team we gave presentations and discussed at length the development of classical music and jazz and the music, customs and instrumentations happening in Ethiopia that pre-date all of this by many centuries. I had written an opera based on music from the Ethiopian Coptic church, which was analyzed. My time there finished with a great evening of Ethio-jazz and a performance of the opera with Either/Orchestra.

After Harvard, I later won an Abrowsie Grant to go to M.I.T. We did a lot of experimental work there. Most Ethio musicians tend to pick up the guitar as a starting point and, at M.I.T., I was looking to upgrade the krar (Ethiopian stringed instrument) to be able to play Western 12-tone music. For me, this is an essential step in encouraging Ethiopian musicians to stick to our culture.

Are you working on any new music currently? If so, what sorts of things?

Yes, I have recorded a group of tracks for a new album, which I have called 'Mulatu Steps Ahead'. It's more reflective and jazz-based than the album with Heliocentrics but I'm really pleased with it. It takes Ethio-jazz into another new direction.

How has the creative process evolved for you as you've gotten older?

I suppose I have learned to place Ethio-jazz into different situations. From essentially experimenting with the first recordings during the '60s, I have since adapted the music to write operas and soundtracks for a lot of Ethiopian plays, including a major piece for the National Black Arts Festival in Nigeria. I have tried to keep an open mind with my music and have been lucky enough to play with a lot of wonderful artists in many different situations. It has all helped to keep the music fresh, I hope.

What achievements are you most proud of?

The Ellington visit to Ethiopia and accompanying concert will always be a highlight. For my own music, just to see the interest today and the way it still excites people all over the world is very special.

You've worked tirelessly to teach younger generations between your work at the African Jazz Village and Harvard. What do you think it is that draws you to teaching?

I do try and be a kind of ambassador for Ethiopian music and culture and to dispel the myths that have become accepted as fact in the West. In my research around Ethiopian music, I have found people like the Darasha tribespeople who have used a diminishing scale in their music for centuries. In Western music history, this is a technique attributed to Be Bop, to the music of Charlie Parker. It has made me determined to tell the facts as they are to the wider world. We have to find out who came first, how things really happened.

Are there any goals that you feel you have left to accomplish? What do you hope for in the future?

I have a goal to 'upgrade' all Ethiopian musical instruments. All of them are based on the 5-tone scale and, over time, I want to re-model them to be able to play the 12-tone scale so we can use them to play Ethio-jazz. I also want to write more music for films and TV and to contribute to documentary programs so more people can view Ethio-jazz and learn about my country's music heritage.

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