Mulatu Astatke

Ahead of his gig at London's Roundhouse earlier this February, Ethio-jazz trailblazer Mulatu Astatke spoke to Jocks&Nerds about touring, research and updating traditional Ethiopian instruments

When Mulatu Astatke takes to the stage at London’s Roundhouse, the reaction from the sold-out crowd is ecstatic. It only gets more so when he and his band launch into the bubbling ‘Dewel’, first released in 1972. ‘Yekermo Sew’ follows, its vibraphone thrums and flugelhorn squalls alternatively sensual and foreboding.

I never think of Latin music, or American music; it’s all African

Backed by the Step Ahead Band – a septet of musicians from the London jazz scene – Astatke goes about expanding his already heady compositions. ‘Azmari’, named after a type of traditional Ethiopian bard, simmers on a wave of percussion, while ‘The Way To Nice’ unfurls with an elegant glide. Classic tracks ‘Yegelle Tezwta’ and ‘Yekatit’ are augmented with vocals from the grime MC Afrikan Boy, underscoring their influence on contemporary hip hop.

Eyes closed, lost in half a century’s worth of music, Astatke is a bandleader enjoying his golden days – a remarkable feat for a man of 72.

When I catch Astatke earlier in the day, he’s delighted by the response he has received. “I see all my fans and how they love Ethiopia, they love the music. It’s been a very successful tour. I’m pleased and happy.” Few musicians of Astatke’s vintage could claim to be at a similar level in their career.

There have been a fair few up and downs along the way. Astute was born in Jimma in southwest Ethiopia, but as a teenager in the late 1950s was sent to a boarding school in North Wales. His parents intended him to become an engineer. But Astatke had become transfixed by classical music, and moved to study at Trinity College London to study piano, clarinet and percussion. He found himself in the midst of the city’s jazz scene, where he became acquainted with the likes of Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes. A spell at Boston’s Berklee School followed, before he moved to New York. It was here that he created Ethio-jazz, the unique fusion of traditional Ethiopian music and jazz of which he is both progenitor and master.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this education. Although there had been Ethiopians educated in Western classical music before, Astatke was the first to imbibe the modern sounds of the US. On his return to Ethiopia at the end of the 1960s, his sound was initially greeted with mistrust; as the only African nation to resist European colonial rule, outside influences were viewed with suspicion. Soon, however, he became one of the most in-demand musicians in the country. In the early 1970s, he even enjoyed a guest spot with the visiting Duke Ellington.

They are the source, the creators. With the right instruments they could be the greatest

This fame was not to last. After a military coup in 1974, the Russian-backed Derg regime limited Ethiopian access to Western culture. Many musicians fled, fearing persecution, but Astatke remained. Although he continued working as an arranger, outside the country his music faded. From the late 1970s to the late 1990s, he was virtually unknown to Western audiences.

His rediscovery began with the 1998 release of the fourth volume in French cratedigger Francis Falceto’s Ethiopiques CD series. Subtitled Ethio-Jazz & Musique Instrumentale 1969-1974, it gathered 14 of Astatke’s tracks from the 1960s and 1970s. A wider audience caught on when seven of these tracks featured in Jim Jarmusch’s 2005 film Broken Flowers.

He’s barely paused for breath since. After several decades without new music, he collaborated in 2009 with London-based collective the Heliocentrics on the cosmically-inflected Inspiration Information. The Miles Davis-referencing Mulatu Steps Ahead (2010) and Sketches of Ethiopia (2013) followed, both of which expanded his palette and affirmed his status as a figure of the 21st century as much as the 20th. And Astatke’s inability to stand still isn’t limited to the studio. “I’ve been approaching each tour with different styles of music, different musical arrangements.”

What propels Astatke to continue innovating? He’s driven by something greater than personal glory. In his words, “I want to highlight the Ethiopian contribution to the world’s culture.” Sketches of Ethiopia in particular seeks to capture the sounds of his native land, deploying traditional instruments such as the krar, massinko and washint. Several tracks take inspiration from the country’s various tribal traditions; ‘Hager Fiker’ goes so far as to rework a traditional piece. For Astatke, these meetings between jazz and Ethiopian sounds are about bringing music back to its source. “I never think of Latin music, or American music. It’s all African. Jazz is from Africa – west, south, east, and north.”

Cultural and musical research is key to Astatke’s practice. “When I’m thinking about music, I’m not thinking about collaborating with a band or going on tour. I’m thinking about research. If you don’t do research, you’re bound to lose the character, the identity and the beauty of Ethiopian music.”

Hand-in-hand with Astatke’s sense of research goes his work as a teacher. Since his return to Ethiopia, he has worked in a variety of academic posts; at one point during the Derg regime he was forced to resign from one through government pressure. When he praises young musicians, he does so because of their work ethic: “Young musicians are excellent. They work hard and they try to do something new all the time.” Astatke is determined to pass on his knowledge, to give others the opportunity he once had. “I’d like to teach them to know more about classical music, about jazz, about all the types of music.”

In 2008, he completed a fellowship at Harvard, where he composed the first part of an opera based on 4th-century church music – the earliest in the world – and began redesigning traditional Ethiopian instruments, a project that he approaches with zeal. “I’d like to design our musical instruments so that these people can play music like Western musicians. They are the source, the creators. With the right instruments they could be the greatest.” It’s an alluring prospect, and one that for Astatke will be the culmination of a life’s work. With his energy and his insight, there’s every chance he’ll succeed.