Mulatu Astatke: Sketches of Ethiopia

Ian Patterson By

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Mulatu Astatke: Sketches of Ethiopia
Vibraphonist/composer Mulatu Astatke is the creator of Ethio-jazz and reputedly the first African musician to study at Berklee. Prior to that he had studied music in Wales and London. Whilst in America in the 1960s and early 1970s Astatke absorbed diverse influences and a dense rhythmic mosaic is a key component of this pulsating recording. Afro-Latin, jazz and funk vibes meet traditional Ethiopian roots music, with Astatke leading a stellar band of musicians from Ethiopia, London and Paris.

Astatke's influence stretches beyond Africa. On hearing French compilation Ethiopian Groove: The Golden Seventies (Blue Silver, 1994) Boston saxophonist Russ Gershon was inspired to record a loose suite of several Ethiopian tunes with his Either/Orchestra on More Beautiful Than Death (Accurate, 2000). An invitation to Ethiopia followed where a concert with Ethiopian musicians—including Astatke—was documented in Ethiopiques 20: Live in Addis (Buda Musique, 2005). Gershon has been a strong advocate of Ethiopian music ever since. Coming full circle, it's Astatke's arrangement of the E/O leader's tune "Azmari' that gets this set off to a flyer.

"Azmari" fairly storms forth, with Richard Olatunde Baker's intoxicating percussive stew a potent engine. Pianist Alexander Hawkins and James Arben's oboe forge stabbing unison motifs as Messale Asmamow's trilling krarr (six-string lyre) and Indris Hassun's massinko (one-string fiddle) respond with striking counter accents. It's a dramatic ensemble piece evocative of Duke Ellington at his most vibrant. Astatke's band played with Ellington's orchestra in Addis Ababa in 1973 during a State Department-sponsored tour and Ellington is clearly a touchstone for the Ethiopian.

That said, this is Ethiojazz and the African influences are prominent. Two traditional Ethiopian tunes are given the Ethiojazz treatment: "Hager Fiker" features snaking vibraphone and flute solos but it's the call and response between piano and trumpet/masinko and the utterly infectious percussive groove that stick in the memory; likewise, "Gumuz," featuring the uplifting vocals of Tesfaye and Jean-Baptiste Saint-Martin's sunny jazz-funk guitar, works its way under the skin—and into the feet—from the get go. Drummer Tom Skinner and percussionist Francois Verly ply irresistible beats on a track clamoring for a Giles Peterson club remix.

Tesfaye stars on the danceable "Gamo," buoyed by female backing vocals and piquant brass, and again on the driving "Gambella" his distinctive vocals lead the ensemble. These tracks and Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara's turn on the rhythmically layered "Surma" lean more towards traditional African music than jazz. Diawara's performance, nevertheless, is compelling. Following her debut Fatou (World Circuit, 2011), which featured Tony Allen, Toumani Diabate and Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones Diawara's star is the ascendancy—a new Oumou Sangaré in the making.

Two standout tracks are Astatke's "Assosa Derache" and "Motherland Abay." On the former, a brass arrangement—featuring trumpeter Byron Wallen and Arben—dominates as the intensity waxes and wanes like an Ellington suite. Astatke's dreamy vibraphone forges a deep undercurrent, contrasting with Wallen's fire and the ever-percolating rhythms. The latter tune stems from an achingly lyrical opening that pitches Danny Keane's cello, Kandia Kora's kora, Yohanes Afwork's washnit (end-blown flute), piano and clarinet in delicate orchestration. At the halfway point the rhythm section joins—treading softly—and ushers in a delightful solo from Wallen on muted trumpet. The seductive fusing of traditional Ethiopian and jazz instrumentation works a charm, highlighting Astatke's skills as an arranger.

In Astatke's music you can hear the spirit of Ellington, Gil Evans, Miles Davis and Sun Ra. It shouldn't come as a surprise. In an interview with All About Jazz in 2011, The Either/Orchestra's Russ Gershon spoke of the music they encountered in Ethiopia: "A lot of the Ethiopian music we were dealing with had been hugely influenced by American music, jazz and pop and Latin music. Then if you take a step back and think, where do the elements of American music come from? Half of them at least come from Africa. So we're all swimming in the same pond, to some extent."

More than a pond, Astatke swims in a sea of influences where ancient and modern sounds converge to create vibrant contemporary music. Sketches of Ethiopia is trumpeted as Astatke's first release on an international label in fifty years, though that honor should probably go to UK label Strut Records, who released Mulatu Steps Ahead in 2010. For anyone interested in Astatke's early music check out the compilations New York-Addis-London: The Story of Ethio Jazz (Strut Records, 2009) or Ethiopiques Vol 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale (1969-1974) (Buda Musique, 1998), which revisits Astatke's early 1970s releases in Ethiopia.

As good as his early stuff is, however, Astatke's music today has greater currency and vitality than ever.

Track Listing

Azmari; Gamo; Hager Fiker; Gambella; Assosa Derache; Gumuz; Motherland Abay; Surma.


Step Ahead: Mulatu Astatke: vibraphone, piano, keyboards; Yohanes Afwork: washint; James Arben: flute, oboe, tenor saxophone, clarinet; Messale Asmamow: krar; Richard Olatunde Baker: percussion; John Edwards: double bass, bass; Indris Hassun: masinko; Alexander Hawkins: piano, keyboards; Danny Keane: keyboards, cello; Tom Skinner: drums; Tesfaye: lead vocals (2, 4, 6); Byron Wallen: trumpet. Guests: Fatoumata Diawara: lead vocals (8); Francois Cordas: tenor saxophone (5); Kandia Kora: kora (2, 4, 7); Eric Longsworth: cello (5); Jean-Baptiste Saint-Martin: guitar (2, 5, 6); Francois Verly: percussion (2-8); Memeru: choir leader.

Album information

Title: Sketches of Ethiopia | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: Harmonia Mundi

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