Mulatu Astatke remains a musician in motion

March 24, 2018

By Kay Kaufman Shelemay

Ethiopian jazz master Mulatu Astatke will be taking a break from his extensive 2018 European concert tour to play at the 19th Cape Town International Jazz Festival in South Africa. This should come as no surprise given that he has been in global motion ever since his parents sent him to study aeronautical engineering in North Wales in 1956.

Mulatu Astatke is revered for being the father of Ethio-jazz.

But Mulatu (Ethiopians are traditionally called by their first names) soon began trumpet lessons instead – he enrolled in London’s Trinity School of Music. While in London he heard performances by Caribbean and West African musicians that evoked his memories of the big bands he had enjoyed back home in Ethiopia. These performances pushed him to consider new a direction.

Mulatu was the first African student to enrol at what would soon become the Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1958. There he traded in his trumpet for the vibraphone. In 1960 he lived in New York City, where he spent more than six years taking part in the world of American jazz, interacting with Latin musicians, making records and performing in concerts.

By the time Mulatu returned to Ethiopia later that decade, he had developed the concept of Ethio-jazz and was actively experimenting with this hybrid musical style. Ethio-jazz draws on multiple trends from the American jazz scene, including bebop and modal jazz combined with melodies and harmonies in the Ethiopian modal system.

Melding of sounds

Mulatu’s innovations were anchored by his childhood memories of traditional Ethiopian secular and church music. It was further inflected by harmony classes at the Berklee School and welded by the experience of hearing and playing jazz in London, Boston and New York City.

Mulatu’s pieces over the course of his career retain these early musical influences and a highly original mixture of sounds from places experienced on his lifelong itinerary.

An example is Mulatu’s signature piece ‘Yekermo Sew’ (A Man of Experience and Wisdom) which was featured in the soundtrack of American independent filmmaker and screenwriter Jim Jarmusch‘s 2005 film Broken Flowers and then circulated across the world. Composed following Mulatu’s return to Ethiopia in the late 1960s, ‘Yekermo Sew’ takes its title from a traditional Ethiopian Christian New Year’s blessing in Amharic, the national Ethiopian language.

Although set in tizita, a pentatonic (or five note) Ethiopian mode closely associated with feelings of nostalgia, 'Yekermo Sew’s' melody quoted a tune from jazz composer Horace Silver’s ‘Song For My Father’. Mulatu transformed Silver’s melody in phrasing and rhythm. He also expanded its ostinato accompaniment – any melodic, rhythmic or chordal phrase, usually short, that’s repeated continuously through a section of a work.

The original recording of ‘Yekermo Sew’ also captured technologies of the 1960s, with a solo on a Fender Rhodes electric piano popular in that era and a guitar fuzz box pedal that modified and distorted the sound.

It’s clear that ‘Yekermo Sew’ emerged from the rhythms and sounds that Mulatu continued to absorb from Ethiopian music and the many styles he encountered on the course of his professional life. This melding of sounds was reflected in his subsequent compositions too.

Mulatu never migrated abroad as many Ethiopian musicians did in the difficult years following the Ethiopian revolution that began in 1974. He maintained his home in Ethiopia but often travelled to perform, record and introduce his music to an international audience.

At home, Mulatu transmitted Ethio-jazz to younger musicians, many of whom today perform in sessions at his African Jazz Village on a regular basis. He has long researched a variety of Ethiopian traditional music from far-flung regions of the country and insured that these little-known styles were circulated in his frequent radio broadcasts. Mulatu became a legend in the worldwide Ethiopian diaspora, which he visits frequently on his tours.

Travelling music

Broken Flowers tells the story of Don Johnston (Bill Murray), who embarks on a cross-country road trip. Jarmusch, the film’s director, said that he’d conceived the character of Don’s next-door neighbour, an Ethiopian immigrant writer named Winston (Jeffrey Wright), so that he could use Mulatu’s music as the film’s soundtrack.

In a pivotal scene, Winston presents Don with an itinerary, maps and a CD of what Winston calls “travelling music” for his trip. The subsequent scenes of travel are accompanied by Mulatu’s Ethio-jazz.

Mulatu and his musical output have been associated with travel from early in his career. It includes his appearance in a classic poster advertising Ethiopian airlines titled 'Going to great lengths to please'.

In the end, cultural mobility emerges not just as an easy metaphor for Mulatu’s music, but as the decisive factor that produced Ethio-jazz.

Without his extraordinary mobility and exposure to a wide range of musical sounds, Mulatu would never have conceived his travelling music. Movement is key to understanding the genesis of Mulatu’s style. He made numerous references to it in an interview I did with him in 2007. It provides a pathway through which we can understand how this music is heard by so many listeners, including Jarmusch, as being emblematic of movement.

Clearly this association with mobility continues today. During a recent visit to Ethiopia, I passed by a billboard near the centre of downtown Addis Ababa of Johnny Walker scotch featuring Mulatu Astatke. The caption carries Johnny Walker’s iconic slogan: Keep Walking. It is clear that Mulatu is still in motion.

This article is based in part on Shelemay’s recent article Traveling Music: Mulatu Astatke and the Genesis of Ethiopian Jazz. In Jazz Worlds/World Jazz. Edited by Philip V Bohlman and Goffredo Plastino. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2016, pp. 239-257.

Kay Kaufman Shelemay is a G Gordon Watts professor of music at Harvard University. This article was first published on The Conversation.


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