Mulatu Astatke - Mulatu of Ethiopia

by Rob Taylor Rating:9 Release Date:2017-05-19

Many years ago, when I heard Milt Jackson play with Oscar Peterson on the album, Very Tall, my perspective on the vibraphone changed from believing it to be an instrument used to augment jazz ensemble, or to lay out an inoffensive, mood stabilising 'vibe', to being a front-running instrument conveying a full palette of colours. Mulatu Astatke certainly exemplifies this approach. 

Mulatu Astatke leads his musicians from either the vibraphone, conga drums, or keyboards. Unlike Miles Davis though, his preferred instruments were not the central accent of his music, but rather the engine room around which the overall sound materialised, funky whip-ups which were, and still are, an amalgam of western jazz fusion, latin-jazz and Ethiopian popular music. 

For those who are beginning to warm to jazz, Mulatu Astatke is as great place to commence your journey. 1972’s Mulatu of Ethiopia came at a time when Astatke graduated from the Berklee College of Music, and been flirting with latin-jazz recordings. He turned his attention to a musical cross-breed of Ethiopian music, funk and jazz. Taking the ancient five-tone scales of Asia and Africa, and blending them; a mixture of Ethiopian, Puerto Rican and American music.

Around the time of this album, Curtis Mayfield released his brilliant 1972 soundtrack, Superfly, and here on lead-off track ‘Mulatu’, the chugging funk and hormonally charged horns bear fairly close comparison to the spirit of that music, although I’m not suggesting a direct influence, rather pointing to the fact that black music was mushrooming in cinema and radio at that time. Also, Miles Davis was beginning to engage western audiences in some wild jazz-funk jams (see Live Evil, Agharta etc), himself informed by revolutionaries such as Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix. 

The compositions on Mulatu of Ethiopia are essentially anchored to melody, some of those melodies probably ingrained in Mulatu’s subconscious memory from childhood. Buried in untapped cognition, those wonderful folk sounds of his homeland found voice alongside other strains of creative black music. Remembering also that Astatke had also been exposed to the amazing trance jazz of Fela Kuti in the late 60s, all these factors lead to my characterisation of Astatke’s jazz music as a modern apotheosis of dance, a beautiful representation of jazz as a form of entertainment, but also cerebral enough to appeal to the jazz intelligentsia.

For mind, body and soul.     

 

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