This groundbreaking and newly-reissued 1972 album is an excellent introduction to Mulatu Astatke, the inventor and sole exemplar of Ethio-jazz.
Just about a decade ago, amid the faded 1960s grandeur of Addis Ababa’s Ghion Hotel—Mulatu Astatke’s favorite spot for coffee—the man himself leaned over and asked, “What exactly is the Red Bull Music Academy?” This was after a wide-ranging interview about his career as composer and musician, traveling from the UK to the U.S. to Ethiopia and in between. Mulatu had been tapped to give a lecture in Canada, but he didn’t understand exactly why he was being asked to talk about his music—the bulk of which was recorded between 1966 and 1974—for a bunch of young people.
Originally released in 1972 and newly-reissued, the groundbreaking Mulatu of Ethiopia easily answers that question in under 30 minutes of adventurous, head-nod-inducing music that still sounds new today. These seven melodic tracks take the listener down moody rhythmic paths, all the while accompanied by organ, flute, horns, and Mulatu’s trademark vibraphone.
Born in western Ethiopia, Mulatu planned to study engineering. But upon moving to Wales, and later London, his field changed to music. He became the first student from Africa at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, focusing on percussion as well as vibraphone. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Mulatu recorded on trips to New York, working with a range of session musicians, many schooled in Latin rhythms; playing alongside Cubans and Venezuelans, he observed their experimentation. It sparked his desire to invent his own style, which he called “Ethio-jazz.” “I used the Ethiopian structures to create melodies, but instead of using cultural instruments, I used western instruments like the piano and the contrabass,” he once said. “I somehow created ways to use the Ethiopian modes, being very careful not to lose the feeling.”
Mulatu’s style—he really is the originator and sole exemplar of “Ethio-jazz”—is unmistakable. First, unlike most Ethiopian music of various traditional and contemporary genres, Mulatu doesn’t use vocals. He’s unique in his instrumentality, and his mix of styles was crucial. There is a clear ’70s funk influence at play—with the wah wah on “Munaye,” the driving tempo paired with rolling saxophone on “Chifara,” the floating flute on “Mascaram Setaba.” Afro-Cuban rhythms also appear on “Mulatu” and “Kasalefkut-Hulu.” And those familiar with the Ethiopian washint (flute) will recognize the different wind sounds on “Kulumanqueleshi.” It all joins the melancholic minor rhythm and handclaps, which are reminiscent of traditional Ethiopian Orthodox church music. The melodies, too, use the five-note-scale pentatonic mode common to Ethiopian music.
Though crate diggers developed an enthusiasm for Mulatu’s music in the early 1990s, wider acclaim occurred initially in Europe through the 1998 release of the fourth in the Francis Falceto-curated Éthiopiques series, entitled Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale, 1969–1974. A number of tracks from the compilation were then used in the soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch’s 2005 film Broken Flowers (those paying attention will identify that the cinematic “Mascaram Setaba” appeared first on this record). But Mulatu of Ethiopia showcases perhaps the widest range of Mulatu’s talents—including jazz, funk, and what sounds like atmospheric soundtracking—and acts as an excellent initial entry into his catalog.
What is perhaps most significant about this reissue—and for this one needs to purchase the 3xLP set—is how it illustrates the process that went into the creation of Mulatu of Ethiopia. The CD and LP versions include the original stereo release and the pre-mix mono master, but the 3xLP gatefold set adds a whole other LP dedicated to the outtakes of four songs: three of “Mascaram Setaba,” three of “Kulunmanqueleshi,” two of “Kasalefkut-Hulu,” and an extra “Munaye.” These glimpses into the studio provide insight into the explorations that led to the final versions. Some outtakes place the wind instruments out front, others focus on the percussion. These are looser attempts that play with motifs and melodies.
Mulatu, however, is audibly the bandleader. Before laying out the rhythm and counting the band in on “Mascaram Setaba,” you can hear him arguing with the musicians: “No, no, no,” he says, telling the bassist exactly what he wants to hear. After a minute or so, he stops the music again: “Watch me for the chords, ok?,” he instructs. From this three minutes of tape, it’s quite clear that Mulatu knew exactly what he wanted in order to fulfill his concept of Ethio-jazz.
Since Mulatu’s 2007 lecture in Toronto, more and more people have become acquainted with the funky, atmospheric stylings of his Ethio-jazz. This has spurred Mulatu’s recent work, born of connections with London’s Heliocentrics and Boston’s Either/Orchestra. There has also between a rash of recordings sampling Mulatu, and for good reason. Nas, Damian Marley, K’naan, the Gaslamp Killer, Four Tet: all have added in bits and pieces of Mulatu’s music. If there’s one way to invigorate a style, it’s by drawing from the unique cadences of Mulatu Astatke’s inventive sounds, showcased on this 45-year-old classic.