Thursday, 24 August 2017

The Beginner's Guide to Mulatu Astatke

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 131, October 2017.

Across the late 1960s and early 70s in Addis Ababa, musicians experimented with various styles of jazz in an Ethiopian way. But there is only one that can be called the ‘Father of Ethiojazz’. Much more than simply ‘jazz from Ethiopia’, the sound of Mulatu Astatke’s Ethiojazz is his own, a distinctive blend of traditions and innovations, of particular textures and timbres, scales and rhythms.

Born in Jimma, Ethiopia in 1943, with Addis Ababa as his spiritual home, Astatke’s personal connection to the streets and sounds of his country is obvious across his art. It is from this point that his musical adventures abound. Like all innovators, Mulatu Astatke takes influences from every step of his journey to create his style, and his musical education kick-started this: playing with Ghanaian, South African and Caribbean musicians while studying classical music at Trinity College, London; playing with Puerto Rican and Cuban musicians while studying jazz at Berklee. These experiences solidified his resolve to make his own sound – the musicians were all making music that reflected both their backgrounds and their adopted countries, and Ethiopia was absent from that scene. So it was up to Astatke to put it there.

At every step, the traditional sounds of Ethiopia have never been far away for Astatke. Large parts of what makes his sound so recognisable are the contrasts of the five-note Ethiopian kiñit modes and twelve-note Western chromatic scales, of Ethiopian heterophony and Western harmony. It’s a delicate balance. Speaking to Lucy Wilson in Songlines issue 68, he said of his fusion: “When you are mixing different cultures, you really have to be careful that one doesn’t dominate the other. You have the beautiful notes that were there at the start of Ethiopian music; if the twelve tones dominate the five, then the whole thing is lost.

It’s not just the scales that make Ethiojazz. What set Astatke apart from his contemporaries in Ethiopian jazz was his addition of Latin rhythms of the congas, timbales and güiro to the ride-cymbal swings of jazz and kebero drumming rhythms of Ethiopian music. It was the first time Latin music made its mark on Ethiopia, despite the Cuban craze that had been sweeping the African continent for decades.

And so his sound as a composer is recognisable as Ethiojazz. But his sound as a musician is just as striking. That comes from his tool of choice: the vibraphone. He also plays electric piano and percussion, but it is his vibraphone, with its warmly undulating tones accentuating his music’s inherent dissonance and revelling in it, that immediately marks a piece with his involvement.

Astatke’s first heyday came in the 70s, at the height of so-called ‘Swinging Addis’. Jazz, soul and funk were all the rage in Addis Ababa, and he was in high demand as a musician and arranger, appearing on many recordings under his own name and as an accompanist. This exciting period saw him performing with the likes of Duke Ellington and Alice Coltrane on their visits to the city, and with traditional Thai musicians in a project for Ethiopian Airlines.

But this period came to an abrupt end as the Soviet-style Derg regime deposed Emperor Haile Selassie and imposed draconian laws on its citizens, hitting musicians especially hard. The vibrant scene shrank, musicians either played it safe, moved abroad or abandoned their craft altogether. As well as the domestic scene, this period also resulted in a dearth of Ethiopian music in the international consciousness. Astatke carried right on, but his influence and a promising international career waned. Even as late as 2006, in his chapter on Ethiopian music in the Rough Guide to World Music, Francis Falceto wrote 'No other musician in Ethiopia is anything like Mulatu, and it looks like his style will die with him'. Luckily, eleven years later, it is obvious that he spoke too soon.

Astatke is now one Africa’s most popular musicians in the West, and his rise to global stardom can be pin-pointed to two moments: the release of a dedicated compilation of his music in the now-legendary Éthiopiques series in 1998 (the first album in the series to spotlight a single master musician) and the inclusion of his music in Jim Jarmusch’s comedy drama Broken Flowers, starring Bill Murray, in 2005.

Since coming back into the spotlight, Mulatu hasn’t slowed down. In fact, some of his most vital work has been in the past decade. Now in his 70s, he still plays sell-out tours across Europe with his UK-based Step Ahead band, as well as performing regularly in his own club in Addis.

His triumphant return started with Inspiration Information Vol. 3, his 2009 album with open-eared UK jazzers and serial collaborators The Heliocentrics. The album set the blueprint for his subsequent releases: mostly new compositions with a handful of reworked Swinging Addis classics thrown in, European contemporary jazz players meeting with traditional Ethiopian musicians, all under the stern gaze of Astatke behind his vibes and percussion. His subsequent solo albums follow this format and take the musical experiments to the next level.

Outside of Ethiopia, Astatke’s music has been a revelation. His impact on both the world music and jazz scenes as well as more mainstream culture is obvious: there are now bands all over Europe and America dedicated to playing Ethiojazz, covering classics and forging their own takes on the style, and his influence can be heard on artists from Dengue Fever to Dr John. The hip-hop community have certainly felt an affinity with Astatke’s work too, his unmistakable sounds finding their way into pieces by Nas & Damien Marley, K’naan, Busdriver, Cut Chemist and more.

And above all, the sound is coming home. There is a burgeoning young jazz scene in Ethiopia whose sound takes in elements of Astatke’s Ethiojazz and other styles of Swinging Addis, together with all eras of jazz to make their own sound, headed by the wonderful pianist Samuel Yirga.

Reports of the death of Ethiojazz were greatly exaggerated, and, as he has been from the very start, Mulatu Astatke is still its driving force.

Best Albums

Mulatu Astatke
Éthiopiques, Vol. 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale, 1969-1974 (Buda Musique, 1998)
The compilation that reminded the world of Mulatu Astatke. Made up of pieces recorded at the height of Swinging Addis, this instalment of Buda’s legendary Éthiopiques series remains the essential album in Ethiojazz.

Mulatu Astatke / The Heliocentrics
Inspiration Information, Vol. 3 (Strut Records, 2009)
The young pioneers of UK jazz meet the old master of Ethiopian jazz. Astatke’s return to the scene came in the form of this collaboration with The Heliocentrics. You can hear the crackle of creative electricity throughout.

Mulatu Astatke
Mulatu Steps Ahead (Strut Records, 2010)
In his first solo album for several decades, Astatke obviously enjoys the free reign here. It is everything he is known for turned up to 11 – traditional instruments and scales, free jazz, dance-floor salsa and experimentation to the brim.

Mulatu Astatke
Sketches of Ethiopia (Jazz Village, 2013)
The ceaseless adventure and experiment continues with a more pan-African feel on this album, including a guest spot for Malian songbird Fatoumata Diawara.

Mulatu Astatke
Mulatu of Ethiopia (Strut Records, 1972/2017)
Strut Records have remastered and reissued this classic from 1972. Recorded in New York, this album marks the birth of what we now call Ethiojazz.

If you like Mulatu Astatke, then try…

Arun Ghosh
Northern Namaste (Camoci Records, 2008)
India-born, Bradford-raised, Arun Ghosh uses his clarinet to explore South Asian and cosmopolitan themes through the medium of jazz. Although Ghosh’s music is very different from Astatke’s, their common approach towards jazz and traditional music create similar atmospheres.

Gétatchèw Mèkurya
Éthiopiques, Vol. 14: Negus of Ethiopian Sax (Buda Musique, 2003)
A different take on 1970s Ethiopian jazz. Mèkurya based his style on shellela battle cries and used his sax to imitate the masenko one-string fiddle, creating a sound that’s not a million miles away from Albert Ayler or Eric Dolphy.

Photo: Mulatu Astatke, by Mário Pires. Used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Various Artists - Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 131, October 2017.

Various Artists
Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa
Ostinato Records (80 mins)

Sweet as Broken Dates is a collection of Somali-language pop recorded in Somalia, Somaliland and Djibouti from the 1960s right up to the 2000s. Somali music has a very distinctive personality. Many of the tracks on the album are based around an interplay of synthesiser and voice, a tradimodern take on the traditional kaban (oud-like lute) music. But as with any pop music, it has absorbed what is popular at the time – it’s dripping with soul and funk, as well as influences from Ethiopia, the Arabic peninsula and even Bollywood.

The most fascinating selections here come courtesy of Radio Hargeisa, which in 1988 managed to protect thousands of tapes during the civil war by sending them into neighbouring countries or burying them in the ground. They were eventually retrieved and now many of those tapes are kept as part of the 10,000-strong archive, the Red Sea Foundation in Hargeisa. Archaeological musicology, indeed.

The CD comes with a 32-page booklet featuring several essays and interviews with the artists. It’s very detailed and informative, and a great addition to the music. This is a wonderful album for both listening and learning, serving as a jumping-off point for people wanting to start their own journeys into Somali groove. It will be interesting to see if any other compilations – or perhaps full albums – come from the Red Sea Foundation’s amazing haul in the coming years.

Oumar Konaté - Live in America

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 131, October 2017.

Oumar Konaté
Live in America
Clermont Music (48 mins)

Over the last few years, Oumar Konaté has been making his own place on the Mali guitar scene, his guitar-bass-drums trio mixing traditional Songhai grooves with raucous Jimi Hendrix-esque solos.

For this album, three performances were recorded from Konaté’s US tour back in 2014. Given the year, it is no surprise that there are no as-yet-unheard tracks; all the pieces included are from his first two albums, 2014’s Addoh and 2016’s Maya Maya. Normally for a live album, that would be no problem, except here, although everything was recorded in-concert, it’s difficult to tell that just by listening. The high-quality recordings and the barely-audible crowd noise remove that electric atmosphere of being at a great concert, and make the album feel more like a set of alternate takes from past work.

Musically, Konaté’s skills as a guitarist are not in doubt, and he pulls off the different styles with ease, but what is lacking is any great originality that would take these particular performances from proficient to exciting. Maybe you had to be there.

It’s probably a better move to check out Konaté’s earlier studio albums and wait for some new material instead.

Massa Dembele - Mezana Dounia

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 131, October 2017.

Massa Dembele
Mezana Dounia
Izniz Records (34 mins)

Massa Dembele is a Mandinka jeli (griot) from Burkina Faso who plays the kamalengoni. It’s a bridged harp not dissimilar to the kora, but with significantly fewer strings and a more twangy sound. It’s not a traditional jeli instrument, but in Dembele’s hands, it sounds perfectly natural.

This album – and especially the title track ‘Mezana Dounia’ – are lovely examples of his stripped-back, minimalist sound, often featuring just his multitracked and interlocking kamalengoni lines and haunting falsetto voice with occasional percussion.

There are guests on two pieces playing the balafon (xylophone) and folikan flute, which, like all else here, are used simply but effectively. Apart from these, though, Dembele plays all of the instruments on the album. While his skills as an instrumentalist are obvious, a griot’s real trade is their stories, so it’s very useful that this release has gathered English translations of every song, available to view online. The songs – which are all self-penned – are tales of changing cultures, emotional ponderings on the modern world, and calls for social justice.

This is a very short album, only just passing the half-hour mark, but it is nevertheless a very impressive debut from a musician putting his own spin on an ancient tradition.

Takeifa - Gass Giss

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 131, October 2017.

Gass Giss
Keyzit (36 mins)

Takeifa keep it in the family: the five members are all siblings. Four brothers and a sister of the Keita family from Senegal bring together guitar, drums, bass, voice and a bit of rap to create a mix of pop, soul and what they call ‘Afro*Rock’.

Gass Giss – Wolof for ‘Whoever Searches Will Find’ – is the band’s third album but it doesn’t offer much to help it stand out in the crowd, even with special guest Baaba Maal providing vocals on ‘Ndanane’.

The heavier the music gets, the more fun it becomes, so it’s a shame that it doesn’t flex its muscles more often. The track ‘Fire’ has a heavy beat and distorted guitar melting into a blasting flute solo, but falls back into bland pop before too long. There are enjoyable moments here and there – ‘Supporter’ has some cool raps, for example – but if you want cheerful and cheesy Afro-pop, there are many better examples to choose from.