[17 November 2009]
English-speaking listeners staring at the name Mulatu Astatke and thinking, “Who’s this?” will, if they have seen Bill Murray hangdogging his way through Broken Flowers, feel their brains light up as soon as the first few bars of music emerge from the speakers—“Oh! Him! That!”—the synapses pinging into action, linking A to B, and everything going off across the brain like a string of Christmas bulbs. “Him!”
The track is “Yakermo Sew”, one that Jarmusch used prominently in the film, and it’s only the fact that it’s recognisable that makes it a good place to start, because, compared to most of the other tracks, it is not obviously exciting. There’s no singing, it’s repetitive, it doesn’t have the whoop of “Ebo Lala” or the snap of “Emnete”. Those come later.
Born in 1943, in the southwestern Ethiopian city of Jimma, Astatke was sent by his parents to study aeronautical engineering in Wales, ended up studying music in London instead, then shifted to the US, where he attended the Berklee College of Music, and formed an Afro-Latin jazz ensemble, the Ethiopian Quintet, mixing Ethiopian and American music.
In a recent interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, he said:
Basically, I think there’s no difference between music and science. The musician puts together different sounds in order to create something interesting; the chemist combines different chemicals in order to create something interesting. The success of both is determined by the proportions within the structure that they create. In music it’s called counterpoint; in science it has another name. But the principle is exactly the same.
After the Quintet he moved back to Ethiopia and worked on a style he named Ethio-jazz. New York, Addis, London covers tracks from his years abroad as well as his return. The album ends in 1975, which was the year when a communist coup came in like Orwell’s stamping boot and thumped itself down on Ethiopian music and the country’s arts. Anyone who hears this album, or surely, any of those other 1970s Ethiopian musicians made gloriously available by the Ethiopiques series, will want to track Derg-leader Mengistu down in his Zimbabwe hiding place and harangue him, for the sake of what might have been, musically, during that art-starved time. More importantly he is a mass murderer. But: the album.
The Ethiopian part of Astatke’s hybrid music is characterised by an insinuating writhe, a very strong, delicate, snakelike sound, muscling through the air casually, mysteriously, like smoke. In his jazz-bandleader hands this sound becomes dense. He mates it with multiple saxophones, with shuffled cymbals, with the hum of the instruments that he himself plays, the keyboard and vibraphone. He introduces it to funk guitar in “Wubit” and spices the creeping lounginess of “Lantchi Biye” with singing from Tilahun “The Voice” Gessese, who, incidentally, died last April. “Dewel” starts with a crash of experimental jazz—more modern, more deconstructed than anything else on this album—then relaxes into the Ethiopian writhe, then mashes the two together, so that the brass we hear in the other tracks acquires a frill of distortion and the writhe seems to be trying to push through from the background while the other noises stab it to keep it back. The marriage between the two continents, America and Africa, is underscored in a more lighthearted way at the start of “I Faram Gami I Faram” when a sound-effect trumpeting elephant is followed immediately by a Latin-jazz piano and chorus.
Astatke has a great capacity for intelligent play, the James Joyce kind of innovation that isn’t afraid to be slangy and entertaining at the same time that it chases a serious purpose.