Mulatu Astatke: New York, Addis, London; The Story of Ethio Jazz 1965-1975

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.

Mulatu Astatke

New York, Addis, London; The Story of Ethio Jazz 1965-1975

Label: Strut
US Release Date: 2009-10-26
UK Release Date: 2009-11-09

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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.