‘Never stop, Never stop’: Mulatu Astatke and the birth of Ethio-jazz

gWhen 74 year old Mulatu Astatke, the legendary Ethiopian musician, calls you his friend over the phone, you believe him. There is a warmth to his tone, to his manner of speaking, that makes you feel as if there is genuine affection for everyone he interacts with.

There is openness in the way he listens to you asking about his music and to the way he frames his thoughts that feels immediately inclusive. It’s no wonder he’s managed to unite both musicians and listeners in the near half century since his invention of Ethio-jazz.

There’s a timelessness to Astatke’s music. A song like “Yègellé Tezeta” sounds just as fresh when used in Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, or on a 45 in 1972, as it does sampled in “As We Enter” by Nas and Damien Marley. It’s revelatory, and though music scholars can delve deeper into its fusion of European and Ethiopian scales, even a layman can recognize that there’s something that just works about his music. It sounds both distant and familiar, as if by linking Latin music, jazz and traditional Ethiopian music he found a way to look into the heart of music itself, at its root, and find the very thing that appealed to us in the first place, and always will.

Despite this, it is entirely possible to imagine a world in which this invention never happened, and Ethio-jazz was never gifted to the world. Mulatu, or Dr. Mulatu, as he corrected me to call him, as he received an honorary doctorate from Berklee College in Boston in 2012, spent his first 16 years in Ethiopia before his parents moved him to England. If he had stayed, he most certainly would never have been able to explore music as a serious subject of study.

“There are big educational problems in what we call ‘developing nations,’” said Astatke. “In most third world countries, music art and theater are not usually compulsory at most schools.”

“In general, institutions without these programs do not produce complete people. A complete person is a guy who has studied music, art and culture in tandem with physics and chemistry and other subjects,” Astatke continued. “I did not have this chance when I was in Ethiopia.”

Music was so far from his life that he did not even consider studying music when he began his studies after his family moved to the United Kingdom.

“My family actually sent me to a very well-regarded school in the UK to study engineering. I was very good at math and physics and I wanted to become an electrical engineer.”

In the UK, Astatke was able to discover parts of himself of which he had previously not been aware.

“That was a very great institution because they really focus so much on making each person a complete person,” he said. “I had a chance to study everything. But it was in my musical studies where I excelled, and that’s where I found out about my talent.”

His teachers recognized his natural ability and affinity for music as much as he did, but his family wasn’t as ready to recognize it.

“The school told me, Mulatu, I think if you become a musician, you will become a great one, but I had problems with the family because they wanted me to become an engineer or a doctor.”

Ultimately, his family didn’t stand in his way. “I convinced them,” Astatke said.

At Trinity College of Music in London, he discovered jazz, recognizing a link to the music that traditionally came out of Ethiopia.

“It was suggested that I study jazz because the connection with jazz is African. And we know Africa contributed so much to the development of modern music, and since I am an African, I felt that I should concentrate on Jazz music. From there, from England, I applied to Berklee in Boston in 1958 becoming the first African at Berklee.”

In the 1960s, Astatke’s innovations began to take shape. In 1966, he recorded his first albums, Afro-Latin Soul Volumes 1 and 2, with the Ethiopian Quintet, a group he formed while still at Berklee.

There, he developed his style further, performing traditional Ethiopian music using the instruments he had adopted during his studies abroad. By the early 70s, Ethio-jazz emerged fully formed. Astatke blended the melodies and scales of Ethiopia with that of European musical structures, performing the music primarily on Western instruments used in Jazz and Latin music.

“The best thing about this is that when you are mixing the two, you can easily lose the colour and the beauty of the Ethiopian mode. But I actually fused both of them so nicely that people loved and enjoyed and came up with a different flavor and different sounds than the music of that time.”

Astatke rates his accomplishments accurately—Ethio-jazz, from its earliest days, was intoxicating. In the early 70s, Ethiopia was opening up to the world. Astatke contributed to this cultural awakening, bringing new instruments and styles that so well they felt like they’d always been there. Internationally respected artists like Duke Ellington toured Ethiopia with Astatke performing as a special guest, Amha Records, Ethiopia’s first independent record label in Addis Ababa, released Astatke’s now-legendary albums, such as 1972’s Astatke of Ethiopia.

But in 1975, Amha stopped producing records due to the Derg junta, and the movement heralded one of the bloodiest periods in Ethiopia’s history. Though many fled the violence and turmoil, Astatke stayed still playing music, and even to this day tends to shy away from discussions of politics, and prefers to talk about the music itself rather than muse on political issues.

Though Astatke refused to abandon music in Ethiopia, by the 1980s, the cultural progress that Ethiopia had made seemed to regress, and most of Astatke’s music was forgotten outside of Ethiopia’s borders for most of the 1980s.

But Astatke’s Ethio-jazz creation was too powerful to remain hidden for long. Parisian label Buda Musique started heavily promoting Ethiopian music with its Ethiopiques series in the late 90s. Its fourth volume, which focused entirely on Mulatu Astatke’s work from 1969-1974, was a massive hit, bringing Astatke renewed acclaim and new audiences hungry for his work. Into the noughties, Astatke’s music caught fire in the U.S. as well, finding its way into Jim Jarmusch films and onto National Public Radio, as well as being extensively sampled by the likes of Kanye West and Madlib. Today, still, few listeners can resist its draw.

Though the world eventually recognized his music, this was not always the case in his home of Ethiopia, either. “There was a time a long time ago I tried this Ethio-jazz, and people told me to get off from the stage.”

But today, almost 27 years after the Derg movement, Ethiopia is much more ready to embrace his contributions to their culture.

“Now it’s a different story. There is more Astatke and more of Astatke’s music. Appreciation is becoming great, my friend.”

In the time since the birth of Ethio-jazz, music fans in Ethiopia have gained a great appreciation what the world has brought to the musical conversation, as well.

“Ethiopian music listeners have changed very much. Music schools exist, and different FM stations which play all kinds of music in this world including. I had my own FM program which I ran for around seven years—teaching the public about classical music, about jazz, about world music, about the African contribution to the world. And I think in Ethiopia a lot of people have a growing understanding and are enjoying music from different parts of the world,” said Astatke.

Though it took an international education for him to find out how special Ethiopia’s global cultural contributions were, Astatke is still very much an Ethiopian at heart.

“I very much feel that Ethiopia is still my true home. If I keep away long, you can lose your touch and you can lose your feeling.”

45 years into the creation of Ethio-jazz, Astatke has shown no signs of slowing down, or to rest on his previous accomplishments. His work with the Heliocentrics, and his latest compositions in 2013’s Sketches Of Ethiopia, Astatke sounds looser, even more willing to improvise and innovate than he did on his earliest recordings in the late 60s and 70s.

“I’ll always say, never stop trying in music. The more you try, the more you work. The more you love what you are doing. The more you become creative and the more you become productive. Always something new, something different to the world,” said Astatke.

Astatke, in fact, will be the first person to tell you about the high quality of his current output.

“I am working on now a beautiful opera. It should be out and that’s going to be another very interesting and great work. It will be a great contribution to music.”

His pace belies the fact that he is a 74 year old man who has entered the stage in his career when he could easily rest on the legendary status he has gained. And on top of that he still composes new work, even as new people are discovering his original recordings every day.

“I’m still working. I just keep on working now. Never stop, Never stop,” he said with a laugh.

Like that of his music, the energy of Mulatu Astatke seems to never fade.

This article originally appeared in Brownbook issue 45