Ethio jazz fuses the Western and Eastern music traditions

The Times of London
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Mulatu Astatke is bringing his brand of jazz to the Barbican in London
Mulatu Astatke is bringing his brand of jazz to the Barbican in London

On Thursdays, the dim-lit lobby bar at the Jupiter Hotel is packed with music fans knocking back bottles of St George Beer and tumblers of Johnnie Walker to the sounds of The Four Star Band.

Almost any night of the week bars and clubs across the capital are host to live bands playing “Ethio jazz”, a fusion of Western and Ethiopian musical traditions that is enjoying a surge in popularity at home and abroad.

Later this month Mulatu Astatke, 68, the acknowledged father of the genre, will perform at the Barbican in London alongside The Heliocentrics, his collaborators.

Mr Mulatu’s international reputation is growing but he told The Times that his real interest is in Addis Ababa where he has opened a music school and performance venue to teach a new generation of jazz musicians.

“Ethio-jazz is developing and its popularity is growing in Ethiopia and the rest of the world. I think it has a beautiful future,” the vibraphone player, bandleader and composer said.

Addis Ababa’s vibrant live music scene is a far cry from the dark days of the Derg, a brutal communist regime whose leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam, was overthrown in 1991 after 16 blood-soaked years in power.

The Derg frowned upon Western influences, including music, and the night-long curfews meant performers would often jam till dawn in darkened clubs to keep the music alive.

Born in Ethiopia’s western highlands, Mr Mulatu discovered jazz in the unlikely surroundings of a north Wales boarding school in the 1950s. He went on to study music in London and the United States.

In New York in the 1960s Mr Mulatu invented Ethio-jazz. “Forty-two years ago nobody was doing this kind of music, not in Ethiopia, not in America,” he said.

“It’s a fusion of the five-tone Ethiopian musical scales against 12-tone Western jazz music.”

The result is a distinctive groove, alternately ethereal and funky.

In 2005 Jim Jarmusch, the film director, used Mr Mulatu’s music to lend his film Broken Flowers its offbeat cool. Somali rapper K’Naan has since sampled his tunes, as has the rap-reggae duo of Nas and Damian (son of Bob) Marley who used one of Mr Mulatu’s 1969 recordings to kick-off their new album this year.

“Through this music I am reaching people who were unreachable,” Mr Mulatu said of the collaborations. “I am not just in the jazz world, and it’s great.”

On the Addis scene respect for Mr Mulatu is unmatched. “Mulatu taught me jazz. I love Mulatu as a person and as a musician, he’s like an older brother to me,” said Mengesha ˜Bibisha’ Teferi, 56, a popular guitarist.

The feeling is the same among younger Ethio-jazz musicians such as Teferi Assefa, 35, The Four Star Band’s percussionist, who was first spotted by Mr Mulatu while drumming for his high school band.

Mr Teferi studied music in southern Poland and Los Angeles before returning to Ethiopia where he, like Mr Mulatu, draws inspiration from the long tradition of Ethiopian church and tribal music.

Looking to your roots — and elsewhere — is a message he passes on to his students at two colleges in Addis.

“In the US students used to ask to be taught African rhythms, here the students want to learn hip-hop rhythms. I say learn everything: know classical, know hip-hop, know Japanese, know Ethiopian,” he said.

“Learn everything, then become yourself,” he said, in a line that might have been borrowed from his mentor Mr Mulatu.