At 66, Mulatu Astatke is on fire, as his seductive sound wins fans around the world. It’s all down to late nights in the hotels of Addis Ababa.
Athe age of 66, Mulatu Astatke is having the time of his life. The jazz composer and performer from Ethiopia is in the midst of a full-blown Indian summer in his career. He received a huge boost when influential film-maker Jim Jarmusch used his music for his 2005 film Broken Flowers, and was also a key figure in the 2007 The Very Best of Ethiopiques compilation, one of the most unlikely best-sellers of the last decade.
Once heard, Astatke’s music is not easily forgotten. His signature vibraphone playing style uses the distinctive five-note Ethiopian scale and is like jazz from a parallel universe, by turns haunting, romantic and a touch sleazy, as though the soundtrack to some seductive espionage B-movie.
His belated success has finally allowed him to record the music he has always wanted to. His new album Mulatu Steps Ahead, seamlessly mixes blues, salsa and boogaloo with his trademark scales and tones, a fusion that reflects his own history. “Some of this music I was playing in small groups,” he says. “Now I have an orchestra and great musicians, I can put down beautiful counterpoints and colours.”
Astatke recently got a fellowship at Harvard, where he premiered a portion of his first opera, The Yared Opera, last year, and also became an adviser at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab in Boston. “I was developing Ethiopian instruments like the krar for the 21st century,” he says.
Astatke left Ethiopia in 1958, aged 15, to study at Lindisfarne College, near Wrexham in Wales. “I was supposed to be an aeronautical engineer, but then I realised I had to be a musician – my parents were not at all happy.” In the holidays he would go to London and hang out with older jazz musicians like Jamaican-born Joe Herriot. “There was a wonderful club in Soho called the Metro. Quite a lot of Nigerians and Ghanaians were there, playing their music. I used to sometimes sit in playing congas. Even then, I thought, why doesn’t anybody know Ethiopian music?”
He trained at Trinity College in London and then Berklee in Boston, before coming to New York, where he saw Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie at the jazz clubs, and the likes of Tito Puente at the mythic Palladium Club. “You had to dance at these clubs – I became very good at salsa. It was a great place to have fun, drink and pick up girls.”
Astatke is softly spoken and dresses smartly with a slight air of the smooth operator and lounge lizard about him, as you might guess from his enigmatic, seductive music. In the Sixties, he started producing his own music, which he dubbed ethio-jazz and released a couple of albums in New York, before returning to Ethiopia where he set up his own band. “Mostly we were playing international music at hotels and weddings but I also presented concerts of ethio-jazz. At first people didn’t like it, but eventually the music got quite a following.”
When Haile Selassie was ousted in a coup in 1974 and the Communist Soviet-backed junta took over and introduced curfews, it must have put a damper on Addis Ababa’s music scene? “Not for everyone. The midnight curfew meant if you were in a club then you had to stay till five in the morning,” Astatke recalls. “So we used to have great jam sessions that lasted through the night.” As an instrumentalist with a distinct style, unlike other musicians with troublesome lyrics, he didn’t fall foul of the authorities, who got Astatke’s band to play at official ceremonies. “I’m not saying I approved of the regime, but I just concentrated on making music,” he says.
In the Eighties, a Frenchman called Francis Falceto began putting out a series of Ethiopian music compilations, Ethiopiques, volume four of which was dedicated to the music of Astatke, which is the album Jim Jarmusch got to hear. “He found me when I was playing in New York and told me he was a huge fan and used quite a lot of it for Broken Flowers. That was when so many people discovered my music – I owe him a lot.”
One bugbear he has is that Live Aid gave the wrong impression of Ethiopia. “People in the West got the impression Ethiopia is like a desert. Much of the country is green and Addis is a very sophisticated city.” He also regrets that Geldof didn’t use any Ethiopian musicians. “I respect those people, but it made us look like a beggar, instead of us asking for help alongside our brothers and sisters in Europe and the US.”
He points out that church music from the fourth century is still being performed in Ethiopia today. “Culturally, especially musically, Ethiopia is amazing. I always say – come and see for yourself.”
‘Mulatu Steps Ahead’ is released on Strut