World Music
5:00 am
Mon September 2, 2013

September Feature: Mulatu Astatke

Credit Asaf Antman / Flickr

Few artists can claim to single-handedly create a musical style, but Mulatu Astatke is one of them. He is the founder of Ethio-Jazz, a hypnotic blend of Ethiopian music and various jazz influences that has attracted a growing international audience in recent years. Throughout September, Global Village features music from Astatke, ranging from some of his earliest recordings to a new album and first international release, Sketches of Ethiopia, out September 10th.

Astatke was born in Ethiopia in 1943 and went to Wales in his teens to study. There he discovered his true calling in music. He then went Trinity College in London, and while there did club dates and soaked up the multicultural and jazz scenes of the city.  Astatke's next stop was America. He became the first African student to enroll at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, where he studied vibraphone and percussion (he is credited with introducing both vibes and congas into Ethiopian music), and then headed to New York. He formed a band there in the early '60s with African-American and Puerto Rican musicians. They recorded Afro-Latin Soul Vols. 1 and 2 in 1966, and the roots of his heady blend of jazz, Latin, funk and Ethiopian influences can be found there. It was also during this time that he met John Coltrane, whose influence can also be discerned in Astatke's music.

A live performance of Astatke's "Yekermo Sew" -

Astatke returned to Ethiopia in the late '60s, in time to become a major participant in the "Golden Era" of music in that country (cut short in the mid '70s when the Derg military junta came into power). His new approach to traditional Ethiopian music soon won him the title of "Father of Ethio-Jazz" and he made records under his own name and with some of biggest stars of the time. He also performed with Duke Ellington in one of the jazz master's last appearances in Africa.

A 2009 NPR interview with Astatke

All this might have been an interesting, if minor footnote in global music history had it not been for the Paris-based Buda Musique label's groundbreaking Ethiopiques series that began to reissue music from Ethiopia's Golden Age starting in 1998. Astatke was featured in several volumes and was the first to have a release (Volume Four) devoted entirely to his work. More attention came when a number of his songs were featured in the 2005 Jim Jarmusch film, Broken Flowers.

He went on to work with the Boston-based Either/Orchestra and London-based Heliocentrics. In 2008, he completed a Fellowship at Harvard and was an Artist-in-Residence at M.I.T. His more recent albums, including Inspiration Information (2009), Steps Ahead (2010), Timeless (2010) and the newly released Sketches of Ethiopia with his current London-based Step Ahead Band, reveal an artist continuing to step into the future - offering a fresh, ebullient, innovative and contemporary form of the Ethio-jazz that he first pioneered over five decades ago.

Live selections from Astatke's new album, Sketches of Ethiopia -

Join us throughout September in the Global Village for the music of Mulatu Astatke. And get daily feature and program updates, world music news, music videos, new release information, and more on the Global Village Facebook Page. See more about Mulatu Astatke, including interview and performance clips here.

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