Mulatu Astatke | Ethiopia

Mulatu Astatke | Ethiopia

The father of Ethio-Jazz; Mulatu Astatké, has been a key figure in bringing Ethiopian music and traditions to western audiences. By combining a multitude of different styles, his music appeals to a wide spectrum of people. After attending his concert in late 2012, I was in awe at the amount of sheer talent he brought to the stage. Mulatu pays great attention to the musicians he plays with and the atmosphere created by his live shows. This leads to performances which are full of deep rooted culture and shouldn’t be missed by any World Music enthusiast.

Born in the west Ethiopian city of Jimma, Astatké’s family sent him off to Wales in order to specialise in Engineering during the late 1950s. This path wasn’t suited to his interests and he earned a degree in music by studying at the Welsh Lindisfarne College, followed by Trinity College of Music in London. During the 1960s, Mulatu emigrated to the United States in order to further shape his musical direction;  he became the first African student to enroll at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he studied Vibraphone and percussion.  During his studies, Mulatu never forgot his roots and created the perfect amalgamation between  Jazz, Latin and Ethiopian music; combining five note Ethiopian scales with the western tradition of twelve note Jazz scales. After forming his ideal band, he led them while playing his signature sounding vibraphone, keyboards, organs and conga drums. His album releases were mainly focused on instrumental music and were steadily growing in popularity during the 1960s. Astatké also features on all three known albums of instrumentals that were released during Ethiopia’s Golden ’70s.

Mulatu Astatké’s revival happened thanks to the Éthiopiques compilations during the late 1990s and early 2000s. My favourite of which is Éthiopiques 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale 1969-1974 which features some of his best and most well-known work. The first stand out track is ‘Yèkèrmo Sèw’,  which was featured in director Jim Jarmushs 2005 independent film Broken Flowers with actors Bill Murray and Julie Delpy. This song is a great demonstration of his style as it features pentatonic scales of Ethiopia and the groove-centred rhythms he has fused from Latin and western jazz. The main horn melody and the driving drums put you under an East African spell; if you close your eyes you can almost smell the Ethiopian air.  Another stand out composition is ‘Yègellé Tezeta’, which was also sampled in ‘As We Enter’ by Nas and Damian Marley. I can guarantee that while listening to this track it will get your body moving, Mulatu really knows the importance of a good groove and will get his innovative melody lines firmly anchored inside your mind for days.

I was excited to attend a sold-out concert by Mulatu Astatké in November 2012 as part of his latest world tour. He performed at the venue Koko which is located in Camden, London. It used to be one of the biggest theaters in the West End and ran from 1900-1970, after this point it became a renowned music venue, full of a history-rich atmosphere which makes it a perfect venue for Mulatu’s ambient African Jazz.  The band played many of his greatest hits and had the crowd grooving with their intricate rhythms and culturally rich horn lines. Mulatu’s vibraphone was the instrument that really brought the unique atmosphere associated with his music; it was the perfect foundation for his compositions to sit on.

Mulatu Astatké is still going strong at the age of 70 and has provided multiple generations with inspirational music that they will carry with them throughout their life. His music also sends out a message of world unity; by combining so many different styles of music, it also brings people from these backgrounds closer together. Mulatu Astatké’s music will continue to be a timeless inspiration for many.


Written by: Teto Parvanov – TETO World Music