On Thursday the 22nd of March, Mulatu Astatke, widely known as the ‘father’ of Ethio-jazz, comes to the Barbican for a solo show alongside guests Fatima & Eglo Live Band, Ruby Rushton and Seb Rochford (Polar Bear). Whilst credited with inventing the genre of Ethio-jazz, it has still taken over 40 years for Astatke to receive the recognition he deserves. Born in 1943 in Jimma Ethiopia, he came to the UK in the ‘60s to continue his further education, earning himself a degree from Trinity College of Music, as well as forging important friendships with UK musicians: “I started playing different clubs. I used to hang out with Tubby Hayes, Frank Holder, Joe Harriott and Ronnie Scott. It was a beautiful time.”
Astatke then travelled to the USA, where he became the first student from Africa to enrol at Berklee College of Music in Boston, studying vibraphone and percussion. This is where he became interested in Latin jazz, one of the main influences of Ethio-jazz: “It was during the ‘60s that Ethio-jazz came to life,” he remembers. “One night we’d be playing a jazz club in New York, the next a Puerto Rican wedding north of the Big Apple.” Astatke was fusing western jazz & funk with Latin jazz, traditional Ethiopian folk melodies & church music, creating an iconic sound.
Astatke then brought his new sound – christened ‘Ethio-jazz’ – back to his home country, where he released several offerings on the famous Amha Records label, toured around the country with Duke Ellington, and influenced countless Ethiopian artists. This time is often described as the ‘Golden period’ of Ethiopian music, during the reign of Selassie, before the brutal dictatorship of Mengistu took effect in 1977, driving Astatke and many other musicians out of the country.
After this, Astatke became largely unknown outside of Ethiopia, with the exception of some record collectors, until 1998 when Parisian record label Buda Musique began to reissue many of the Amha-era Ethio-jazz recordings on CD. The first one to be dedicated to a single artist was Éthiopiques Volume 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale, 1969–1974, by Mulatu Astatke. This, along with the heavy usage of Astatke’s music in 2005 French-American comedy-drama film Broken Flowers, led to Astatke becoming more widely known than ever before.
Since then, Astatke has lectured as an artist-in-residence at M.I.T. in Boston, showing students that Ethiopian music has elements which pre-date classical music by many years: “…the Derashe tribe in Southern Ethiopia managed to play a diminished scale by cutting different sizes of bamboo. You can hear Charlie Parker, even Debussy using these scales. The Derashe used it in their music well before the advent of jazz or classical music.” He has also released a phenomenal album with London-based psychedelic jazz/funk band The Heliocentrics (Inspiration Information 3), received an honorary Doctor of Music degree from the Berklee College of Music, and continues to tour the world, sharing his beautiful music even at the age of 74. Don’t miss the chance to see one of the founding fathers of modern African music in the beautiful settings of the Barbican.