Ethiopian musician and composer Mulatu Astatke (born 1943) is regarded as the founder of Ethiopian jazz, sometimes known as Ethio-jazz. He studied jazz in top colleges in England and the United States, then exported these influences back to Africa. He became a major figure in the musical nightlife culture of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, during the 1960s and 1970s, and following a period of suppression Marxist suppression, enjoyed a second period of international popularity in the 1990s and 2000s.
Afigure of paramount importance in modern Ethiopian music, Mulatu Astatke was musically trained in the United States and England, then returned to Africa, where he devised ways of combining Western jazz styles with traditional Ethiopian instruments, melodies, and rhythms. Astatke was born on December 19, 1943, in Jimma, a large market town located in southwestern Ethiopia's Oromia region. Prosperous by local standards, and recognizing their son's talents, his parents groomed him for study abroad. He was accepted by a school in Wales, where he intended to study aeronautical engineering and dutifully enrolled in classes. As he recalled to Ben Shalev of Haaretz, the director of a school orchestra that he performed with during his spare time told him: “It's possible that you may become a good engineer, but your destiny is to be a musician.”
Taking the director's advice to heart, Astatke enrolled in the music program at London's Trinity College. He enjoyed playing drums in bands that performed in local jazz clubs, but there were currently no jazz programs in British universities, so he studied classical music. Increasingly pulled toward jazz, he left England and moved to Boston, Massachusetts, to attend the Berklee School of Music (now the Boston Conservatory at Berklee). Even in the United States, the academic study of jazz was rare at the time, but Berklee was an exception, and Astatke was exposed to the progressive edge of jazz as represented by such musicians as saxophonist John Coltrane and trumpeter Miles Davis. He is thought to have been the first African student to attend Berklee.
It was Davis who mostly deeply influenced the young musician. During in the 1950s, Davis had pioneered the so-called modal jazz style, which involved the exploration of scales other than the Western seven-note scales and the blues scale traditionally used in jazz performance. Inspired by Davis's music, Astatke discovered ways of combining jazz with the music of his own Ethiopian heritage. Graduating from Berklee in the early 1960s, he headed for New York City, then the undisputed mecca for experimental and forward-looking jazz. He was befriended by vibraphonist Dave Pike, a member of the band of world-music-oriented jazz flutist Herbie Mann, and he soaked up the creative atmosphere at famed jazz clubs such as the Village Vanguard and the Palladium.
While paying his bills by performing in dance clubs, Astatke joined forces with a group of Puerto Rican jazz musicians and was signed to Worthy Records, a label based in Brooklyn. He recorded three albums: Afro-Latin Soul, volumes 1 and 2 in 1966, as well as Mulatu of Ethiopia in 1972. The fusion of Ethiopian music and jazz that Astatke developed relied on pentatonic (five-note) melodies derived from Ethiopian styles and was underlaid by jazz harmonies derived from the 12 notes of the Western tonal system. “Ethio jazz has beautiful colours [because of] pentatonic or Ethiopian modes [being] dominant, with beautiful twelve-tone harmonies,” the musician explained to Exclaim online interviewer David Dacks.
In the late 1960s, Astatke returned to Ethiopia, bringing with him the latest in U.S. jazz sounds. Although American soul and rock music had become popular in Africa, jazz was still little known, and at first his battery of unfamiliar instruments—such as electric keyboards, pedal effects, and the vibraphone he often played—was greeted with skepticism from Ethiopian audiences. Before long, though, Astatke's music caught on, and he found himself in demand in the burgeoning Addis Ababa club scene.
Within the scene that became known as “swinging Addis,” Astatke soon stood among its leading figures as his innovations took hold and his instruments were adopted by other musicians. “I changed the whole Ethiopian music,” he explained to Ben Sisario for the New York Times, by “combining jazz and fusion with the Ethiopian five-tone scales. Since then my name has been on the very, very top of the Ethiopian musical scene.”
Astatke often played the vibraphone, the sound of which reminded him of an African instrument called the balafon, which was constructed of wooden slabs cut to different lengths and tuned. He also played keyboards and percussion. Like Ellington, though, he made his greatest impact as a composer and arranger. Much of the music he played with his own bands was original, and he also worked as an arranger for other ensembles. In the early 1970s he and Amha Eshete founded Amha Records, Ethiopia's first independent record label. Amha released Astatke's 1974 album Ethio-Jazz, a representative sample of his work during this time.
Inspired by a severe famine in Ethiopia, Selassie was deposed in a coup in 1974 and was replaced by a Marxist-leaning regime known as the Derg. As citizens chose sides for and against the new government, Astatke's actions were viewed by some as controversial. Swinging Addis was stifled by a curfew and the closure of many nightclubs, and many musicians, including Eshete, decided to leave the country. Astatke remained, however, opening a music school and even issuing an album titled Yekatit: Ethio Jazz, which name referenced the date the Derg assumed power. Ethiopia became allied with Communist Cuba during this period, and Astatke took this opportunity to travel to Havana and become acquainted with Latin jazz styles. His music during this period was little heard outside of Ethiopia, and he has maintained that he is apolitical and managed to avoid political involvement.
The Derg's successors were, in turn, overthrown in 1991 after the demise of their patron state, the U.S.S.R., and Ethiopia began to once again open itself to the outside world. Astatke started a new Addis Ababa club, African Jazz Village, and began to study traditional Ethiopian music systematically. The French-based Ethiopiques label issued a large series of recordings made in Addis Ababa during the glory days of its music scene, and Astatke's music was prominently featured.
Most importantly, Astatke resumed his travels in the West. In 2005, while in New York City, he met U.S. filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, who had heard Astatke's recordings on the Ethiopiques 4 collection and broached the idea of using his music in the soundtrack of his film Broken Flowers. Astatke agreed enthusiastically, and the film considerably widened his exposure internationally. It also led to collaborative performances between Astatke and the U.S.-based Either/Orchestra, which he invited to Ethiopia in 2004, making them the first non-Ethiopian band to perform at the Ethiopian Music Festival.
Astatke also began to receive academic support that allowed him to pursue larger compositional and recording projects. In 2007 he was appointed a visiting scholar at Harvard University, where he wrote a large-scale vocal work, “The Yared Opera,” which was based on melodic chants by St. Yared, an important figure in ancient Ethiopian Coptic Christian church music. He has also held an artist-in-residence appointment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), funded partially by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). There he has worked to devise modern versions of traditional Ethiopian instruments capable of playing in both Ethiopian and Western scales.
A study of Astatke's music, Mulatu Astatke: The Making of Ethio Jazz, was published in South Africa in 2011, by which time his place within modern Ethiopian music was affirmed. As of 2016, Astatke remained active, performing before large audiences at the U.K.'s Latitude and Caught by the River festivals that year. He was also visible on social media, tirelessly promoting not only his music but that of his country as a whole.
Zegeye, Abebe, and Mesekerem Assegued, Mulatu Astatke: The Making of Ethio Jazz, Unisa, 2009.
Advertiser (Adelaide, Australia), October 14, 2010, p. 9.
Guardian (London, England), September 6, 2014, p. 17.
National Geographic Traveler, November 2014, p. 30.
New York Times, October 13, 2005, p. E7.
Exclaim website, http://exclaim.ca/ (July 17, 2016), David Dacks, “Mulatu Astatke.”
Haaretz online, http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/culture/ (July 17, 2016), Ben Shalev, “A Second Round of Glory”(interview with Astatke).
LA Weekly online, http://www.laweekly.com/music/ (April 8, 2009), “A Conversation with Mulatu Astatke: On Heliocentrics, Ethio-Jazz, and Ellington.”❑