February 9, 2009

Rennaisance man from the horn of Africa

Filed under: interview,testimonies — newritings @ 10:10 pm

This interview was written in 2006 and posted in another blog.

The man whose music accompanies us in Jim Jarmusch‘s Broken Flowers is a Jazz practitioner and cultural educator from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Formed by Emperor Menelik in the 1880s, Addis, one of Africa’s leading cities, coincidentally means “New Flower“ and by 1910 already had 100000 inhabitants.


Meeting Mulatu Astatke, he could be easily pass off a South African from Lenasia or Bonteheuwel, but soon as he speaks you realise that he is a man not from any of our local townships. This “a man of Africa” hails from one of only two countries in the whole of Africa that was never colonised, the other being Liberia. In both jazz and traditional cultures, Ethiopia seems to remain guided by Emperor Menelik’s assertion in 1893 that “Ethiopia has need of no one; she stretches out her hand unto God.”

Mulatu Astatke, a maestro of Ethiopian Pop and Jazz, shot to prominence – again recently with concerts of his Either/Orchestra in the USA over the past year. Musically schooled in various genres he fuses Caribbean, Funk, Jazz, Latin and African sounds oozing out of his native Ethiopia. But it is the movie Broken Flowers that brought him outside fans, because he is known widely in his native land, where he began to make a name for himself some 37 years ago. He indulged and produced 3 albums Afro Latin, Soul 1 and 2, and Mulatu in Ethiopia. His first 45 record can be tracked back in the late sixties by Ethiopia Philips. But that was a long way ago, when playing in New York last year, he got a call to say that the director Jim Jarmusch wanted to come to his concert. They met after the concert and Mulatu gave him a CD, and the rest, as they say – is history.

Astatke’s fusion of Jazz and the Ethiopian fine tone scales is popularly known as Ethio-Jazz. The short vibraphone player is keen to have the African roots of Jazz reaffirmed. Jazz went from Africa to the USA and now re-inserted in our countries.

“In Africa, East does not know what North does and North does not know what South does: we have to share our musical experiences within Africa more. In the USA they all know that the home of Jazz is Africa, but we need to own this history”. His heyday in Ethiopia, which some writers regard as the heyday of Ethiopian pop-jazz, was late 1960’s to 1974. At home, instrumentally speaking on the piano, organ, vibes and percussion, he is highly regarded as a musical scholar, composer and arranger.

His dream of starting an African musical school, some six years ago, -“Africa Jazz Village”- to harness the roots of Jazz in Africa has been interrupted by his passion to spread the gospel of Jazz and its African roots, being a club owner, musical composer and arranger. “But the idea is still percolating”, he says, appealing to anyone in Joburg, Nairobi or Addis to come forward to house this African Jazz institute. “We need to house this project, somewhere in Africa, because the project is about working on the authentic music of Africa” He then breaks in and asks us : “do you know that in the Southern Ethiopia, the music sounds exactly like that from South Africa, the voice everything? I am doing further research on this and much more.” The Dereshe tribe, he enthuses, “play in their instruments in the diminishing scale. They are scientists in song, and created this music long before Charlie Parker even existed. This kind of thing is exceptional and must be further explored and explained.”

As an instrumentalist and Jazz educator, he runs a highly popular FM Radio show which not only fuses the music but also education and entertainment. He has also rubbed shoulders with the best. Trained at Berklee, he has played with many a famous person and ran his own big band. He remembers talking to Dizzy Gillespie about the music of Africa and began to advocate for greater authentic music to be appreciated.

Last November he spoke at the UN hosted World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) held in Tunis on the subject of computer and culture. “Kofi Annan was there and they said that a PC will now cost 100 US dollars. So, it will now be available to all, but devoid of our culture.” There too, he was sharp and to the point. “I told them the idea of putting more computers in Africa and the Third World was good, but limited. What is clearly failing is the lack of education on music, theatre and the Arts in our schools. It is not compulsory in public schools which most of the children attend. It is not in their curriculum. It only really exists in private schools. So without the computer containing our culture, it will help little. A man without a culture – what is he? This lack of a cultural identity and appreciation is what is dragging us down. It is the same with musical instruments. Take Yamaha or Roland (keyboard instrument makers) or any other major instrument. We do not get the credit for creating the instruments – it is only Japan that gets it. So I told them to give us the money to introduce our culture back in our societies and then give us the computers. But you must put our label our brand on it, to get credit for creating instruments.”

He clearly feels strongly about Africa only being judged as having only contributed rhythm, song and dance – which he says is wrong. Mulatu tells us about his conversation with an Italian audience on Ethiopians having orchestras and symphonies for hundreds of years even before they had them. What is Mulatu’s prescription for our malady? Its simple and it goes like this: “culture is our identification, our roots, without it we are only talking of modernising. We must recapture it and, if taught properly, it will be good for us all. I tell the youth, know your culture and after you know it, it is up to you to see what you do with it. To recapture our culture we must start from our first days at school.”

Broken Flowers is not the end of the road for Mulatu but rather the beginning of sorts, and he now has two projects on the line, one for a French movie and the other involving the music project of an Ethiopian director from Los Angeles. It is time to go and the waiters want a photo with a composer and musician. We organise it and they are ecstatic, especially a day later when we give them their copies.

We bought his Assiyo Belle Ma in an Addis Music Store, with our particular favourite being Mulatu’s Mood, (maybe because it sounds a bit of Kaapse Jazz with a Robbie Jansen et al). Yet he is more famous for his LP of instrumental music, Ethiopiques Volume 4, to be found on the French label Buda Music. This creative blend of musical influences, aka known as Ethio-Jazz, has been boosted by the release of the movie Broken Flowers.

In Amharic, his mother tongue, Mulatu stands for “full thing”, which truly means “well rounded African for us.” That he has never visited nor played here is a shame. But he is willing to come, if invited.


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