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Ethiopian jazz veteran Mulatu Astatke inspires new generation of Ethio-jazz bands

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Mulatu Astatke created the brand new sound of Ethio-jazz in the late 60s and he’s still innovating today, working with young funk-groove bands, modernising traditional instruments, ensuring Ethio-jazz lives on. It’s not surprising he’s been called the James Brown of east Africa. Now in his mid 60s, Astatke has clearly lost none of his flair and suppleness as he raced up and down his trademark vibraphone in RFI’s studio 136.

Photo: Pierre Vallée

Despite his agility, he’s as cool, calm and collected as the Ethio-jazz he pioneered in his native Ethiopia in the late 60s early 70s. In it he blended hypnotic traditional folk melodies with the Caribbean music, funk, jazz and Latin grooves he’d soaked up during his time spent in London and the US, where he was the first African student at Berklee College of Music.

Astatke worked with influential jazz artists like Duke Ellington in the 70s as well as Hugh Masekela and Fela Kuti. In 1988 an entire volume of the influential Ethiopiques album series was devoted to his work.

But it the 2005 film Broken Flowers by Jim Jarmusch that took his sound outside specialist circles. The film featured much of his music, and Yekermo Sew became something of a cult tune.

There are now a whole host of bands in Europe and the US playing Ethio-jazz. French bands Badume, Akalé Wubé, Eths, Tigre des Platanes, The Ex from Holland and Budos Band from America to name but a few.

One of the ones to watch here in France is the five-piece band Arat Kilo named after a district in Addis Ababa.

“We used to be four in the band - drums, bass, guitar and saxophone - the trumpet came 6 months after. So now we’re five,” says guitarist Fabien Giraud.

“We’re a bit like the three Musketeers,” adds bass guitarist Samuel Hirsch, although, “there were actually four”.

Since forming just over a year ago, the young musicians have brought out their first album AK: six tracks including jazz covers and their own inspired original compositions.

Here in France where most African music is from west Africa, they were looking for something different, and Ethio-jazz is just that.

They particularly like its use of the five-tone scale rather than the 12-tone scale more typical of western music. Giraud says it provides a stimulating, creative constraint.

“It permits us to mix our influences - African rhythms, dub, and funk - to mix them with the five-tone scales in Ethiopian music […] it permits us to reduce but also enlarge our view of music.”

Photo: Pierre Vallée

Playing a live session in RFI’s studios with Astatke was something of a dream come true for the five Paris-based musicians.

“His music was the first we played. It inspired us. It was like taking courses,” says Hirsch.

Astatke is clearly chuffed by the idea that he’s spawned so much interest among the younger generation.

“This music is almost 42 years old […] I think I’ve been very lucky to see this music flourishing before I passed away.”

He’s all the more satisfied because Ethio-jazz is not exactly flourishing in his native Ethiopia where he remains the Lucky Luke of the vibraphone.

“There is no one playing vibraphone in Ethiopia. On the whole, on the African continent there are very few, even though the balafon is from Africa.”

“So I always think that vibraphone is an upgraded version of the balafon. We have some great balafon players in Mali and Senegal but the problem is we stay where we are, we don’t try to upgrade it.”

Hence his work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he’s been modernising traditional Ethiopian instruments, notably the krar, which resembles a six-stringed lute.

Astatke hopes that by upgrading it to eight strings, it will encourage youngsters interested only in playing the guitar to turn to traditional Ethiopian instruments.

“I managed to make it eight-string. We played interesting melodies like Summertime, that’s the first time in the history of the krar to be able to play this.”

Since those early days developing Ethio-jazz, Astatke has never stopped innovating.

In 2009 he collaborated with the London noise-jazz collective Heliocentrics in Strut Records’ Inspiration Information collaborative series.

Now he’s just released a nine-track solo album Mulatu Steps Ahead. One of those steps was applying some of the experimentation he’d done at Harvard University on Ethiopia’s contribution to the world of music. The piece Ethio Blues uses all four Ethiopian modes rather than just one of the four.

While Astatke is currently on a world tour, Arat Kilo are hoping for a European tour. Meeting with Astatke was a welcome boost.

“He told us that he wanted to work with us in the future,” Hirsch says hopefully.

But they’re not sitting around waiting for the phone to ring.

“We still have to work, still have to compose new tunes and play more in foreign countries. We have to make the band grow.”

Arat Kilo play several dates in France in May, June and July 2010.

Mulatu Astatke is currently on a world tour.

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