Mulatu Astatke-Mulatu Of Ethiopia.

By 1972, Ethiopian multi-instrumentalist Mulatu Astatke was twenty-nine, and had already spent time studying music in London, Boston and New York. This included spells at two prestigious institutions,  London’s Trinity College of Music,  Boston’s Berklee College of Music. The time he spent there, influenced and shaped Mulatu Astatke as a musician.  This included  the two albums he released in 1966, Afro-Latin Soul, Volume 1 and Volume 2. Six years passed before Mulatu Astatke returned with his third album Mulatu Of Ethiopia, which was recently rereleased by Strut Records. It was a very different album, and was his first album of Ethio-jazz from the man who nowadays, is regarded as the genre’s founding father, Mulatu Astatke. 

He was born in the city of Jimma, in south-western Ethiopia, on ‘19th’ December 1943. Growing up, Mulatu Astatke developed a love of music, and over the next few years, learnt to play a variety of instruments. This included the vibraphone,  conga drums, percussion, keyboards and organ. Mulatu Astatke developed into a talented multi-instrumentalist. It looked as if Mulatu Astatke would embark upon a career in music. Suddenly, though, any dreams Mulatu Astatke had of embarking upon a career in music were dashed.  

In the late-fifties,Mulatu Astatke’s family sent him to Wales study engineering. That was the plan. Instead, Mulatu Astatke enrolled at Lindisfarne College near Wrexham which prepared him for his studies in London, New York and Boston.

After leaving Mulatu Astatke enrolled at Trinity College of Music, where he spent the next few years studying towards a degree in music. Having graduated, Mulatu Astatke  began collaborating with jazz singer and percussionist Frank Holder. The pair formed a fruitful partnership, and for a while, Mulatu Astatke was part of London’s jazz scene. Eventually though, Mulatu Astatke decided to head stateside, where he would continue his studies and career.

Next stop for Mulatu Astatke was Boston, and the prestigious Berklee College of Music. He became the first African student to enrol and study at Berklee College of Music. For the next few years, Mulatu Astatke studied the vibraphone and percussion. He remembers: “ I learnt the technical aspects of jazz and gained a beautiful understanding of many different types of music. That’s where I got my tools. Berklee really shook me up.” His spell at Berklee College of Music proved an important period in Mulatu Astatke’s career. So did a journey to New York.

While studying in Boston, Mulatu Astatke would often travel to New York to play gigs, and other times, to watch concerts at venues like The Cheetah, The Palladium and The Village Gate. It was during one of these journeys to the Big Apple that Mulatu Astatke met producer Gil Snapper for the first time.  “Gil was a nice and very interesting guy. He produced music and worked with all kinds of musicians.” This would eventually include Mulatu Astatke.

After graduating from Berklee College of Music, Mulatu Astatke moved to New York and continued his studies. It was during this period that Mulatu Astatke recorded two albums for Gil Snapper’s Worthy label. 

The first album was Afro-Latin Soul Volume 1 which found Mulatu Astatke taking African music in a new direction. Gil Snapper describes what was at the heart of this new sound on the sleeve-notes to Afro-Latin Soul Volume 1: “he has taken the ancient five-tone scales of Asia and Africa and woven them into something unique and exciting; a mixture of three cultures, Ethiopian, Puerto Rican and American.” This new and innovative sound made its debut on Afro-Latin Soul Volume 1, which was an album of instrumentals that was released in 1966. It marked the debut of Mulatu Astatke and would influence the future direction of Ethiopian music.

Up until Mulatu Astatke released Afro-Latin Soul Volume 1 in 1966, Ethiopian musicians neither used congas nor bongos on when recording popular music. This would change when musicians back home in Ethiopia heard Afro-Latin Soul Volume 1 and its followup.

Later in 1966, Mulatu Astatke returned with his sophomore album, Afro-Latin Soul Volume 2. Stylistically, it was similar to his genre-melting debut album. It mostly featured instrumentals, apart from  I Faram Gami I Faram where Mulatu Astatke sings in Spanish.  Mostly, though, Mulatu Astatke’s vibes are accompanied by a piano and conga drums that ads Latin rhythms. While this was regarded as new and innovative back home in Ethiopia, some critics thought that Mulatu Astatke’s music was similar to many other Latin-jazz records released during the mid-sixties. However, by the time Mulatu Astatke returned with his third album, he would’ve founded a new musical genre.

As the sixties gave way to the seventies, Mulatu Astatke’s music began to change. This was a conscious decision, and one that was necessary. Mulatu Astatke needed and wanted to develop his own sound, and one that stood out from the crowd.  

Mulatu Astatke had decided to develop the sound that had featured on Afro-Latin Soul Volume 1 and 2. To this, Mulatu Astatke decided to add elements of funk and Azmari chik-chikka rhythms to his existing sound. Gradually, this new sound began to take shape. The next step was to return to the studio, and record an album that showcased Mulatu Astatke’s new sound.

By 1972,  Mulatu Astatke had gained the necessary skills to fuse the disparate musical genres to create Ethio-jazz. It had taken time and perseverance. Now the twenty-nine year old was ready to return to the studio to record his long-awaited third album, Mulatu Of Ethiopa.

Joining Mulatu Astatke at a studio in downtown Manhattan, were producer Gil Snapper and the band that would record eventually record Mulatu Of Ethiopa. Before that, Mulatu Astatke put his multitalented band through their paces. The band featured some of the Big Apple’s top Latin session musicians and several young, up-and-coming jazz musicians. They would spend the next four weeks rehearsing, and honing Mulatu Astatke’s new sound. He remembers that:  “it took them a while to get the right feeling in the music.” Eventually, the band were ready to record what would become a landmark album, Mulatu Of Ethiopa.

When Mulatu Astatke and his band entered the studio, they recorded seven tracks that showcased his new sound. These tracks became Mulatu Of Ethiopa, where Mulatu Astatke and his band took as their starting point the Ethiopian five tonal scale. To the Pentatonic scale, Mulatu Astatke and his band added elements of jazz and Afro-American soul. This new and innovative musical fusion was christened Ethio-jazz, and Mulatu Astatke was its founding father.

The release of Mulatu Of Ethiopa was a turning point in Mulatu Astatke’s career.  After spending several years searching for his own sound, Mulatu Astatke had eventually settled on what would become his trademark sound, Ethio-jazz. It’s the sound that eventually Mulatu Astatke would become famous for.

While Mulatu Astatke released his first album of Ethio-jazz in 1972, Mulatu Of Ethiopa wasn’t a hugely successful album, it influenced a generation of Ethiopian musicians. They adopted the new Ethio-jazz sound. For the second time in his career, Mulatu Astatke was influencing Ethiopian musicians from afar. At least his fellow countrymen understood the importance of this groundbreaking album.

It was until much later that record collectors discovered Mulatu Of Ethiopa, and realised just how important, influential and innovative an album it was. Sadly, by then, Mulatu Of Ethiopa was out of print, and very few original copies of the album were still available. Occasionally, record collectors chance upon a copy of Mulatu Of Ethiopa, and picked it up in the bargain bins. Mostly though, copies of Mulatu Of Ethiopa were changing hands for large sums of money. What had once been a £200 album was changing hands for upwards of £600. This was a reflection of the importance of Mulatu Of Ethiopa, which was the first album of Ethio-jazz, from the genre’s founding father, Mulatu Astatke.

Opening the stereo mix of Mulatu Of Ethiopa is Mulatu, which straight away, showcases the new Ethio-jazz sound. It’s a fusion of the music of two countries, Ethiopia and Mulatu Astatke’s adopted home of America. Sharp stabs of braying horns leave space for the rhythm section who lock down the groove. They’re joined by a wah-wah guitar, before the sultry horns flow across arrangement. It’s joined by glistening, shimmering vibes, percussion and later, a fluttering flute. Meanwhile, the rhythm section have locked down the tightest of grooves, as the blazing horns are played with power and passion. They join the  vibes and wah-wah guitar in playing leading roles in the sound and success of Mulatu. Not only is it a beautiful,  melodic and memorable example of Ethio-jazz, but it’s funky and soulful.

Just a pensive bass and then percusion open Mascaram Setaba before a wah-wah guitar, vibes and keyboards combine.  By then, the arrangement is shuffling ruefully and cinematically along. Soon, a flute flutters high above the arrangement, as the bass provides the heartbeat. It joins with percussion,  vibes and tough sounding keyboards, and they play their part in rueful, cinematic track that shuffles along as  Mulatu Astatqe seamlessly combine elements of jazz, funk, fusion and Latin music. 

Vibes shimmer, while horns head in the direction of free jazz on Dewel. Meanwhile, the rhythm section play with the same power and urgency as the horns. After nearly a minute, a calm descends as the rhythm section locks into a groove with the keyboards and horns. Before long, the rhythm and horn sections play with urgency, while the vibes, keyboards and percussion explore the groove. They then take charge, after the arrangement has been stripped bare. It skips along, as cymbals play. Soon, the rhythm and horn section return, but still the vibes, keyboards and percussion continue to explore the groove, as the arrangement almost dances along and right through to the closing notes continues to captivate.

The rhythm section, wah-wah guitar and vibes are panned right and create a funky a backdrop on  Kulunmanqueleshi. It sounds as if it belongs on a Blaxploitation soundtrack. Soon, they’re joined by a Freddie Hubbard inspired flute and percussion are added. Later, the arrangement takes on a tougher, edgier sound. Partly, this comes courtesy of the vibes, percussion and to some extent, the wah-wah guitar. They’re play their part in what sounds like a lost track from a classic Blaxploitation soundtrack.

Slow and spacious describes the arrangement to Kasalefkut-Hulu as the rhythm section play slowly and deliberately, as the rolling bass is joined by vibes, keyboards and slow, rasping horns. Meanwhile, the drums create mesmeric beat, while the horns play a starring role, as the tempo quickens. The horns play in unison, while the rolling bass plays around the braying, ruminative horns. They play a leading role in this beautiful, emotive track that tugs at the heartstrings, as Mulatu Astatqe and his band reach new heights.

Although it’s just the rhythm section and wah-wah guitar that open Munaye, soon, the rest of the band make their presence felt. Especially the blazing, braying horns which soar above the rest of the arrangement. Their playing is powerful and inventive, as the wah-wah guitar and rhythm section create a funky backdrop.  However, it’s the horns that are stealing the show, until all of sudden, they drop out at 2.22. This allows the rhythm section and guitar to showcase their skills. Soon, though, the horns sashay in, but occasionally leave space that the drums fill. Meanwhile the wah-wah guitar ploughs a lone furrow in the name of funk, before this genre-melting track reaches a crescendo.

Chifara which closes Mulatu Of Ethiopia, is the longest track on the album. It’s just over seven minutes long, which allows Mulatu Astatqe and his band to stretch their legs. A wah-wah guitar, keyboards and pounding drums join with the probing bass and braying horns.  The horns are played slowly, but soon, with a degree of urgency. So are the keyboards, while the rhythm section provide the pulsating heartbeat. Later, a flute flutters above the arrangement as the rest of the band jam. By then, it’s obvious that the four weeks the band spent practising before recording began was time well spent. Not only does the band play with freedom and fluidity, but their playing is inventive. Especially when searing, growling horns embark on one last solo. Again, they’re at their blistering solo plays an important part in this Ethio-jazz epic.

For Mulatu Astatke, Mulatu Of Ethiopia was a game-changer of an album. At last, after years of searching for his own sound, Mulatu Astatke had discovered his own unique sound. This Mulatu Astatke called Ethio-jazz. It was a genre that influenced a generation of  Ethiopian musicians when they heard this groundbreaking album. Forty-five years later, and Mulatu Of Ethiopia continues to influence a new generation of musicians. 

Similarly, Mulatu Of Ethiopia is an album that continues to be discovered by record buyers. Sadly, it’s long been out of print and has never been officially reissued since then. That was until Strut Records reissued Mulatu Of Ethiopia on CD,  triple vinyl and digital download. The CD version features both the stereo and mono mixes of Mulatu Of Ethiopia, which offers interesting comparisons. Obviously, the stereo mix has a much wider and detailed soundstage. Then with the vinyl version of Mulatu Of Ethiopia, there’s the stereo and mono versions, plus a selection of out-takes from the sessions. This offers a fascinating insight into the recording of the original Ethio-jazz classic.

While other artists would release  Ethio-jazz classics,  Mulatu Astatke had set the bar high for those that followed in his footsteps. Their albums were compared to Mulatu Of Ethiopia, which isn’t just as Ethio-jazz classic, but a jazz classic.  It’s also an album that will appeal to anyone likes their music funky and soulful.  However, Mulatu Of Ethiopia was a career defining album for Mulatu Astatke, the founding father of  Ethio-jazz.

Mulatu Astatke-Mulatu Of Ethiopia.

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