Mulatu Astatke and The Ethiopian Quintet-Afro Latin Soul.

Label: Strut Records.

By 1966, Ethiopian multi-instrumentalist Mulatu Astatke was twenty-three, 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 and  Boston’s Berklee College of Music. However, having finished his studies, Mulatu Astatke was ready to embark upon a musical career.

In 1966, twenty-three year old Mulatu Astatke led the The Ethiopian Quintet when they recorded Afro-Latin Soul Volume 1 and Volume 2 which have just been rereleased by Strut Records. These two albums marked the debut of the man who would later become the founding father of Ethio-jazz, Mulatu Astatke.

He was born in the city of Jimma, in south-western Ethiopia, on ‘19th’ December 1943, and growing up, Mulatu Astatke developed a love of music. Over the next few years, he learnt to play a variety of instruments, including the vibraphone,  conga drums, percussion, keyboards and organ. Mulatu Astatke developed into a talented multi-instrumentalist and 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.

Towards the end of the fifties, Mulatu Astatke’s family sent him to Wales study engineering. However, Mulatu Astatke had other ideas and enrolled at Lindisfarne College near Wrexham which prepared him for his studies in London, New York and Boston.

After completing his course at Lindisfarne College, 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 and 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, which had been  a life-changing experience for Mulatu Astatke, he moved to New York and continued his studies. Having settled in New York, began experimenting by fusing Ethiopian music, Afro Latin and jazz.

Mulatu Astatke remembers: “I have always felt a deep connection between Latin and African music…I travelled to Cuba and listened to their musicians; the tempo, rhythm and feeling was very similar to different African forms. In the mid-‘60s, I formed a band called The Ethiopian Quintet in New York comprising Ethiopian, Latin and Afro-American musicians – the band included trumpeter and pianist Rudy Houston who later played with Yambu and Felix Torres who played with La Sonora Poncena.” Little did anyone know that The Ethiopian Quintet was a about to make history.

With the support of Worthy Records and the help of Gil Snapper who offered to record and produce The Ethiopian Quintet, Mulatu Astatke had to chance to record his new genre-melting music. It was already regarded as ambitious, innovative and culturally important. Here was music that had the potential to take Ethiopian music in a new direction. For a proud Ethiopian like Mulatu Astatke, these were exciting times, as  he began recording not one, but two albums for Gil Snapper’s Worthy label.

Afro-Latin Soul Volume 1,

The first album was Afro-Latin Soul Volume 1 which would eventually feature ten tracks. This included I Faram Gami I Faram, Mascaram Setaba, Shagu, One For Buzayhew, Almaz and Mulatu’s Hideaway. Other tracks included Rudy Houston’s Askum, Oscar Garcia’s Playboy Cha Cha and Alone In The Crowd which was penned by Gil Snapper. He also joined forces with Charles Weiss to write A Kiss Before Dawn. These songs recorded by The Ethiopian Quintet and would feature on Afro-Latin Soul Volume 1,

During that initial session, it was obvious that 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.” 

One of the songs on the album I Faram Gami I Faram, was Mulatu Astatke’s adaptation of a traditional ancient Ethiopian warrior song. Ideally, Mulatu Astatke wanted to use an Ethiopian singer for the recording of the song, which featured Latin lyrics. However, when an Ethiopian singer couldn’t be found, the lyrics were translated to Spanish and Mulatu Astatke who took charge of the lyrics. While this was a departure from the original  ancient Ethiopian warrior song, the new version was powerful and the new arrangement and vocal took the song in a new direction.

Meanwhile, Mulatu Astatke was proving to be a talented composer, arranger, bandleader and multi-instrumentalist who could play a variety of instruments. This included the vibraphone, congas, percussion, keyboards and organ. However, Mulatu Astatke didn’t use his entire musical arsenal as he led from the front during what was an ambitious, genre-melting album that mostly featured instrumentals. They were carefully crafted and featured a new and innovative sound which 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 which featured elements of disparate musical genres. 

Mulatu Astatke and The Ethiopian Quintet as Gil Snapper said combined the music of three cultures on Afro Latin Soul. Musical alchemist Mulatu Astatke combined the music of Ethiopia, Puerto Rica and American as he recorded Afro-Latin Soul Volume 1. He combined Ethiopian music, Afro Latin and jazz with Latin soul-jazz and even R&B-tinged boogaloo. The result was a groundbreaking album of genre-melting music.

The highlights of Afro-Latin Soul Volume 1 were Mulatu Astatke’s compositions being the album’s shining lights. Especially tracks  of the quality the album opener I Faram Gami I Faram plus  Mascaram Setaba, Shagu and Mulatu’s Hideaway. They’re joined by the jazz ballad A Kiss Before Dawn and the Latin jazz of Playboy Cha Cha which closes Afro-Latin Soul Volume 1.

Having released Afro-Latin Soul Volume 1, Mulatu Astatke and The Ethiopian Quintet had no idea that they had just released an important and influential album would influence and inspire musicians back home in Ethiopia. Afro-Latin Soul Volume 1 was also one of the stepping-stones that led Mulatu Astatke to becoming the founding father of Ethio-jazz. The next step was Afro-Latin Soul Volume 2.

Afro-Latin Soul Volume 2.

Buoyed by the reception that Afro-Latin Soul Volume 1 received, Mulatu Astatke keen to record another album. While Afro-Latin Soul Volume 1 hadn’t been a huge commercial success, Worthy Records agreed and Mulatu Astatke and The Ethiopian Quintet entered the studio to record what became Afro-Latin Soul Volume 2.

This time, Mulatu Astatke arranged the traditional song Lover’s Mambo and penned Girl From Addis Ababa. Rudy Houston contributed The Panther (Boogaloo), Soul Power, Love Mood For Two, Jigger and Raina. The remainder of the tracks, Konjit (Pretty) and Karayu were written by Oscar Garcia, and became part Afro-Latin Soul Volume 2, which was Mulatu Astatke and The Ethiopian Quintet’s sophomore album.

Later in 1966, Mulatu Astatke and The Ethiopian Quintet returned with his sophomore album, Afro-Latin Soul Volume 2. Stylistically, it was similar to his genre-melting debut album as  Mulatu Astatke and The Ethiopian Quintet fused and switched between Ethiopian music, Afro Latin and jazz with Latin soul-jazz and even R&B-tinged boogaloo. Mostly, though, Mulatu Astatke’s vibes are accompanied by a piano and conga drums that add Latin rhythms. This was regarded as new and innovative back home in Ethiopia.

Mulatu Astatke’s fellow musicians and record buyers were amazed as they listened to such what was another ambitious and eclectic album. It made an impression from the get-go, when The Panther (Boogaloo) opened the album. After that, Mulatu Astatke and The Ethiopian Quintet take the listener on a captivating musical journey with musical influences and genres melting into one. Among the highlights were Mulatu Astatke’s reworking of the traditional song Lover’s Mambo Girl From Addis Ababa, which is the album’s standout track. Along with Soul Power, Lover’s Mambo, Love Mood For Two, Karayu and Raina, Afro-Latin Soul Volume 2 was another ambitious and groundbreaking album of genre-melting music.

Despite this, some critics thought that Mulatu Astatke and The Ethiopian Quintet’s Afro Latin Soul Volume 2 was similar to many other Latin-jazz records released during the mid-sixties. Given the fusion of disparate genres on Afro Latin Soul Volume 2, this must have been a disappointing comment. Latin-jazz was just one part of the genre-melting recipe on Afro Latin Soul Volume 2. It seemed that the critics  hadn’t listened closely enough to Afro Latin Soul Volume 2, which was a very different and much more ambitious album to other Latin-jazz albums.

When Afro Latin Soul Volume 2 was released later in 1966, it wasn’t a hugely successful album, but found an audience who embraced and were appreciative of what was an ambitious and innovative album.  It was a similar case back home in Ethiopia.

Just like Afro Latin Soul Volume 1, Afro Latin Soul Volume 2 influenced and inspired musicians in Ethiopia who followed in Mulatu Astatke’s footsteps. Up until Mulatu Astatke and The Ethiopian Quintet released Afro-Latin Soul Volume 1 in 1966, Ethiopian musicians neither used congas nor bongos on when recording popular music. This had started to change when Ethiopian heard Afro-Latin Soul Volume 1 and its followup Afro Latin Soul Volume 2. However, while both albums influenced Ethiopian musicians, Mulatu Astatke’s third album was a game-changer.

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 make music 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 genre-melting 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.

Mulatu Of Ethiopia. 

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 Ethiopia.

Joining Mulatu Astatke at a studio in downtown Manhattan, were producer Gil Snapper and the band that would record eventually record Mulatu Of Ethiopia. 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 Ethiopia.

The release of Mulatu Of Ethiopia was a turning point in Mulatu Astatke’s career, and 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 Ethiopia wasn’t a hugely successful album, it influenced a generation of Ethiopian musicians. They adopted the new Ethio-jazz sound, and 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 ambitious and innovative album.

It was until much later that record collectors discovered Mulatu Of Ethiopia, and realised just how important, influential and innovative an album it was. Sadly, by then, Mulatu Of Ethiopia 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 Ethiopia, and picked it up in the bargain bins. Mostly though, copies of Mulatu Of Ethiopia 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 Ethiopia which was the first album of Ethio-jazz from the genre’s founding father, Mulatu Astatke.

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. 

The first Ethio-jazz album was Mulatu Of Ethiopia, which influenced and inspired a generation of  Ethiopian musicians. Now forty-six Mulatu Of Ethiopia continues to influence a new generation of musicians. However, Mulatu Astatke would never have recorded  Mulatu Of Ethiopia if Mulatu Astatke and The Ethiopian Quintet hadn’t recorded the two volumes of Afro Latin Soul. 

Afro Latin Soul Volume 1 was the start of a journey for Mulatu Astatke as he began to develop and hone his sound with The Ethiopian Quintet. He continued to do this later in 1966 when Mulatu Astatke and The Ethiopian Quintet released Afro-Latin Soul Volume 2. Both album genre-melting albums found musical pioneer combining the music of three cultures as he combined disparate genres in his quest to modernise Ethiopian music. This Mulatu Astatke and The Ethiopian Quintet succeeded in doing as he started to discover and develop his own unique sound. It can be heard on Afro-Latin Soul Volume 1 and Afro-Latin Soul Volume 2, which have been reissued by Strut Records as Afro Latin Soul.

Strut Records also reissued Mulatu Astatke’s landmark album Mulatu Of Ethiopia in 2017, which was the first ever Ethio-Jazz album. However, Mulatu Astatke would never have become the founding father of Ethio-Jazz if the bandleader hadn’t recorded the two genre-melting albums that feature on Afro Latin Soul. They were stepping-stones for Mulatu Astatke who is regarded as a pioneer of Ethiopian music who changed and helped modernise Ethiopian. Mulatu Astatke also influenced and inspired Ethiopian musicians with the two albums on Afro Latin Soul and his Ethio-Jazz classic Mulatu Of Ethiopia, which belong in the collections of anyone with even a passing interest in African music.

Mulatu Astatke and The Ethiopian Quintet-Afro Latin Soul.

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