Ethiopian musician (piano, organ, vibraphone, and percussion), composer, and arranger Mulatu Astatke (the name is spelled Astatqé on his French releases) is a household name in his native country, where he is known as the father of Ethio-jazz, a unique blend of pop, modern jazz, traditional Ethiopian music, Latin rhythms, Caribbean reggae, and Afro-funk. After developing his sound in the U.S. with a pair of highly influential mid-'60s releases, he spent much of the '70s expanding the boundaries of Ethiopian music by collaborating both home and abroad with artists like Mahmoud Ahmed and Duke Ellington and releasing critically acclaimed music on Amha Eshete's Amha Records. His popularity enjoyed a renaissance in Western culture in the mid-2000s after his music was used in Jim Jarmusch's film Broken Flowers. Mulatu continued to evolve creatively well into the 2010s, and has maintained long-term collaborations with a number of acts, including Boston's Either/Orchestra, London band the Heliocentrics, and Australia's Black Jesus Experience. Born in 1943 in the western Ethiopia city of Jimma, Mulatu studied music in London, New York City, and Boston, where he was the first African graduate of the Berklee College of Music, and went on to work with several acclaimed jazz artists, including a guest spot with Duke Ellington in 1971. Further schooled in New York’s dance clubs in the 1960s, Mulatu recorded three of his LPs in the city, Afro-Latin Soul, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 in 1966 and Mulatu of Ethiopia in 1972. Most of his records were released by Amha Records, including several singles and the 1974 LP Ethio Jazz. Mulatu's work brought a renewed focus on instrumentation and rhythm to Ethiopian pop music, shepherding in a golden age in that country's pop and jazz circles from 1968 to 1974. He went on to found a music school and open his own club, while staying active as an arranger, advisor, and DJ. In 2004 he met the Massachusetts-based Either/Orchestra and formed a long-running collaboration with the band. The inclusion of his songs on the soundtrack of Jim Jarmusch's 2005 film Broken Flowers introduced Mulatu to a whole new audience, and his increasing influence on Western music could be heard in hip-hop acts like Quantic, Nas, Madlib, and Kanye West, who have all sampled his music. Never one to paint himself into a creative corner and always expanding his musical vision, Mulatu collaborated with the London-based psych-jazz configuration the Heliocentrics in 2008 on the album Inspiration Information, Vol. 3, which included updated versions of many of his classic compositions. Around the same time, he completed a prestigious Radcliffe Institute Fellowship at Harvard University, where he helped to modernize several traditional Ethiopian instruments and also premiere part of an opera he'd been writing, The Yared Opera. His work in Massachusetts also included an Abramowitz Artist-in-Residence program at M.I.T., where he helped the school media lab develop a modern version of a traditional Ethiopian instrument, the krar. The largely improvised Mulatu Steps Ahead, which featured collaborations with both Either/Orchestra and the Heliocentrics, was released in 2010. Another outing, 2013's elegant Sketches of Ethiopia, took the form of a jazz suite and was released via the Jazz Village label. Working with longtime collaborators Black Jesus Experience, Mulatu recorded 2016's Cradle of Humanity. ~ Steve Leggett
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Africa - Released November 15, 2004 | Buda musique
To some, the term "Ethiopian jazz" might seem impossible; after all, it's a very American form. But what's truly surprising isn't the fact that these musicians play jazz so well, but the range of jazz they manage, from the George Benson-ish guitar workout of "Munaye" to the twisting sax of "Tezeta." Really, though, it's more Jimmy Smith than Duke Ellington in its aim (although Ellington is on the cover, on stage with Mulatu Astatke, the bandleader behind all these selections). The grooves often smoke rather than swing, with some fiery drumming, most notably on "Yekermo Sew," and throughout the guitar is very much to the fore as a rhythm instrument. Perhaps the most interesting cut, however, is "Yekatit," from 1974, which is Astatke's tribute to the burgeoning revolution which would oust Emperor Haile Sellassie. Some of these pieces, certainly "Dewel," has seen U.S. release before; the track appeared in 1972 on Mulatu of Ethiopia, which was Astatke's third American LP, showing that jazz aficionados, at least, had an appreciation for what he was achieving in the horn of Africa. Given that many of his musicians had graduated from police and military bands, they knew their instruments well, and had plenty of practice time, which shows in the often inventive solos that dot the tracks. Varied, occasionally lyrical, but interesting throughout, this shines a fabulous spotlight on a hidden corner of jazz. ~ Chris Nickson
World - Released October 19, 2009 | Strut
"A handful of vocal tracks dot the compilation, and they're all outstanding....'Ebo Lala' features Seifu Yohannes putting on his best Bollywood-inspired show, huffing and puffing over a heavy Latin beat and blasting horn section."
Jazz - Released March 29, 2010 | Strut
Mulatu Astatke already has a legendary status as the father of Ethio Jazz. But he hasn't been content to rest on his laurels. Instead he's forged ahead. This album proves very different from his work with the Heliocentrics (some of whom do feature here), or with the Either/Orchestra -- it's an album of what is essentially a meandering, laid-back groove that looks at music from two angles -- the Western and the Ethiopian. The former gets to stretch out on cuts like the opener, the reflective "Radcliffe," and "The Way to Nice." Ethiopia raises its head on "I Faram Gami I Faram," which some luscious Addis Ababa singing, a reworking of the style that made Astatke's name, and actually of one of his old compositions. But it can also be heard in the flute on "Ethio Blues," or the ways Astatke's vibraphone resembles a balafon in "Green Africa." "Assosa" is a true trip into rural Ethiopia, based on traditional music, while "Mulatu's Mood" crosses the continent to put another of the man's older pieces in a highlife framework and highlight the connections between styles. What's interesting is how much of a backseat Astatke is happy to take, rarely venturing out front for a solo (and even then they're brief, more like punctuations), but always powering things along as part of the rhythm section. The exception is on "Boogaloo," at heart Western enough until Astatke takes it to Ethiopia over the groove, and then an Ethiopian fiddle holds it in strange, beautiful territory. A beautiful album that adds to Astatke's stature. ~ Chris Nickson
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