Ethiopia: Mulatu Astatke, Father of Ethiopian Jazz

What makes an artist great? The answer to this question might be tough but one thing is clear. An artist achieves greatens at least by creating something that has not been created before him and keeps on improving it until the need of his career. This is true both for writers, painters, musicians and other artists. Recognition is gained through hard work, long efforts, great commitment and discipline to reach the summit. This is also true for any career.

What we call genius is nothing else other than the capacity to work 18 hours a day, seven days a week and forgoing personal pleasure and having no “time to kill”, as ordinary humans like you and me often resort to. Maybe we can add to this by saying that sleeping less than common mortals and working at high and sustained tempo might be the other secret of genius which develops through a long time of gestation, trials and tribulations.

The long journey Mulatu Astatke has taken from his early beginning back in Wales and then the United States testifies to the maturity of his genius. Some artists or musicians reveal their genius too early in life like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who presented his first music concert at the age of 14 and French romantic poet Arthur Rimbaud who wrote his greatest poems when he was only 19. Then he left his calling to become a trader in Ethiopia and died in Paris still young to name but a few of them. Others reveal their immense gifts later in their lives depending on the circumstances. As they say, genius in any field can be 98 % perspiration and 2 percent inspiration.

The great modern Ethiopian musician Mulatu Astatke has invented what is now known throughout the world as Ethio-Jazz music, a blend of Ethiopian traditional music with elements of Afro-jazz and jazz proper that is also the music of black America. “Jazz is a music genre that originated in the African-American communities of New Orleans and Louisiana, in the 19th and 20th centuries with roots in blues and ragtime. Since the 1920 Jazz Age, it has been recognized as a major form of musical expression in traditional and popular music.”

Mulatu Astatke is nowadays known as the Father of Ethio-jazz for nothing. He is one of the creators of the three branches of Afro-jazz or African Jazz. The first is the style of African jazz created band known as Le Grand Kalle et l’African Jazz, the second is known as South African Jazz sometimes called ‘African Jazz’ and the third branch is known as Ethio-jazz and created by Mulatu Astatke who is an “Ethiopian musician and arranger and considered the father of “Ethio-Jazz”.

Born in Jimma, Mulatu was musically trained in London, New York City and Boston where he combined his jazz and Latin music interests with traditional Ethiopian music. Mulatu led his band while playing vibraphone and conga drums-instruments he introduced into Ethiopian popular music -as well as other percussion music.

A brief biography of this great modern Ethiopian musician indicates that he was sent by his family to Wales to study engineering during the late 1950s. Instead of that he chose to learn music at the Trinity College of Music in London. He collaborated with jazz vocalist and percussionist Frank Holder. In the 1960s, Mulatu moved to the United States and enrolled at the Berkley College of Music in Boston. There, he studied vibraphone and percussion. It was there that he fall in love with Latin music and recorded his two Afro-Latin Soul, volumes 1&2. In the early 1970’s he introduced his Ethio-Jazz music back home while staying and working in the US.

In the 1990s Mulatu’s music was rediscovered by many record collectors who started to reissue his albums and add to this international fame and recognition. One of his prominent albums, namely Ethiopiques Volume 4: Ethio-Jazz and Musique Instrumentale played a prominent role in bringing Mulatu’s music to international audience. The Father of Ethio-Jazz continued to develop and produce additional albums in collaboration with local and foreign bands way through the 2000’s. He continued to perform at international jazz venues in Europe and America and collaborated with famous vocalists and composers. In 2012, he was accorded an honorary doctorate of music from the Berklee College of Music.

What is Ethio-Jazz and how can we define Mulatu’s brand or style of music? “Ethiopian jazz referred to as Ethio-jazz is blend of traditional Ethiopian music with jazz combining the pentatonic scale-based melodies of Amharic music with the 12 tone scale and instrumentation of Western music.” This may sound too technical to understand but the best way to savor Mulatu’s music is just to listen to his compositions.

Mulatu Astatke’s astonishing musical gifts also include his versatility and the talent he has for blending different styles to create something new. His versatility is expressed in his ability to play various instruments like piano, organ, vibraphone and percussion, his skills in composing and arranging new music. His influence on the music scene in Ethiopia spans many generations starting from the 1960s all through the present time.

Mulatu has worked with and has composed music for some of the greatest names in Ethiopian music, the likes of Tilahun Gessesse and Muluken Melesse, who are considered the ever shining stars of Amharic music. This was the first generation of musicians that shaped the taste of the local audience during the “roaring sixties and seventies” when Ethiopian music witnessed a real boom and the flourishing of new talents and the blossoming of older ones. His collaboration with composers and singers was not at all confined to the local artistic scene.

In a short biography of the iconic figure in Ethiopian music, critic Steve Leggett wrote that, “he (i.e. Mulatu) spent much of the 1970’s expanding the boundaries of Ethiopian music by collaborating both home and abroad, with artists like Mohamoud Ahmed and Duke Ellington and releasing critically acclaimed music on Amha Eshete’s Records. His popularity enjoyed a renaissance in Western culture in the mid-2000 after his music was used in Jim Jamushi’s film Broken Flowers.

Like soccer trainers, art critics too sometimes talk about possible successors of a certain celebrity when the latter approach retirement. Mulatu is the sole Ethio-Jazz celebrity who has dominated the scene for the last 40 years or more. No one has so far displayed talent comparable to the Ethiopian maestro. Younger talents are often attracted to other music genres such as hip hop, Afro-beat, dance hall or techno to name a few of them. Jazz in general and Ethio-jazz in particular is a genre of music that requires deep imagination, serious thinking and maturity. It may also require a higher IQ on the part of the composers than those musicians who often resort to easy going styles mostly created with the assistance of technology and nowadays AI imagination that has just started to make inroads in the creative arts. Jazz is a deeply sentimental kind of music that can only be authenticated with human imagination. It is a language that humans feel and speak with instruments. That is why most celebrated jazz musicians are elderly people who have spent long years of research, discovery and creativity in this particular genre. Jazz is a black music articulated and born of the realities of life in black communities in America and Africa.