Mulatu Cover

I first came across Mulatu Astatke’s music after buying “Inspiration Information” (2009) a collborative album made with London’s funk/jazz/psychdelica band The Heliocentrics. The album hasn’t been off my mp3 player since and I’ve explored his impressive back catalogue of Ethio Jazz (the genre he pionneered in the late 60’s that combines tradtional Ethiopia modes and rhythms with those of Western jazz) albums. Four years later he returns with an album that gets closer to his aim of a perfect hybrid of Ethiopian music and jazz. The album features a number of tradtional that have been modified by Astatke so that they can play the 12 tone Western scales used in jazz.

The album opens with ‘Azmari’ the whole of Astake’s band in full swing, playing an Afro-funk/Latin jazz rhythm, brass stabs, upright bass underpins the patter of percussion and drums shift under everything. A krar (six-string lyre) flys in playing a counterpoint melody to the brass. There’s a great tense battle between the instruments around 2 minutes 40 seconds in, then the track breaksdown to upright bass twang, masinko (single-bowed lute) scraping and a vibraphone twinkling high above. The intros drums, percussion and melodies dive back in soon after. Next up is ‘Gamo’ a fast moving krar melody, upright bass line, clip-klopping percussion and African vocal chants open the track. Then the brass moves in and out with purpose. The track feels both Latin and African all at once (a trademark of Mulatu’s sound), it’s light yet not without substance. There’s a nice krar solo and low synth drones come in for the final minute or so, the interweaving male and female vocals are great too!!

‘Gambella’ starts with three sparse melodies playing out (vibes, piano & krar) over tumbling toms and waves of cymbals, this creates a forboding atmosphere but with shafts of light courtesy of the cymbals, vibes and high piano notes. The full beat, bass line and acoustic guitar melody kick in at 1 minute 30 seconds in before the horns strut in and blares out over the top. There’s great attitude in the male vocals, which are supported by the female backing vocals and they remind of how the vocals are used on Talking Heads “Remain In Light”. It’s followed by ‘Gumuz’ which begins with chanted male vocals and distant female vocal chants before phased guitar, double bass and a shuffling Latin rhythm slink in. An acoustic guitar plays a rhythm that gives the whole track forward momentum. There’s some nice electric piano chords that introduce themselves during a breakdown around 2 minutes 30 seconds and add warmth throughout the rest of the track. It’s the most modern of all the tracks I’ve hear from Astatke and he just about pulls it off, though some of the sounds are a little too smooth and polished and thus come off as a bit cheesy.

The album finishes with two great but contrasting tracks in ‘Motherland Abay’ and ‘Surma’. The former opens with sparse reverberate piano chords, swiftly followed a picked krar melody, chimes and the bowing of the masinko. Mulatu’s vibraphone twinkles in and out of the mix. This mix of instruments creates a desolate atmosphere. A washint (bamboo flute) enters and creates a haunting melody that swoops down on the listener. The masinko drives in low in the 4th minute before a light drum beat and stringed melody and trumpet take over the vibraphone playing sparsely above and around them. The latter combines a drum roll that brings in the horns, percussion and bass line. The track breaks down for the verse, that features a tightly coiled guitar riff (muted), an acoustic guitar melody, shuffling drums and the horns all backing guest Fatoumata Diawara lead vocals. The track feels a lot more like an Afrobeat or High Life track than the Ethio-Jazz of Mulatu’s usual tracks. It’s sound is sparser and more poppy than the rest of the album.

In “Sketches of Ethiopia” Astatke has created an album that comes close to matching both solo work from the late 60’s and early 70’s and the “Inspiration Information” album that are regarded as his best work. A little more time with the album will no doubt confirm if it equals these past achievements and reveal yet more detail of this meticulous yet effortless artist. Highly recommed to existing Astatke fans and fans of East African music.   

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