Tag Archive: funk afro-beat


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.   

Though April was thin on the ground in terms of new releases and reissues, I still managed to discover and enjoy a large range of music.

First up were two March releases. The first from Erykah Badu was ‘New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh)’ the second in her trilogy of New Amerykah albums. The first is the excellent ‘New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)’ from 2008, which focused on politics, war and ghetto violence but for Part Two, Badu switches to discuss love in all its forms. At first this extreme left turn makes the album feel too slight but it is a fully formed, ambitious work of depth that will reward amply for those who give it time.

Next is Mulatu Astatke’s new release ‘Mulatu Steps Ahead’ which sees the founder of Ethio-jazz do himself proud with an album of subtle, slow burning grooves that centre on the downbeat tracks he explored on ‘Inspiration Information Vol.3’ with The Heliocentrics.

Noise was the genre that ran through the month with new efforts from Nice Nice and Growing. The former’s ‘Extra Wow’ (their first on Warp Records) is propelled by the motorik rhythms associated with early Kraftwerk and Neu! but far from being plagiaristic the band uses them as a springboard for developing their own sound. I was impressed with ‘Extra Wow’ and how everything just clicked into place after finding their initial singles underwhelming. Growing have long been an established feature on the noise scene since they formed in 2001, developing from a wispy ambient drone-based sound to creating walls of harmonically and rhythmically complex noise that emanates from their banks of analogue equipment. Latest album ‘Pumps’ adds new member Sadie Laska on vocals and drum machine rhythms are included for the first time. ‘Pumps’ has some great tunes yet feels like a transitional album, though it prompted me to investigate their previous works like ‘Vision Swim’, mini album ‘Lateral’ and ‘All the Way’.  The detailed harmonic waves of sound, dense rhythms created without drums blew my away and fortunately weren’t the headache-creating treble fests I had anticipated.

I also caught up with Caribou by buying his new album ‘Swim’ and my favourite ‘The Milk of Human Kindness’. Both are brilliant examples of modern psychedelia. I won’t go into too much detail about Caribou now as later this month I will be discussing him in the follow-up to the Psychedelia: The Return piece published in February. In a similar vein I picked up on a newcomer called Toro Y Moi who is Chaz Brunwick, a South Carolina based producer. His debut album ‘Causes of This’ is rightly being praised. Though he is being grouped with glo-fi/chillwave artists such as Washed Out and Neon Indian, and there are hints of this in the music, it reminded me of Animal Collective and Four Tet’s early 2000s era.

I finished April by buying Norwegian cosmic disco producer Prins Thomas’ self titled debut album, The Fall’s ‘Post-TLC Reformation!’ from 2007, which I found underwhelming (though almost all Fall albums are grower and/or have enough moments to justify having them) , and ‘Ghana Soundz: Afro-Beat, Funk and Fusion in 70s Ghana’. I also listened to a highly recommended ‘Your Future, Our Clutter’, The Fall’s new album, the HEALTH single ‘USA Boys’ and MIA’s new song ‘Born Free’. Unfortunately it and the accompanying video’s true subject have been overshadowed by the misperceptions about the video’s metaphor and the controversy surrounding the violence.

Watch the ‘Born Free video below:

http://vimeo.com/11219730

I would love to hear what people who visit Sonic Fiction think of it. Any ideas on how I can improve the content are welcome. Critiques and debate are what I want Sonic Fiction to be about.

Spotify playlist (HTTP link, then Spotify link):

April 2010 playlist

April 2010 playlist

Recommendations for May (potential the best month of year…so far):

Flying Lotus – ‘Cosmogramma’  (Warp) 3rd May

Black Dog – ‘Music for Real Airports’ (Soma) 10th May

Foals – ‘Total Life Forever’ (Transgressive) 10th May

Holy Fuck – ‘Latin’ (Young Turks) 10th May

Walls – ‘Walls’ (Kompact) 10th May

Ellen Allien – ‘Dust’ (Bpitch Control) 17th May

Konono No.1 – ‘Assume Crash Position’ (Crammed Discs) 17th May

LCD Soundsystem – ‘This Is Happening’ (DFA/EMI) 17th May

Jamie Lidell – ‘Compass’ (Warp) 17th May

Crystal Castles – ‘Crystal Castles (2)’ (Polydor) 24th May

Effi Briest – ‘Rhizomes’ (Blast First Petite) 24th May

plus a couple that slipped me by:

David Holmes -‘The Dogs Are Parading – The Very Best Of’

Solex + Jon Spencer + Cristina Martinez – ‘Amsterdam Showdown, King Street Throwdown’

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