Tag Archive: The Heliocentrics


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.   

February continued where January left off only upping the ante of quality releases.

Hot Chip proved yet again to be masters of studio and stage when they delivered their new album ‘One Life Stand’, which has been rightly hailed as their most consistent effort to date and features too many catchy tunes to count. Watching them perform at Leeds Academy I could see they had continued to exponentially improve their already impressive live shows. Hot Chip demonstrated they have gained the confidence to exhibit, without arrogance, a combination of songcraft, dynamics, performance and adaptation that hit the highest levels possible.

I also invested in a Rough Trade exclusive version of the Lindstrom and Christabelle album ‘Real Life is No Cool’, as mentioned in January’s post, and was delighted with the package that also included a second disc of six remixes and a third featuring Lindstrom’s (slightly over long and repetitive) version of the carol ‘Little Drummer Boy’. These New Puritans’ album is another essential purchase and has forced me to reassess this band and I will be revisiting their debut ‘Beat Pyramid’ on Spotify soon. I continued my spending spree on new music with Zombie Zombie member Etienne Jaumet’s album ‘Night Music’, which is a brilliant distillation of techno, krautrock and horror film music that spooks and thrills in equal measure.

I also caught up with couple of release from last year. The first being Mos Def’s ‘The Ecstatic’ which deserved a place on my ‘albums of 2009’ list. Though, like all of his albums, it has a New York feel, the key difference here is that it traverses from Bollywood to Nigeria and finds Mos eschewing his wordy rapping and long tangents for short, sharp bursts of sound. The second of these releases was ‘Inspiration Information Vol.3’ by Mulatu Astatke and The Heliocentrics, a combination of Astatke’s own genre Ethio-jazz (a fusion of jazz and traditional Ethiopian melodies and harmonies) and The Heliocentric’s blaxploitation style of funk. This is must for fans of African music, The Herbaliser and The Cinematic Orchestra. Astatke’s new album ‘Mulatu Steps Ahead’ is out on 29th March and features The Heliocentrics as guests. The quality present on ‘Inspiration Information Vol.3’ is at such high level, it’s another big recommendation.

Finally I rounded off the month with a couple of classic krautrock reissues in the form of Can’s ‘Tago Mago’, an incredible double album that veers from taut funk inspired rock to paranoid synths scapes over its duration. The other was ‘Pheadra’ by Tangerine Dream. An album that many credit as a major inspiration for ambient music and modern dance music producers including Lindstrom and Prins Thomas.

This months Spotify playlist:

February 2010 playlist

February 2010 playlist

To check out in March:

Errors – ‘Come Down with Me’ 1st March

Tuung – ‘And then we saw Land’  1st March

Gonjasufi – ‘A Sufi and a Killer’ 8th March

Gorillaz – ‘Plastic Beach’ 8thMarch

Liars – ‘Sisterworld’ 8th March

The Knife – ‘Tomorrow, In A Year’ 8th March

Madlib – ‘Medicine Show Vol.3: Beat Konducta in Africa’ 22nd March

Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh 29th March

Mulatu Astatke – ‘Mulatu Steps Ahead’ 29th March

Method Man/Ghostface/Raekwaon – ‘Wu Massacre’ 29th March.

Also plenty of posts to look forward to on this blog. I’ll be covering hip-hop culture, non-musicians and a new regular feature re-evaluating classic and cult albums of the past.

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