Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Mulatu speaks

Ethiopian jazz legend Mulatu Astatke is playing his first-ever NZ show, Friday Novermber 25 at The Powerstation.

"For this one-off New Zealand show, Mulatu Astatke is joined by The Black Jesus Experience, an Australian/Ethiopian ensemble who fuse traditional Ethiopian song with jazz, funk and hip hop. The nine-piece group supported Astatke for his recent sell-out Australian shows, having just returned from their own highly successful tour of Europe and Ethiopia.

Mulatu was interviewed recently by Volume magazine, here's  a few excerpts.. very interesting cat...

"... don't expect a taste of typical Ethiopian music when Mulatu Astatke's grinning face appears on stage at The Powerstation next month; there isn't any. What Astatke's Ethio-jazz stands for is a blend of Latin jazz and Deep South swamp funk decorated with delightful, mysterious vibraphone melodies similar to those you used to hear whenever things got really scary during an episode of Twin Peaks.

"The vibraphone is an extension of the balaphone, an African instrument that's also played with two stakes," Astatke says. "As an African I like to stay close to my roots, which is part of the reason why I chose to play the vibraphone."

While Astatke has reached a legendary status in recent years, recognition hasn't always come naturally for him: "I really struggled to get people to understand my music when I started more than 40 years ago. It's probably because of these difficult times early on in my career that I really appreciate to see my music flourish now."

After having spent decades in relative anonymity, around 2008 Astatke began to record again. As part of the Inspiration Information series, named after the seminal Shuggie Otis album, Mulatu released an album with British band The Heliocentrics, an eclectic group that treads in the footsteps of jazz and funk visionaries like Sun Ra, David Axelrod and Funkadelic. Recording Inspiration Information Vol. 3 got Mulatu started again: "The joint repetition started even before I had seen these guys play solo, but the period of recording and touring turned out to be dynamic and fun."

His newly recognised Godfather status led Astatke to head to Harvard University on a Radcliffe Institute fellowship. Back in the States, he worked on the modernisation of the krar, a traditional Ethiopian string instrument.

"It hurt to see how much the krar became oblivious among young musicians from my country. More and more people decided to play guitar rather than krar because of its greater range. With a group of people at MIT we succeeded in extending the range of the instrument, and you can now actually play modern music with it. To demonstrate the results of my work, I got a student to play a number of jazz standards on the krar as part of my final presentation at MIT."

Of course, Astatke's second Golden Age didn't start at an academic level. Jim Jarmusch's 2005 movie Broken Flowers featured seven of his songs and Mulatu-samples can now be heard in songs by the likes of Damian Marley, Kanye West, Quantic and Madlib. And on the evening of Friday 25 November, the pioneer of these sounds will ask the audience if you've seen a certain movie, raise his drumsticks, and kick start a night of intoxicating Ethio-jazz."

Mulatu Astatke and The Black Jesus Experience perform at Auckland’s Powerstation on Friday 25th November, 2011. Tickets: go to for all ticket and show information. Tickets from Ticketmaster and Real Groovy Auckland.

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