Few people have performed the role of global musician more completely than Mulatu Astatke during his 50-year career of cultural cross-pollination. Now 70, the ‘father of Ethio-jazz’ studied music in the UK and US as a young man in the ’60s, introducing Western and Latin instruments and musical styles into his native Ethiopian music to form a fascinating hybrid. He has taken part in many international collaborations over the years, while the 2005 Jim Jarmusch movie Broken Flowers, which features seven of his tracks, brought him to the attention of a younger audience in the West.
Astatke’s most recent album Sketches Of Ethiopia further mines this rich trans-continental vein to great effect, mixing Ethiopian rural folk music and Afro-funk with Latin rhythms and club beats in a big, almost orchestral sound. While its title perhaps alludes to Miles Davis’s Sketches Of Spain (with its sophisticated arrangements by Gil Evans), there is also the subtle influence of the tone poems of Duke Ellington (with whom Astatke played when he visited Addis Ababa in 1973). Vibrantly continuing to explore new musical avenues, Astatke is still in his creative prime.
Some of the Ethiopian and Western musicians featured on the album accompanied Astatke in two gigs at Village Underground, though sadly not those playing the traditional Ethiopian instruments or the singers (unusually for someone best known for instrumental music, half the tracks boast vocals). During an entertaining one and three-quarter-hour set, the eight-piece band showcased most of the new material but also played some older stuff from Ethiopia’s ‘Golden Age’.
The longest track on Sketches Of Ethiopia, Derashe, made a big impact with its hypnotic, almost spiritual vibes, while Hager Fiker begins impressionistically before gathering an exhilarating pace, contrasting with the slow melancholic nostalgia of Motherland. The driving, suspenseful urgency of Azmari segued into old favourite Chic Chica’s percussive rhythms which got the crowd handclapping. In the up-tempo, danceable Gamo the album’s singer was replaced by rapper Adian Coker (several Astatke compositions have been sampled by hip-hop musicians), who also gave the deliciously syncopated Yegelle Tezeta a new spin, while Yekermo Sew once again enchanted with its mysterious atmosphere.
The live tracks were generally longer than the recorded versions, with interesting structural variations and plenty of improvisatory solos from the talented musicians. Astatke himself contributed with his distinctively haunting vibraphone sound, as well as with wurlitzer and percussion. James Arben on saxophone, bass clarinet and flute, and Byron Wallen on trumpet showed fine virtuosity, while Danny Keane’s frenetic cello playing provided an unusual edginess and Nick Ramm’s keyboards harmonic depth. The rhythmic intensity was kept up throughout by Neil Charles on double bass, Tom Skinner on drums and Richard Olatunde Baker on congas and other percussion.
A calm, benign presence at the front of the stage, Astatke introduced the numbers and sometimes used his drumstick as a baton to coordinate his excellent band, all of whom seemed to be having as much fun as the packed audience, swaying to the irresistible grooves of Ethio-jazz.