There are few places that symbolise London’s contemporary cultural scene more aptly than a nineteenth-century railway coal store in the East End. But on Tuesday and Wednesday, Village Underground's reclaimed industrial space hosted Mulatu Astatke, one of the world’s more international musicians. Mounting the stage late to a backdrop of eerie horns and a tense rhythmic shuffle, his band laid out the fundamentals of Ethio-jazz: layered percussive grooves and brass picking out haunting pentatonic melodies, at times complex, at times raw and repetitive. The second track ‘Yèkèrmo Sèw’, which appeared on the Broken Flowers soundtrack, reinforced the sense of a ‘classic’ set.
It was atmospheric, all pulsing double bass and spooky minor horns building on the rich backdrop of percussion, cello and keys. Astatke’s virtuoso vibraphone styling meandered as the horns repeated, rose and broke, the rhythm section tightly in tow. A mesmerising beat provided a reliable backing for a pensive trumpet solo. This distinctive groove is the product of Astatke’s past. Having studied in Wales, London, Boston and New York, he returned home to Ethiopia with the rise of Latin jazz and the avant-garde funk fusion still ringing in his ears.
After setting out his signature style, the set shifted focus to his new album, Sketches of Ethiopia, incorporating yet more international musical influences – Gil Evans-style Spanish trumpet met Malian vocals reminiscent of Fatoumata Diawara, with a local rapper thrown in for good measure. Heavily underwritten with a strong funk groove, the new album displays the variety in the rest of his band. Tenor sax was swapped for flute or bass clarinet, and the cellist and keys players took on defining roles. Throughout, the tracks were coloured with anecdotes and lessons from Dr Mulatu on the Derache tribe and the history of jazz in Ethiopia. This scholarly emphasis perhaps contrasts the two branches of African music heavily influencing Western sounds today: Ethio-Jazz and Afrobeat. While Fela Kuti-era Afrobeat is a heady mix of energy and politics from a hefty ensemble, building relentlessly over fifteen-minute tracks, Astatke highlights the individual's musical accomplishment, with no less groove or reference to his country's musical history, but attention to arrangement and a seriously porous approach to global influences.
In the forty-odd years since Astatke returned to Ethiopia and Addis, we’ve heard his sounds come full circle back to the jazz cities of Europe and America where he trained. Songs like ‘Yèkèrmo Sèw’ and ‘Yègélle Tezeta’ have effectively become the template for groups like Staten Island’s Budos Band and Paris’ Akalé Wubé, and while Astatke is continuing to develop and blend his musical style with any he picks up en route, the classic Ethio-jazz he founded seems set to live on emulated by many others.
by Daniel Bergsagel