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post Master of “Ethiojazz”

January 21st, 2008

Filed under: Music Corner — Lissan Magazine @ 00:35

Film Puts a New Focus on the Master of ‘Ethiojazz’
By BEN SISARIO (NYT); The Arts/Cultural Desk
The New York Times

From the moment Mr. Jarmusch first heard it, about six years ago, the music got under his skin, he said, and he began seeking it out wherever he could find it. “When I was writing ‘Broken Flowers,’ ” he said by phone from his home in the Catskills, “I was listening to a lot of his music, and I was thinking, ‘How do I get this music into a film that’s set in suburban America?’ It even led me to make the character of Jeffrey Wright of Ethiopian descent.” In the film, Mr. Wright’s character, Mr. Murray’s next-door neighbor, gets him started on his journey and hands him the disc. Several songs by Mr. Astatke are used prominently in the film, and are on the soundtrack album, released by Decca.

mulatu_astatke.jpg

Mr. Astatke, a vibraphonist and bandleader, had a suitably cosmopolitan upbringing for a music that blends jazz with funk, Latin music and traditional Ethiopian five-tone scales. Born in 1943 in the western Ethiopian city of Jimma, he was one of the few musicians of his generation to be educated abroad. He went to the Trinity College of Music in London, where he studied clarinet, harmony and theory, and in the early 60’s attended the Schillinger House of Music in Boston, now the Berklee College of Music.

“My whole idea,” he said by phone the other day from his home in Addis Ababa, “was sort of fusion with Ethiopian and jazz and modern music. I started at Berklee this idea of the ‘Ethiojazz’ business. From there I came to New York and I had this group, and what I wanted to do, I did it there.”

His group in New York, the Ethiopian Quintet, was mostly Puerto Rican. He recorded two albums in the 60’s on a small New York label, Worthy. He jammed with Dave Pike, who was Herbie Mann’s vibraphonist at the time, and remembers his time here fondly.

“We had all these big bands,” he said. “And the Village Gate, the Village Vanguard, the Palladium - there were all these clubs around at that time.” He was surprised and delighted to learn that the Vanguard is still in business. “It’s still around?” he said. “Fantastic! Wow!”

Mr. Astatke returned to Ethiopia in the late 60’s and took part in a fertile musical scene there in the waning years of Emperor Haile Selassie, who was deposed in 1974. Establishing himself as a jazz ambassador, he brought the Hammond organ and vibraphone to Ethiopia. “I changed the whole Ethiopian music,” he said without shyness, “combining jazz and fusion with the Ethiopian five-tone scales. Since then my name has been on the very, very top of the Ethiopian musical scene.”

The music of that period, influenced by American funk and soul, is being collected in “Éthiopiques,” a series of albums on the French label Buda Musique, which since the late 90’s has run to 20 volumes. Mr. Astatke’s disc, Vol. 4, is its best seller and has seen a bump in sales since “Broken Flowers” was released in August. It is now selling about 1,800 copies a week, said a spokeswoman for Allegro, the albums’ American distributor; that is equivalent to the sales of a new album by a world music star like Youssou N’Dour.

Last year the Either/Orchestra, led by the saxophonist and composer Russ Gershon, performed in Addis Ababa and met Mr. Astatke. The group has since brought him to the United States for concerts twice, the first times Mr. Astatke had performed in New York in many years. After performing at Joe’s Pub tonight, they will go on a brief Northeastern tour, traveling to Boston, Philadelphia, Washington and Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y.

Mr. Astatke said he had been following news of “Broken Flowers” by e-mail (”I’m very far away”) but had not yet seen them film in its entirety. He added, with a laugh, “I’m going to see it in New York.”
Source: The New York Times

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Broken Flowers

by Jesse Kornbluth, for HeadButler.com

I’m not seeing the Jim Jarmusch film until tonight, but acting on a tip from a friend with great taste, I bought the soundtrack yesterday. Talk about ‘heavy rotation’ — I’m already in danger of wearing this CD out. And all because of an aging Ethiopian musician I’d never heard of!

brokenflowers.jpg

Bear with me on this, because the ingredients sound…odd. Mulatu Astatke grew up in Ethiopia but went abroad to study jazz in America. He was influenced by Miles Davis and John Coltrane — and by the organist Jimmy Smith. What he brought back to Ethiopia was a blend of soul and jazz. Which he then proceeded to blend, once more, with traditional Ethiopian music.

The result is easy to listen to and hard to describe. The horns play cool jazz figures; you could almost mistake them for clarinets. But under that is a groove that could have been created by Booker T and the MGs. And connecting the two are some Ethiopian chords that sound exotic, space-changing, hypnotic.

Think desert cha cha. Cuba goes to Memphis. Desert trance music.

Like nothing you have ever heard before.

Mulatu Astatke is the man in charge of all of it: He writes the music, arranges it, and plays piano, organ, vibes and percussion. Although the Golden Years of this Ethiopian music were ancient history — from 1968 to 1974 — Astatke is still a major figure in Ethiopian music, regularly playing and teaching.

Happily, Jim Jarmusch is one of those directors who not only listens to a lot of music, but looks for a way to integrate it into his films. “Music often leads me,” he says. “I discovered Mulatu Astatke’s music maybe seven years ago, and I was blown away by a few things I found that he had recorded in the late sixties. I was on a hunt for a number of years: I bought some vinyl; some of his jazz stuff; some Latin jazz recorded in the states; other Ethiopian stuff. And then I was like, “Oh, man, how can I get this music in a film? It’s so beautiful and score-like.” Then when I was writing, I was like, “Well, this neighbor [Jeffrey Wright] is Ethiopian-American, I can turn him on to the music.”

There are other musicians on the soundtrack — and four songs by Astatke. I’m told they’re crucial to the feeling of the film. I already know they’re crucial to my jaded ears, which perk up as soon as his songs start. And I feel quite sure I’ll be ordering a CD with much more of his music: the highly-regarded ‘Ethiopiques, Vol. 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale, 1969-1974.’

You’ll want to be the first on your block to hear this music. Not because of the ‘hip’ factor, though I won’t pretend that’s unimportant. But because of the pure pleasure — this is very happy music, and happy in a smart way. Each time you listen, you hear a little more. With a hundred encounters, you may actually get what this genius is doing.

— by Jesse Kornbluth, for HeadButler.com

Statements and opinions expressed in this article herein are those of the authors. Lissan Magazine accepts no responsibility whatsoever for the content.

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