The Album That Documented Ethio-Jazz: Mulatu Of Ethiopia

Ethiopian jazz musician and composer Mulatu Astatke had one important goal. He got inspired by jazz music and wanted to promote and actively use Ethiopian music in his jazz compositions. “The Nigerian and Ghanaian people living in London, they were very active in promoting it [their local music] so, I decided to start working more on our Ethiopian music.” he said, referring to his time in London during the 1950s. And so he did. Mulatu Astatke focused on fusing the Ethiopian 5 note scales against the 12 note scales of jazz. He created a different sound without losing the subtlety of both genres. The new sound got documented as Ethio-jazz, and Mulatu Astatke was its father.

Mulatu Astatke is the inventor of Ethio-jazz. The album Mulatu Of Ethiopia, recorded and released in 1972, is a well-documented proof of that. As a multi-instrumentalist, focussing mainly on percussion and the vibraphone, he brings moody rhythmical patterns influenced by jazz, funk, Latin and African music.

Mulatu Astatke got inspired by jazz music in the fifties while studying music in London. He continued his passion and, in 1958, he moved to the United States where he enrolled as the first African at the Berklee College of Music in Boston (whose alumni include vibraphonist Gary Burton and icon Quincy Jones). There he mastered the technical aspects of jazz music as a vibraphonist, and he learned how to arrange music as a composer.

After graduating, halfway through the sixties, he moved back to Ethiopia and introduced his people to the new sound. At first, his music was received with mistrust. Ethiopians, who have a history of occupation by European countries (the so-called “scramble for Africa”), tried to avoid cultural contamination of any form. Eventually, Mulatu Astatke convinced the people and, more musicians picked up the sound.

Living back in Ethiopia, Mulatu Astatke kept working in New York. The New York jazz scene compelled him, so he traveled between both cities regularly for years. In New York, he formed his Ethiopian Quintet. The group is an ensemble of Ethiopian, Latin, and African-American musicians. “There just weren’t many Ethiopian musicians in America 50 years ago,” he explained. The group would mainly play Latin jazz and western jazz. Mulatu Astatke explains during an interview with the founder of Strut records, Quinton Scott, that he noticed a strong connection between Latin and African music when he was visiting Cuba.

“New York in 1966 was a very interesting time. I was there at the same time as Hugh Masekela from South Africa and Fela Kuti from Nigeria. In our own different ways, we were all working to put Africa into the modern concept of jazz music”

Mulatu Astatke (interview by Quinton Scott)

His musical career matured during his time in New York. During the second half of the sixties, he spent time with other musicians who fused jazz with African music. Amongst them the South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela and the Nigerian multi-instrumentalist Fela Kuti (known from Africa ’70).

In New York, Mulatu Astatke recorded albums where different cultures are mixed. Including two volumes named Afro-Latin Soul (1966). These albums documented Astatke’s new-found directions for the first time.

Both albums got recorded before Mulatu Astatke began to develop his sound further. After their releases, he infused more native sounds into his compositions and, he started to experiment with seventies funk. In 1972, he recorded and released the album Mulatu of Ethiopia. The album became a landmark for African music and the first representation of Ethio-jazz.

When a coup d’état established Ethiopia as a communist state in 1974, the country’s culture collapsed. Ethio-jazz was considered a western product and got censored. Musicians left the country, and for one generation, Mulatu Astatke’s sound disappeared. In 1991 Ethiopia became a democracy, and Ethio-jazz went through a revival. Producers started to collect the old recordings and would supplement the archives by making new ones. The collected music got released under the name Éthiopiques and, the fourth volume focusses on Astatke’s work (Éthiopiques 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale 1969-1974). The popularity grew and, by the start of the new millennial, Ethio-jazz got known worldwide.

The album was never officially reissued and became hard to find. Today, you would pay three-digit sums for an original of good quality. In 2017, Strut Records decided to reissue the album officially for the first time on vinyl (although there is an unofficial 2003 reissue in circulation).

The vinyl reissue includes three discs: the original stereo release, the pre-mix mono master recordings, and unissued session outtakes.

The outtakes give a peek of what was going on in the studio. These behind-the-scenes recordings are a part of history. They give us an idea of how the album came to life and consequently how Ethio-jazz was created. In these outtakes, instruments would often be rearranged, causing some takes to be more focussed on percussion and others on wind instruments. You can hear Mulatu Astatke position himself as bandleader and arranger.