"I don't battle anymore! I uplift motherfuckers!" - GZA
Thursday, September 04, 2008,1:05 AM
A Second Round of Glory
A second round of glory

By Ben Shalev

ADDIS ABABA - Mulatu Astatke, 63, is sitting next to the pool of the Addis Ababa Hilton, giving out autographs to fans and remembering with pleasure his glory days in the early 1970s.

Thirty-three years ago, he relates, in exactly this spot, he hosted Duke Ellington, who came with his band to Ethiopia, and played his music, which he calls Ethio-Jazz - a fusion of Ethiopian music and jazz - for the jazz great. "I'll never forget Duke's reaction," says Astatke, getting excited. "He listened attentively and said: 'Mulatu, your music has such a nice sound. I didn't expect something like that from an African. Excellent work.'" The last few months have been the second glory days in Astatke's career. Since his wonderful music starred in Jim Jarmusch's last film, "Broken Flowers," he has been the object of renewed interest from Western music fans and has been invited to perform in Europe and the United States.

"I'm not the only one who benefited from the film," he says, "Ethiopia as a whole benefited. Usually it is portrayed in the context of famine. The film and the performances across America are causing people to look at the country in a different way."

How did the connection with Jarmusch come about?

"I met Jim in New York," says Astatke "I was performing there with Either/Orchestra [a Boston jazz ensemble that in recent years has frequently used Ethiopian motifs in its music - B.S.]. One day someone phoned me at the hotel and said 'there's a big director, his name's Jarmusch, who wants to come to your concert with his whole crew.'

"Jim came to the concert, and at the end he came up to me and said, 'I fell in love with your music. It really penetrated me. I'm considering using it in a film I'm doing now.' I said that's great, and a few months later he called and told me which segments of mine he had chosen to use. After 40 years, I've finally made it. At last there is recognition of the value and beauty of my creation, Ethio-Jazz."

Ethio-Jazz would not have appeared were it not for Astatke, who was born in the city of Jimma in western Ethiopia and was sent as a boy in the late 1950s to study in Wales. His parents' intention was for him to study aeronautical engineering there.

"That was also my intention," he relates, "but the director of the school orchestra, where I played for fun, told me, 'It's possible that you may become a good engineer, but your destiny is to be a musician.'

"Basically, I think there's no difference between music and science. The musician puts together different sounds in order to create something interesting; the chemist combines different chemicals in order to create something interesting. The success of both is determined by the proportions within the structure that they create. In music it's called counterpoint; in science it has another name. But the principle is exactly the same."

From Wales, Astatke went to study classical music in London and when he decided he wanted to concentrate on jazz, he went to Boston, where he was the first African student at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. Later on, in New York, he formed with some Puerto Rican musicians the Ethiopian Quintet, in which he combined jazz, Latin music and Ethiopian music.

In the late 1960s, after some 10 years in the West, he decided to return to Ethiopia. "I always had respect for America, because it transformed me into what I am," he says, "but it was important for me to apply what I had learned and bring what I had created to my country - to insert into Ethiopian music new perceptions of beat, counterpoint, orchestration, harmony."

Astatke was one of the leaders of the cultural renaissance that hit Addis Ababa in the late 1960s and early 1970s, whose musical creations captivate Western listeners thanks to their mix of the foreign (Ethiopian tones) and the familiar (recognizable influences of black American music). But his innovations had a hard time seeping into the local scene, primarily because jazz had a hard time making the transition to Ethiopia.

"I tried to do a jazz concert in one of the theaters in Addis Ababa, and people couldn't tolerate it," relates Astatke. "It was too progressive. Experimental. People in the audience were actually shouting. But I saw it as a positive experience. Why? Because it didn't make me stop. Even Miles Davis, the greatest musician in the world, was booed when he started playing fusion in the late 1960s and he still carried on. His example gave me strength."

In the mid-1970s, there was a communist revolution in Ethiopia and for the next 17 years, any attempt at creativity was quashed. When Astatke is asked about that period, he surprises at first and says that even creativity during the period of the communist regime is of value. "There are two different approaches," he explains. "In capitalist culture, you as an artist think individually, whereas under a communist regime, you think for the masses."

But, after a short time, as if he felt his remarks might be understood as if he were identifying with the oppressive communist regime, he starts to talk in a completely different manner, and throughout the rest of the interview he says repeatedly, "I'm a private individual. I don't deal with politics. I always say leave the politics to the politicians."

According to a very reliable version, Astatke, unlike many other musicians, was not persecuted by the communist regime and even served as one of its functionaries responsible for the sphere of music. Astatke claims he never had any connection to the regime.

In recent years he opened and then closed a jazz club in Addis Ababa called African Jazz Village and focused on researching ancient traditions of Ethiopian music. He spends a fair amount of time corresponding with fans who thanked him for the music in "Broken Flowers."

"The e-mails don't stop coming," he says proudly.

A culture we didn't know

The name Francis Falceto did not come up during the interview with Mulatu Astatke, but the Ethiopian musician owes his revived glory primarily to this French researcher and producer, the great documenter of modern Ethiopian music. Falceto's thorough 20 years of research led to the creation of one of the most impressive musical enterprises of late - the "Ethiopiques" series of albums, which revealed to the world the great music recorded in Ethiopia during the 1960s and 1970s. So far 12 albums have been released in the monumental series. The fourth album, which was released in the late 1990s, includes Astatke's best cuts, and through it Jim Jarmusch discovered the music that was eventually used in "Broken Flowers."

"I wasn't at all surprised that Jarmusch contacted me and asked to know where he could find other recordings of Astatke," says Falceto in a phone interview from his home in Normandy, France. "First of all, it is music that is very easy to fall in love with. Apart from that, I appreciate Jarmusch's good ear. I really liked the sound tracks of 'Dead Man' and of his other films."

Jarmusch joins many other music fans and a long list of artists, primarily from outside the mainstream, who have fallen in love with the Ethiopiques series, including Elvis Costello, the Kronos Quartet and others.

What is the source of the enthusiasm for Ethiopian music?

"In my opinion, there are several causes," says Falceto "The groove is unique, the dominance of the wind instruments, the similarity of Ethiopian music of the 1960s and 1970s to American black music. And there's another thing: the trendiness of what's known as world music, and the vast industry that has sprung up around it, made us think that we already know all the music created in Africa. Suddenly it turns out that there is an Ethiopian musical culture that we weren't acquainted with, and that also added to the excitement."

But Falceto says: "If someone thinks Astatke's disc is now selling in the hundreds of thousands, he is mistaken. So far a total of some 15,000 discs only have been sold and a survey that we did among our distributors indicates that some 5,000 of those copies were sold thanks to the film. Moreover, the film had a positive affect on the sales of the other discs in the series, but that too was not very big. The newspaper coverage is misleading. In terms of sales, the Ethiopiques series is not a major item. It is far from being a best-seller."

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