Ethiopian jazz master keeps his music evolving

Mulatu was the first African student to enroll at what would soon become the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Photo: (Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi)

Ethiopian jazz master Mulatu Astatke will be taking a break from his extensive 2018 European concert tour to play at the 19th Cape Town International Jazz Festival. This should come as no surprise given that he has been in global motion ever since his parents sent him to study aeronautical engineering in North Wales in 1956.

But Mulatu (Ethiopians are traditionally called by their first names) soon began trumpet lessons instead, enrolling in London’s Trinity School of Music. While in London he heard performances by Caribbean and West African musicians that awoke his memories of the big bands he had enjoyed at home in Ethiopia. These performances prodded him to consider new directions.

By 1958 Mulatu was the first African student to enroll at what would soon become the Berklee College of Music in Boston. There he traded in his trumpet for the vibraphone. By 1960 he was living in New York City, where he spent more than six years taking part in the world of American jazz, interacting with Latin musicians, making records and performing in concerts.

By the time Mulatu returned to Ethiopia later that decade, he had developed the concept of “Ethio-Jazz” and was actively experimenting with this new, hybrid musical style. Ethio-Jazz draws on multiple trends from the American jazz scene, including bebop and modal jazz, combined with melodies and harmonies based in the Ethiopian modal system.
Melding of sounds

Mulatu’s innovations were anchored by his childhood memories of Ethiopian traditional secular and church music. It was further inflected by harmony classes at the Berklee School and welded together by the experience of hearing and playing jazz in London, Boston and New York City.

Mulatu’s pieces over the course of his career retain these early musical influences as well as a highly original mixture of sounds from places experienced on his lifelong itinerary.

Read more at qz.com

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