The father of Ethio Jazz Mulatu Astatke’s musical career began 40 years ago after deciding to pursue music instead of engineering and it is one which now many years later years has seen a global resurgence. A true musical legend, Mr Astatke has among other things played with Duke Ellington, hung out with John Coltrane, was the first African student at the Berklee College of Music in the 60s and in recent years has drawn plaudits from the likes of Jim Jarmusch, Elvis Costello and Robert Plant and been sampled by the likes of Madlib, Kanye West and Nas & Damian Marley.
What has it been like to have a large body of your music discovered so long after it was conceived?
Yeah well you know it’s really great! It’s very nice for me I have great crowds all over the world these days due to Ethio Jazz and It’s now about 42 years since I started it. After that now you see Germans playing Ethio Jazz, the French are playing it, the Americans are playing it, the Swedish and Finnish. It’s all over the world and in Australia you have the Black Jesus Experience playing Ethio Jazz, so I started 42 years ago and I’m so happy and so grateful that it’s reaching the world so beautifully now.
How did you come up with Ethio Jazz all those years ago and why do you think it is so popular around the world?
Well this is Ethio Jazz! It’s a very unique music, it’s one of like four different Ethiopian moulds and I was using a fusion of five tones against twelve tone music. It’s not easy what I’m talking about because twelve tone is a very complicated musical system and to fuse it to the five tone music I have to create my own way with the progressions, the voicing of the harmonies, the counterpoints and the rhythms also. So a combination of all of this makes Ethio Jazz, which makes it so interesting. In Ethio Jazz you can hear all types of music inside, you can hear jazz, you can hear Latin music, you can hear African music and you can hear European music. It took me a really long time to put it all together.
How does it feel to have a whole slew of current artists referencing and sampling your work?
Oh well it’s so beautiful you know. It’s as great for Ethopian Jazz as it is for me, which is so great! I had the chance recently to play with Talib Kweli, we played together in Brazil about a month ago when I was in Rio. So we had a fantastic concert, the people really loved it, it was so nice and we’re going back again to Brazil very soon.
How did you decide to work with the likes of the Either/Orchestra, the Heliocentrics and the Black Jesus Experience?
Well you know I mean it’s not just to work with them, you see they’re asking me to play with them, so that’s really what was happening. But it’s been almost 3 years now I don’t play with nobody, I have my own band called Steps Ahead, a beautiful band. So in New Zealand I won’t be playing with my own group, this time I’ll be playing with Black Jesus Experience. These bands I really love being with them, they’re great musicians, they’re nice people to be with and I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve done with those musicians, it was really a good experience and while they play my music it was also really great!
What have been some of the other things you have been working on in recent years?
I’ve been teaching you know, playing, writing for movies and I’ve been doing quite a lot of experimental work to upgrade the traditional Ethiopian instruments. I’ve been travelling like crazy all over the world, I’ve been to Siberia, I’ve been to Crete Islands… and all those places I’ve been playing in. So over the last few years I’ve been travelling like crazy, travelling with my own band Steps Ahead to really become so very successful in Europe now. I’m working on my new CD as well now, yeah I will be starting January 16th or 15th, working in London.
Having had your music used in Broken Flowers, what kind of films or other projects could you see yourself scoring?
Well you know it depends on the scripts that I get. I’m okay to do everything, because I’ve been writing for plays also. I’ve been writing a lot of music for plays and in fact I’ve also done music for a film called The Runners, which is about the Ethiopian Olympic runners, how they do, how they feel, how they become successful. So I’ve been in London doing the music, the music is done and they’re mixing it and editing it all now.
What is the Ethiopian music scene like now in comparison to what it was like in the 60s and 70s?
Well you know it’s cool! There are a lot of young stars coming up and they can do whatever music they want to do. Also you know Ethiopia has a lot of different ethnic groups and a lot of these different ethnic groups are developing their own music. It’s great! It’s Fun! It’s beautiful my friend, it’s a beautiful scene.
Have you ever thought about what might have happened if you had become an engineer instead of a musician?
Oh well you know I still love it my friend! I wish I had the time to do it, because I still love it to do it my friend! You know science and music there isn’t much difference, as a scientist mixes his chemicals, musicians we are mixing in sounds. Especially when you are writing for 60-70 people with symphonies, so many different melodies going and all kinds of rhythms. So we mix sounds, just like a scientist mixes chemicals, engineering is also science, so that’s my thing.
(This interview previously appeared on The Corner in 2013)