FreeWheelin' Music Safari

The Safari visits Ethiopia and finds the Music of Mulatu Astatke – Sketches of Ethiopia

This afternoon the Music Safari took a little trip of the most populous landlocked country in the world Ethiopia. The reason for the trip was to explore the music of Mulatu Astatke. The genesis of the trip  was a review of the World Music Charts – Europe – where his most recent release Sketches of Ethiopia was spotted at No 4!

A trip to Wikipedia revealed that Mulatu  is an Ethiopian musician and arranger best known as the father of Ethio-jazz. From Wikipedia:


Born in the western Ethiopian city of Jimma, Mulatu was musically trained in London, New York City, and Boston where he combined his jazz and Latin music interests with traditional Ethiopian music. Astatke led his band while playing vibraphone and conga drums—instruments that he introduced into Ethiopian popular music—as well as other percussion instruments, keyboards and organ. His albums focus primarily on instrumental music, and Astatke appears on all three known albums of instrumentals that were released during Ethiopia’s Golden ’70s.[1]

Astatke’s family sent the young Mulatu to study engineering in Wales during the late 1950s. Instead, he earned a degree in music through studies at the Welsh Lindisfarne Collegeand then Trinity College of Music in London. In the 1960s, Astatke moved to the United States, where he became the first African student to enroll at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, where he studied vibraphone and percussion.

While living in the US, Astatke became interested in Latin jazz and recorded his first two albums, Afro-Latin Soul, Volumes 1 & 2, in New York City in 1966. The records prominently feature Astatke’s vibraphone, backed up by piano and conga drums playing Latin rhythms, and were entirely instrumental, with the exception of the song “I Faram Gami I Faram,” which was sung in Spanish. Though these records are almost indistinguishable from other Latin-jazz records of the period, some tracks foreshadow elements of Astatke’s later work, and he is credited as having established conga and bongo drums as common elements in Ethiopian popular music Read More

As I was listening to Sketches of Ethiopia knowing nothing about Mulatu Astatke, or his music I was struck by how much of a Latin flavor his music had. I thought that it sounded much like the Cuban music I’ve recently listened to. I also caught the sound of the vibes on one of the tracks (Hager Fiker) and wondered if  it was actually vibes or a traditional Ethiopian instrument!!

After listening, I started my research into Mulatu’s music I came across this All Things Considered piece at NPR from September of 2013 – After 40 Years, Mulatu Astatke Still ‘Sketches’ Ethio-Jazz Deftly  from Banning Eyre :

It is bold indeed for any jazz artist to evoke Miles Davis’ landmark album Sketches of Spain. ButMulatu Astatke, like Miles, is a true original.

The music Astatke first imagined 40 years ago sounds as fresh and contemporary today as it did in the swinging Addis Ababa of 1973 when Astatke created a signature “Ethio-jazz” style by blending jazz with Ethiopian music. Decades later, he earned an international following when his early recordings appeared on reissue CDs. Now, Astatke has rewarded fans with new album called Sketches of Ethiopia….

….Astatke doesn’t just compose, arrange, and play jazz. He uses it as a tool to explore cultures, and create musical bridges between them. On the song “Azmari,” he fills out his brassy jazz ensemble with Ethiopian drums and the masinko lute, orchestrating it around a cantering, traditional rhythm.

Sketches of Ethiopia incorporates ideas and musicians from three continents and many nations, but the music still maintains a strong Ethiopian stamp. It’s never predictable and, for all the surprises, it never feels cluttered or gimmicky. That’s the mark of a master. And we’re lucky that after all these years, the father of Ethio-jazz has not lost his edge. Read More and Listen to All Things Considered 

After finishing listening to Sketches of Ethiopia the Safari went back to the Chart and started checking out the other albums and artists – The Safari found several that it liked, so be forewarned theres more music to come!!

Here’s a live performance of “Azmari” (Live at Fontenay en Scènes, May 2013)