Photography: Glyn Akroyd / @glynakroyd

Mulatu Astatke

24 Kitchen Street 27/10/21

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The double-doctor and legend in his own time, MULATU ASTATKE performs a set of 11 songs that perfectly showcase the hypnotic musical concoction of his own invention: Ethio-Jazz.

The band’s trumpet player, in true jazz musician fashion, arrives only 10 minutes before the gig. With soundcheck off to a late start, the venue won’t open for another 45 minutes (Mulatu is something of a perfectionist) – but through the open door, the sound of smooth jazz plays along with an empty can of Red Stripe that’s rolling down the street. There’s a woman at the front of the queue who is Mulatu’s self-proclaimed biggest fan; she tells me that his sound “is pure sex… and it isn’t world music, but it is of the world”. She’s right, Mulatu has seemingly soaked up music from every corner of the globe.

At the age of 16, he was sent from his hometown of Addis Ababa to North Wales, where he attended Lindisfarne College and subsequently Bangor University, with the intention of studying aeronautical engineering. His gift for music, however, created another path for him. Studying piano, clarinet and harmony at Trinity College of Music in London, and then at Eric Gilder School of Music in Twickenham, his musical repertoire was constantly expanding. Gigging around the clubs of Soho while playing the congas, vibraphone and piano, his ears absorbed everything his fellow expatriate jazz musicians were putting down.

In 1963, Mulatu became the first African student to enroll at Berklee College of Music in Boston; where the innovative Gary Burton attended, who invented the four-mallet technique that Mulatu has more than perfected. Moving to New York, he became immersed in the Latin jazz sounds that poured out of the clubs of Spanish Harlem. Truly a man of the world, he returned to Addis Ababa in 1969 where he began his ambitious fusions of everything he’d been exposed to, but most prominently Ethiopian folklore and American jazz.

Mulatu has seemingly soaked up music from every corner of the globe

With a lengthy and thorough soundcheck complete, 24 Kitchen Street fills to the brim as quickly as the bartenders can pour pints. The already steamy warehouse fills with smoke and the band makes its way onto the stage. Mulatu tells the expectant crowd that he wants us to experience his Ethio-Jazz with a song that was inspired by four centuries of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Using his intricate four-mallet technique, Mulatu coaxes sound out of the vibraphone and strategically uses the pedal to create an instantaneous hypnotic sound.

Following his opener with an up-tempo samba-style tune, the upright-bass becomes the heartbeat of the song while everything else is just flourish, and the trumpet and tenor sax blasts are enhanced by synchronised dance moves. In just two songs, the group already has the audience in the palm of their hand. Although everyone is packed together tightly, there’s not a single person who can keep their head from bobbing or their foot from tapping.

Moving from a Latin feel to a more Ethiopian sound, Mulatu shifts between the vibraphone and the congas for the third song. With his percussion stylings at the forefront, and the tenor sax ripping through the room, the vibraphone fills out the sound nicely. About halfway through the song, the band drops into half time, padding the room with a raunchy atmosphere.

MULATU ASTATKE Image 2

In between each song, Mulatu genuinely thanks the audience for listening, the mark of a sincere artist. He also takes the time to introduce the members of his band soloing in the following song, proving he’s not stingy over the spotlight. Introducing the fourth, and arguably most popular, song of the evening, Mulatu gives a special shout out to Bill Murray; the star lothario from Jim Jarmusch’s 2005 film, Broken Flowers. He uses the vibraphone to sketch a rich soundscape for the instantly recognisable trumpet and sax riff of Yèkèrmo Sèw (A Man of Experience and Wisdom), one of the songs that features prominently in the film. The sophisticated and slightly psychedelic sound earns an immediate response from the audience, with extra applause each time the group returns to the coda of the song.

Throughout his set, Mulatu adds a melange of different instruments from all over the world: a cello, a krar (Ethiopian six-stringed lyre), a masenqo (single string-lyre), a flute, a güiro, a woodblock, and others that couldn’t be seen through the crowded venue but could absolutely be heard. From a technical standpoint, what gives Mulatu his singular sound is not only the “world music” instrumentation, but the combination of the traditional Ethiopian pentatonic and non-tempered scales, with the musical vocabulary of American jazz. Instrumentally, the sound is both familiar and exotic; the Western trumpet and tenor saxophones play along with the more traditionally Ethiopian timings, giving them the musical equivalent of speaking with an accent.

By this point, people are dancing on top of the bar, cheering along when they recognise one of Mulatu’s countless riffs that have been sampled throughout the history of hip hop. Playing through the funky Chik Chikka, the nostalgic Motherland, and the groovy Yekatit, the sound pulses through the walls of the room, managing to reach each audience member individually.

As someone who intended to be an aeronautical engineer, Mulatu has sure come a long way in the world of sound; he’s become a multi-instrumentalist, he invented a genre, and he continues to divulge the hidden secrets of his home country to the Western world through his music.

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