February 1st, 2009 | Interviews

nathan morse

Ethiopian composer and bandleader Mulatu Astatke fused American jazz with traditional Ethiopian music to create Ethio-jazz, a timeless (but not place-less) musical vernacular popularized recently in Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers and on the vital Ethiopiques compilations, Vol. 4 of which was dedicated to Astatke. He speaks now from Addis Ababa prior to his performance in Los Angeles tonight, his first in over a decade. This interview by Porschia Baker and Chris Ziegler.

Is this your first time in Los Angeles?
Actually, I was once there as a guest of the State Department. I’m very bad on dates but it should be about ten or fifteen years ago. I came to visit the University of California, and I visited the clubs—all the very famous clubs I wanted to visit and the musicians there, and I also visited Hollywood and the different studios to see how the operate in Hollywood.
A fact-finding mission?
To make friends, to talk about Ethiopian music and Ethio-jazz and things like that—it was a very fantastic tour. To play—I was in Oakland about three months ago. We played in Oakland. With Either/Orchestra. We played a concert for the Ethiopian Art Forum, and I played there. It was a beautiful very interesting concert.
How did Broken Flowers affect your profile in America?
This Ethio-jazz business has been going for almost now 45 years—the first recording was made in New York in 1956 of Ethio-jazz. But there was not much exposure of that music. I’ve been working with it and doing shows in different parts of the world, but now the exposure comes after the Jim Jarmusch film, which is very much with the Ethio-jazz. So we managed to reach all kinds of audiences after that. It has been so great.
At your first concert in Addis Ababa, you were shouted down—why?
I think I was a little bit advanced. As to what an audience expected from Ethiopian musical styles. So the concert was when I got from back from New York. I use a fusion—like cultural Ethiopian instruments fused with Ethio-jazz. So I used in fact—in that music an instrument called bagana. And that instrument would usually be used for praising the god—for church music. So they always think that is not supposed to be played in jazz, not supposed to be played on stage and things like that. So I did a beautiful fusion of that instrument with piano and guitar and bass—but they never liked to use this instrument with jazz music.
What kept you moving forward with your music in spite of this kind of resistance? Why didn’t you go back to your engineering studies?
A very nice question! In the third world countries—Ethiopia and other third world countries—music, art and culture are not usually given the academic status they are in first world countries. You start in kindergarten and go to elementary school and high school—it’s always these subjects aren’t compulsory. Because of this—you never have a chance to know yourself. If you know what I mean. So the only chance I had with music was within myself. The other thing I loved so much was aeronautic engineering. So I left for England to study high school for my country. And also my family was totally opposed to Middle Eastern music because in these third world countries, music has never been taken as a science. Only as leisure or something to spend time like that. So again—my family didn’t want me to study music. So when I get to England, this high school—Lindisfarne College—had a fantastic musical teacher and great acting teachers and paintings and whatever. So I studied music in the high school there. And I discovered my talent as a musician—not only me, but also the teachers said that I should pursue music. ‘You have the talent and you should do this and not this.’ I am a very lucky person to have the chance to go to England and also find out about my talent. So that’s why—I went to study engineering, but I found out what my talent is, and also the teachers found out what I am.
How important is it to study the roots of music? How would your work be different without the sense of history?
I am really working so hard to study our Ethiopian culture of music. I try always to find out what Ethiopia has contributed to world culture. And music in the world. I continue to discuss how we work on conducting music—which in Ethiopia goes back to 360 AD. I’m a fellow at Harvard and I am at M.I.T. as well—I’m working at M.I.T. to develop the Ethiopian instrument called the krar. It’s great for Ethiopia and great for Ethiopian culture and musicians. I would call it a cultural evolution.
How were you able to connect to such early Ethiopian music? What resources were there to learn about these things?
What makes it so interesting—I had a chance to travel all over the world to meet musicians, to see and to learn and to explain to them and whatever. What I usually do is I take the basic roots of all music, and I will compare it to what I study and what I see in those countries. Go back and see the histories of this instrument, which is developed in developed countries, and this instrument which has been for ages and ages back. And when I sit down and look at this contribution to art, it makes it so interesting. I had the chance to travel, to learn, to study—to compare things. So I compare things. That’s how I found interesting material in most of the third world countries.
You said once that you mix sounds like a scientist mixes chemicals—is that what we’re talking about here?
Exactly. But you know—imagine you’re writing for about 60 or 70 people, and you have a beautiful melody in there going and a beautiful voice in there going and this and that. So always if you take them as a science—they are sounds mixed together. The different mixing of the sounds comes out in different results. So as a scientist, I would mix different materials and that equals to what? The final work is mixing and coming up with something anyway. Take music as a science of sounds.
What do you think of sampling in hip-hop? Is that mixing sounds in the same way?
If I really want to do hip-hop mixing and all that, I would love to do with all culture’s instruments. So it can be able to get different sounds and get something very interesting. What I’m doing now—it’s so exciting and interesting and I have no complaint on that! But if I use very interesting musical instruments also, it can be something different—I can get different sounds out of it by mixing like that. Know what I mean? I’m always looking for doing something different and something new.
You said performance gives identity to modern Ethiopian music—how would it be different if there was no performative aspect?
If there was no performance involved? If you take the Ethio-jazz music, there’s always been—especially in the third world countries—people don’t have more chances to see live shows. Whenever you do live shows, you can convince people—you can educate people. This is what we are shooting for now—to educate these people especially in these third world countries. That there are a lot of interesting and beautiful things coming out from America, you know, and they don’t have a chance to talk to those people and neither do most of their friends. So we are able to come over and do workshops and meet musicians and things like that—live shows are so interesting to actually educate people.
How much of what you do comes from a desire to educate?
I had an FM program, and a TV show as well—that actually helped me so much to educate and throw my message across the people. We’d talk—I’d talk about the development, and how Ethio-jazz developed and what we are trying to do. I have three stages now. Before—45 years ago in New York—this was like twelve against five. The tones in the Western and Ethiopian scales. We’ve been doing now—what they call it? World music? I’ve been doing it 45 years—I explain how the world music is, and how it’s connected with the American jazz and American this—and the five-tone African scale. But it’s so difficult. Mixing it all is very difficult. You can easily lose the identity if you don’t know how to blend them together. You can easily lose the identity of your culture. So I was really careful. But it’s so interesting and different from other music. So I’d talk about this kind of thing on my programs and also my TV show. And now in other parts of the world—because of Jim Jarmusch, because of Ethiopiques—now it is flooding all over the world.
Did you ever feel any sort of connection with the tropicalia movement in Brazil in the ‘60s?
The thing is—all these rhythms you hear in most of the Latin-American countries are based in Africa. Whenever I do my Ethio-jazz, I never think ‘Latin.’ I always think ‘Africa. Ethiopia.’ That’s how we feel. But in some of my compositions, I use a montuno—it is Latin. So that becomes a combination of the montuno, the jazz and the Ethiopian. The blending that equals Ethio-jazz.
When did you feel Ethio-jazz was receiving the recognition you were hoping for?
With the Ethiopiques and also Jim Jarmusch—I really give a great amount of respect to Jim Jarmusch. Because he helped get this music in the world. And he got it through Ethiopiques and things like that—but I have great respect for even giving me a chance for Ethio-jazz to be heard all over the world.
Is there a generation gap in Ethiopian music? The curator of the Ethiopiques series said it’s hard for people under fifty to remember and connect with the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s—what he called ‘the glory days.’
The problem—the more younger people coming up, they are so much involved with reggae and rap and all of this other music. You have audience for that type of music and you have audience for this type of music. But that one has not actually died! People who really love and follow that type of music—the old one—there are people who love this modern music and people who love the old things. Even in America! A different audience as well. This is the way in Ethiopia. It’s a matter of taste!
What do you think of your following among hip-hop fans in America? Is this your first chance to connect with that audience?
Well, I’ve been coming to America all over. I played Boston at Harvard, Ohio State we played, upstate New York, at the Winter Garden—all over in America. I have an excellent audience. Everywhere I play, it’s all sold out—all sold out, my friend. America is the world, in way—well, it is! It’s beautiful, man!
What are you most proud of in your career?
Something—one thing is the Berklee College. That’s where I learned my tools. That’s really where I know things about it. I remember a teacher telling us—‘We can only give you the tools. And it’s up to you to make the music.’ And I went out and created Ethio-jazz. Very inspiring—it’s so beautiful! I’ve been working for 45 years, going all over the place, but it’s so beautiful to end up at the Harvard University for a discussion of Ethio-jazz. That is my happiest day. And I had a chance at M.I.T. with Ethio-jazz as well. Those two are my happiest days in my life. I will thank America for what they’ve done for me—it’s so beautiful, man. It’s my dream!