From New York City to Addis Ababa
Fader had the best line about Mulatu Astatke, I hate to say it. It was something along the lines of “Mulatu Astatke seems like the kind of guy who is so cool that when he gets home he changes from the suit he’s wearing into another suit.” And that’s true, no doubt — look at the cover photo of an impossibly crisp Astatke chilling in front of a vibraphone, wry smile on his face. But there’s so much more than just a pseudo-mod sense of style at work here.
Mulatu Astatke was every inch the jazz Renaissance man — vibraphone and keyboard player, arranger, bandleader — a pivotal figure in African music and the inventor of his own style of music, ethio jazz. It was a visceral melding of New York cool with African rhythms and melodic structures. His education was at the Trinity College of Music and the London jazz scene in the early ’60s. He then travelled to New York, where he was the first African to attend Harvard and really started cooking (and recording) with his own music. By the late ’60s he was back in his hometown of Addis, leading a band and working with the finest vocal talent in Ethiopa. This compilation covers this most productive and groundbreaking decade of his career, with recordings from London, New York, and Addis, from the various labels where he made his name and plied his trade.
And this is revelatory stuff. Lo-fi, visceral, direct, and funky as hell — these recordings haven’t aged a day, still sounding completely new and direct. James Brown level-funk tightness melds smoothly into proto-Afrobeat heaviness, Middle Eastern influenced sensuality, Stax sweat, and bebop cool. The wondrously filthy skanking rhythms of “Ennette,” are prodded along with woops of encouragement during the lo-fi piano solo, and strutting horns. “Yegelle Tezete’s” is a ridiculously high-tension keyboard and drums funk workout; oozing assuredness to the point where the hard-charging horn section is almost like an afterthought. “Asyo Belema” borrows Caribbean kettle drums and Brazilian bossa vibes for a boisterous vocal call-and-response — and check out that chopping guitar. “Yektir Tezeta” has elliptical guitar lines and simmering, restrained organ/keyboard lines almost submerged under the whip snare for the drums — everything seems hazy and out of focus.
“Ebo Lala” is amazing — a lo-fi overloaded drum army melds with call-and-response vocal exhortations until at the halfway point (and again at the end), where the song shifts into this dirty breakdown where the horns get all lascivious, everyone starts yelling and whistling, and the vocalist does a credible Tom Waits impression (before Tom Waits, mind you). The wah-wah guitar and super-fucking-tight drum breaks on “Wubit” wouldn’t sound out of place on a James Brown album, but Muluken Melesse’s vocals sound almost holy in their urgency. And damn if “Netsanet” isn’t like an unholy cross between acid rock and Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack work. Cooking with gas now! “Tezeta” ends it on a calm reflective note with a lyrical, unhurried piano solo and then harmonizing with a saxophone over a loping drum-and-bass shuffle.