Ethiopian jazz master keeps his music evolving

Mulatu was the first African student to enroll at what would soon become the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Photo: (Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi)

Ethiopian jazz master Mulatu Astatke will be taking a break from his extensive 2018 European concert tour to play at the 19th Cape Town International Jazz Festival. This should come as no surprise given that he has been in global motion ever since his parents sent him to study aeronautical engineering in North Wales in 1956.

But Mulatu (Ethiopians are traditionally called by their first names) soon began trumpet lessons instead, enrolling in London’s Trinity School of Music. While in London he heard performances by Caribbean and West African musicians that awoke his memories of the big bands he had enjoyed at home in Ethiopia. These performances prodded him to consider new directions.

By 1958 Mulatu was the first African student to enroll at what would soon become the Berklee College of Music in Boston. There he traded in his trumpet for the vibraphone. By 1960 he was living in New York City, where he spent more than six years taking part in the world of American jazz, interacting with Latin musicians, making records and performing in concerts.

By the time Mulatu returned to Ethiopia later that decade, he had developed the concept of “Ethio-Jazz” and was actively experimenting with this new, hybrid musical style. Ethio-Jazz draws on multiple trends from the American jazz scene, including bebop and modal jazz, combined with melodies and harmonies based in the Ethiopian modal system.
Melding of sounds

Mulatu’s innovations were anchored by his childhood memories of Ethiopian traditional secular and church music. It was further inflected by harmony classes at the Berklee School and welded together by the experience of hearing and playing jazz in London, Boston and New York City.

Mulatu’s pieces over the course of his career retain these early musical influences as well as a highly original mixture of sounds from places experienced on his lifelong itinerary.


Meklit Brings Ethiopian Jazz to the Bay Area

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The Ethiopian-born & Oakland-based musician Meklit Hadero’s third album, When The People Move The Music Moves Too, comes out today.

By Jessie Schiewe (SF Weekly) |

Today, Oakland musician Meklit‘s third album, When The People Move The Music Moves Too, comes out, featuring an upbeat, swirling mix of soul, pop, and Ethiopian jazz. Produced by multiple Grammy Award-winning artist Dan Wilson, the rollicking album sees Meklit on vocals, guitar, and the Ethiopian harp, krar, and has features from the likes of Andrew Bird and Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

SF Weekly spoke with Meklit about her musical origins, her discovery of Ethio-jazz, and how being a TED Fellow has influenced both her life and her music.

SF Weekly: What is Ethio-jazz?

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Meklit Hadero: To understand Ethio-jazz, it helps to recognize that jazz is a global music. Much like hip-hop, jazz itself changes with every culture that it touches. Ethio-jazz was developed by Mulatu Astatke, a genius vibraphonist/percussionist and the first African to attend Berklee College of Music. In the ’60s, he was spending a lot of time in New York’s jazz and Latin jazz scenes. He later went back to Ethiopia with that hybrid spirit in his hands and brought the kignit — Ethiopian traditional scales — to funk, Latin, and Ethiopian rhythm sections. His creation became known as Ethio-jazz.

SFW: And you met Mulatu Astatke and he became a mentor of sorts for you, right?

M: I met him in Ethiopia in 2011, when I brought my band to play there, and we did shows in three cities. Mulatu came to one of our shows and I was totally freaking out. I was like, ‘OMG! He’s in the audience!’ He’s one of my heroes. After the show, he took me aside and said, ‘Hey, why are you playing this music like we played it 40 years ago? What’s your contribution to this music? What are you going to do to take it forward and make your mark on it? You have to figure it out. That’s your job as an artist.’ He has a very forward-thinking musical mind. He isn’t about preservation of tradition in any way. He’s about deep connections to tradition, but what he was telling me to do was to keep innovating.

SFW: Do you keep in touch?

M: We’ve kept in touch, yes. I saw him last year in June in Ethiopia. We did two shows at his club. Later, we had a long conversation one afternoon over tea, and he continued to give me really strong and powerful musical advice. He likes to break my mind open about music every time we talk. It’s nuts. He’s a musical genius.

Continue reading this story at SF Weekly
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Mulatu Of Ethiopia – The Ultimate Ethio Jazz Classical

This groundbreaking and newly-reissued 1972 album is an excellent introduction to Mulatu Astatke, the inventor and sole exemplar of Ethio-jazz.

Originally released in 1972 and newly-reissued, the groundbreaking Mulatu of Ethiopia easily answers that question in under 30 minutes of adventurous, head-nod-inducing music that still sounds new today. These seven melodic tracks take the listener down moody rhythmic paths, all the while accompanied by organ, flute, horns, and Mulatu’s trademark vibraphone.

Born in western Ethiopia, Mulatu palnned to study engineering. But upon moving to Wales, and later London, his field changed to music. He became the first student from Africa at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, focusing on percussion as well as vibraphone. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Mulatu recorded on trips to New York, working with a range of session musicians, many schooled in Latin rhythms; playing alongside Cubans and Venezuelans, he observed their experimentation. It sparked his desire to invent his own style, which he called “Ethio-jazz.” “I used the Ethiopian structures to create melodies, but instead of using cultural instruments, I used western instruments like the piano and the contrabass,” he once said. “I somehow created ways to use the Ethiopian modes, being very careful not to lose the feeling.”


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