Mulatu Astatke, the Patriarch of Ethio-jazz, Plays UC Theater
Mulatu Astatke created a new sound by melding of Amharic scales and Afro-Cuban rhythms with jazz instrumentation and improvisation.
Astatke and his brand of Ethio-jazz delight audiences.
CC Tore Saetre
Not many people can take credit for single-handedly launching a new musical movement, but Mulatu Astatke is the undisputed patriarch of Ethio-jazz. A creative catalyst behind the golden age of Ethiopian music in the 1960s and ’70s, which came to a brutal end in 1974 when a Marxist military government known ominously as the Derg brought ruin to the country, Astatke created a new sound by melding Amharic scales and Afro-Cuban rhythms with jazz instrumentation and improvisation.
In the midst of a late-career resurgence by teaming with the Australian Ethio-funk band Black Jesus Experience on 2016’s Cradle of Humanity and 2019’s To Know Without Knowing, Astatke returns to the UC Theatre for two shows on May 10 and 11.
From the start, his musical journey was propelled by his desire to meld traditional Ethiopian and Western forms. Sent by his family to the UK to study engineering as a teenager, Astatke instead transferred to London’s Trinity College of Music. But looking to delve deeper into African diaspora culture, he became the first student from Africa to enroll at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where he studied vibraphone and percussion. Making regular trips down to New York, he connected with the vibrant Latin music scene, and his first recordings under his own name in 1966 reflect his fascination with Latin jazz. With its spacious textures and Ellingtonian voicings, Astatke’s music is arrestingly sensuous, keying on his lapidary vibraphone lines.
While he released a series of seminal recordings on the Ethiopian label Amha Records (tracks later reissued as part of the Éthiopiques series), he largely disappeared from view in 1975. It wasn’t until Jim Jarmusch prominently featured Astatke’s music his 2005 film Broken Flowers that Astatke resurfaced. He’s been making the most of his second act ever since.
Mulatu Astatke, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 10 and 11, UC Theatre, Berkeley, $42.50- $67.50, 510-356-4000, TheUCTheatre.org
This article originally appeared in our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.