The most mercurial and accessible figure unearthed by the ongoing Éthiopiques series.
Jon Lusk 2009
Fans of vintage Ethiopian music will know Mulatu Astatke – also spelled Astatqé – as the most mercurial and accessible figure unearthed by the ongoing Éthiopiques reissue series. When three pieces from the 1998 compilation Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale 1969-1974 (Éthiopiques 4) were featured in Jim Jarmusch’s 2005 film Broken Flowers, Astatke’s lounge-y, Latin-flavoured ‘Ethio jazz’ justly became much more widely known.
The music here spans his early career, from 1965-75, after which the scene in the ‘swinging’ Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa went into decline during 18 years of dictatorship and repression. The fact that eight of the 20 tracks on this compilation also appear on Éthiopiques 4 (with another taken from volume 17, featuring the singer Tlahoun Gèssèssè) may be something of a letdown. However, the rest of the material, which covers his formative years in London and New York, will be of great interest.
With its bizarre elephant trumpet intro, Spanish vocals and salsa-flavoured piano vamp, the 1966 recording I Faram Gami I Faram might easily be mistaken for someone else. But even though the earlier recording Shagu seems heavily influenced by New York’s nascent boogaloo scene (before the term had even been coined), Astatke’s pensive, playful vibraphone is unmistakeable.
The tantalisingly short Mascaram Setaba is another fascinating curiosity. Despite also showcasing Astatke’s vibes, it could almost be an outtake from Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd’s classic 1962 album Jazz Samba.
What’s really surprising is how Astatke managed to successfully mix such influences with full-on Ethiopian folklore; Ebo Lala bounces along to a brassy Latino groove, but also features an unhinged, growling vocal by Seifu Yohannes, and is based on a traditional Gurage folk song from southwest Ethiopia.
The set was compiled by Miles Cleret of Soundway Records, and his sleeve notes offer the usual insightful comments, many based on personal contact with the artist and his experiences in Ethiopia. It’s just a shame that almost half of these tracks will already be familiar to many. Some of this space might more usefully have been taken up by material from Astatke’s recent fine Inspiration Information 3 album, recorded with London-based band The Heliocentrics, more of the unknown early recordings, or both.