Jazz pioneer Mulatu Astatke: ‘All I do is play my music’

Marco B Divaio

In the swinging Addis Ababa of 1973, Mulatu Astatke played a joint concert at the fashionable Hilton hotel with American jazz legend Duke Ellington before an audience including Emperor Haile Selassie. Ethiopia was modernising and Ellington’s visit, sponsored by the US embassy, symbolised the proud African country’s openness to western […]

In the swinging Addis Ababa of 1973, Mulatu Astatke played a joint concert at the fashionable Hilton hotel with American jazz legend Duke Ellington before an audience including Emperor Haile Selassie. Ethiopia was modernising and Ellington’s visit, sponsored by the US embassy, symbolised the proud African country’s openness to western influence.

The moment was fleeting. By the following year, Ellington had died of lung cancer and Haile Selassie had been deposed by a Soviet-backed Marxist regime in a coup whose ripples are still being felt today. 

At 77 and now a legend himself, Mulatu — the undisputed “father of Ethio Jazz” — looks back on those events through a resolutely artistic lens. 

“He was one of my heroes,” he says of Ellington, the great African-American bandmaster. The American ambassador had told him Ellington was coming and that they should collaborate. “‘Come on,’ I said. ‘That’s my dream. Great, man,’” he recalls, summoning up his best cool-cat intonation. “And it was a beautiful concert. So beau-di-ful,” he says, elongating the vowels and pursing his lips as if he were playing a trumpet.

We are sitting, rather awkwardly, side by side on a low, plush-red seat in Mulatu’s African Jazz Village club, a space of chrome and neon in Addis Ababa decorated with photographs of greats from Charlie Parker to Nigeria’s Fela Kuti. We are the only guests. 

Mulatu (Ethiopians go by their first name) had gestured to the sofa-like seat, one of several ranged intimately around the circular sunken stage. He has ordered an Ethiopian feast for us to share, plus a Habesha “Cold Gold” beer for me and an Ambo water for him. He is dressed in a brown suit with a handkerchief sprouting from his top pocket. His head is bald and shiny, but he has a wispy white moustache and stubby goatee. 

Ethio Jazz has been described as jazz “from a parallel universe”. A compulsively slinky, almost otherworldly sound with blaring horns and Afro-Latin rhythms, it fuses the pentatonic scales of traditional Ethiopian music with the sounds of American jazz. It is a technically audacious, mesmerising musical concoction that Mulatu, the “Daddy from Addy” as one writer christened him, invented in the 1960s. He plays conga drums, keyboards and vibraphone, a xylophone-type instrument struck with soft mallets.

For years revered in Ethiopia, he became better known abroad after 1998 when a French label launched its long-running Éthiopiques series. But he scaled new heights of fame when his music was featured in Jim Jarmusch’s 2005 film Broken Flowers.

In the story, a washed-up lothario played by Bill Murray sets off on a cross-country odyssey to a Mulatu soundtrack. The music is hypnotic and ghostly, but with a sense of driving rhythm that matches the film’s quest. 

“Jimmy is my brother,” he says when I ask about the time Jarmusch approached him backstage to discuss a collaboration. “I had a lot of followers in New York before this movie. But after Broken Flowers came out, oh my God, my audience doubled.” 

The waitress arrives with the food, laid out on a bicycle wheel-sized silver sharing platter. Stretched across it are several sheets of greyish injera, a sour spongy pancake made from fermented teff, a gluten-free grain marketed in the west as a superfood. Some 90 per cent of the world’s teff is grown in Ethiopia. 


African Jazz Village

Ras Desta Damtew Street, Addis Ababa

Injera flatbread x4

Doro wat chicken

Ayib feta cheese

Raw beef

Cooked beef

Habesha ‘Cold Gold’ beer

Ambo water

Traditional Ethiopian coffee x2

Spread out on the injera are several dishes, sauces and condiments arranged like paints on a palette: there’s a blackish doro wat chicken, made with a berbere masala including chilli powder, fenugreek, ginger, garlic, cardamom and cinnamon, and served with a yolky boiled egg. There’s white ayib, homemade feta cheese, some spinach-like greens, and a mound of indeterminate orange dipping powder. Finally there are two portions of ground beef, one cooked and one pinkish raw. 

“I think you’ll love it,” he says, showing me how to break off a piece of injera with the fingers and scoop up a mouthful of food.

Before we go further I want to ask about the politics behind the Ellington concert all those years ago. Was he aware of the US government’s role in financing international tours by American jazz performers as part of its soft-power struggle with the Soviet Union? And did Mulatu, as I had read, initially sympathise with the Marxist revolution that had overthrown the emperor and had him killed? Unlike many other artists who fled the repressive Derg regime, Mulatu stayed in Ethiopia, teaching music and playing when he could. 

Not for the only time during our lunch, he stonewalls. “I don’t know anything about this, about what was involved,” he says, pulling a face as though I have said something off colour. “I’m not good in politics. Politics is not my game. All I do is play my music.”

This might prove tricky, I think, given that Ethiopia is all about politics these days. There’s a war raging in the northern region of Tigray and bitterly divided narratives about who is responsible. I resolve to broach these topics later. 

Mulatu’s musical odyssey did not begin in Addis, where he was brought up. “I didn’t know anything about myself: what to do and what to be,” he says. It started instead when his parents, well-to-do landowners, sent him to Lindisfarne school in north Wales at the age of 13, supposedly to hone an education that would lead to a career in aeronautical engineering. “That high school made me what I am,” he says, breaking off a section of injera and pincering some of the flaky white cheese. 

I take a swig of cold malty beer from the stylish Habesha bottle decorated with a logo of an Ethiopian angel, a design inspired by church murals.

At his school in north Wales, he says, the children were exposed to instruments including trumpet and clarinet. “It was all about finding your true self, what’s truly inside. If you don’t do that, you’ll be an average person, but you won’t be outstanding. A lot of people have been crushed inside.”

After persuading his sceptical parents that engineering was not for him, he moved to London to study music at Trinity College. Late-1950s London was a revelation. “There were different clubs, especially in Oxford Street up to Tottenham Court Road,” he says of the vibrant scene. “I saw Nigerians, I saw Ghanaians, walking around London in their own clothes, showing off their culture. I used to admire those people,” he says, still awed by their boldness in what must have been the hostile atmosphere of that era.

“There was this place called the Metro Club. I made friends with the musicians and I used to jam with them, playing congas.”

From London he moved to the US, where he was the first African to enrol in the Berklee School of Music in Boston. Later, in New York, where he spent much of the 1960s imbibing the jazz scene, he figured out how to fuse Ethiopia’s distinct musical traditions with the sounds he was hearing from the likes of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. 

“I created this music called ‘The Ethio Jazz’,” he says in a stagy whisper, sweeping his right hand vertically through the air as if he were summoning the three words on to a neon-lit marquee sign. “We call it ‘freedom in music’. That’s what Ethio Jazz is all about.”

I break off a chunk of chicken with a piece of injera. It’s fiery hot and I quickly take an emergency gulp of beer.

In the late 1960s, Mulatu took his hybrid musical form back home. Ethiopia, which had been briefly occupied by the Italians, was never colonised. It was fiercely protective of a culture stretching back some 2,000 years to the Aksumite kingdom, described by the Prophet Mani in the third century as one of the four greatest civilisations of the ancient world, along with Persia, Rome and China.

Audiences were wary of Mulatu’s newfangled sound. One of his first concerts, at the Ambassador Theatre, went less than well. “When I came to the improvisation part — dooby dooby dooby doo do do — the audience shouted: ‘Get off the stage.’ I’ll never forget it,” he says, still stung by the humiliation five decades later. “Now nobody says: ‘Mulatu, get off,’” he winks. “They say: ‘More, Mulatu. More.’” 

He had started travelling around Ethiopia, learning about the music and dance traditions in a country whose centuries-long history of conquest and assimilation had created a melting pot of 80 ethnic groups. In Gambela, home to the Nilotic Anuak people, he had found a troupe of female dancers to perform with him.

Once, Haile Selassie came to see him play in this very space, he says. But there was a problem. “You know the Gambelas, they don’t wear nothing here,” he says, cupping his two hands against his chest. The emperor’s people had warned that this would not do. “So I went to Mercato,” he says of the sprawling open-air marketplace in Addis Ababa. “And I bought 10 bras.” 

When he showed his purchases to the dancers, they protested. “‘This is our beauty,’ they said. ‘Who do you think you are to cover up our culture?’ We argued and argued.” Eventually the dancers relented, performing for the emperor in a manner that spared his royal blushes. 

After checking that I don’t want to share it, Mulatu bites off a chunk of runny boiled egg.

Mulatu’s Ethiopian wanderings were the start of his life-long quest to catalogue the songs, dances and, above all, the instruments of his country. Take the masenqo, he says of a single-stringed lute in which a horsehair string passes over a bridge, and the wooden soundbox is covered in taut animal skin. 

“This scientist who created the masenqo was a genius. He created this magical instrument, but nobody gives him respect. Which was first? The masenqo or the cello? Definitely the masenqo,” he says, helping himself to a large bite of chicken. 

“As much as I respect the cello, please respect also where it comes from. That is my message.”

He goes through some other examples. The kebero, employed in the liturgies of Ethiopia’s Coptic Christian church from the fourth century, is the forerunner of the timpani drum, he says. The zummara, a double clarinet, “sounds exactly like a trombone”. The mbira thumb piano, whose sound is amplified in a gourd and which originated in the Shona culture of Zimbabwe, is a grand piano in miniature. 

“I believe that the people who invented these instruments have never been given their place,” he says. “The roots of jazz are in Africa. That’s basically where it all comes from.” 

I’ve consumed a few mouthfuls of the raw beef, which is better than I’d expected. But I feel the injera swelling up in my stomach and resolve to stop eating before I explode. 

Our waitress takes the tray away and returns with freshly roasted coffee beans, which she wafts towards our nostrils in the Ethiopian tradition before reappearing with strong brewed coffee in two tiny cups.

For both his music and research, Mulatu has received an honorary degree from Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute awarded him a fellowship to study the threads that link Ethiopian and western music. While he was there, he began work on an opera to be conducted with the mekwamia, an ancient priest’s stick. 

He had hoped to perform that opera with Lalibela’s famous rock-hewn churches as backdrop. “But it didn’t happen,” he says. “I had a problem with the previous government. They didn’t like it.”

I sense a chance to return to politics. Why didn’t the previous government, which was dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, like the idea of performing in Lalibela, I ask? Again the defences come up. “Now you are asking me about politics,” he says, clearly discomforted.

I turn without much hope to his views on Abiy Ahmed, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, but whose government is now at war in Tigray. The conflict has unleashed allegations of sexual violence and civilian massacres and reawakened the spectre of famine. Mulatu accepted a medal from Abiy only a few months previously. Does that mean he supports the war?

Mulatu parries. “At least we are trying to become democratic,” he offers, referring to a general election held in relatively stable parts of the country in June. “As I say I don’t involve myself too much because my brain is so busy with all these things I’ve been telling you about.”

I try one last time. I know, I say, that Ethiopians want to be known not for poverty but for their proud history and cultural achievements. Doesn’t that make it all the more tragic that famine is once again looming?

Even this proves insufficient to draw much of a response. I figure that, to have lived so long in Ethiopia with his wife of 40 years and two children, avoiding politics has been prudent. “I’m just waiting for peace to return so I can go back to the bush and do my work,” he says. “There are so many things we should do for music and art in Africa. That’s my part. The other part is for politicians.”

As we drain our coffee he tells me he hopes to perform his opera in London’s Barbican Theatre with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. There’ll be two conductors, he says, one with a baton and the other with the mekwamia used by Coptic priests. 

“Do you know where the conductor’s baton comes from?” he asks.

“The mekwamia?” I venture.

“Brother, you’ve got it,” laughs Mulatu, snapping his fingers with delight that I’ve finally caught on. 

David Pilling is the FT’s Africa editor

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