Mulatu Astatke Interview – for Melbourne International Jazz Festival

Ethiopian bandleader Mulatu Astatke is a musical innovator who’s achievements compare favorably to the likes of Fela Kuti, James Brown, or John Coltrane. In the 90’s Frenchman Francis Falceto began issuing his material via the Ethiopiques series, chronicling the golden period of Ethiopian music in the 60’s and 70’s prior to oppressive communist regime. But it was Jim Jarmusch’s 2005 film Broken Flowers, where he specially wrote in an Ethiopian character as an excuse to use Mulatu’s music, that really broke him in the west

Mulatu refers to his music as Ethio-jazz, an incredible slinky elongated blend of traditional Ethiopian music and western influenced jazz that is simply astonishing. With its incredibly deep groove, fluttering vibraphone and abundance of wind instruments, it’s jazz but it comes from a whole other world, the kind of music that bypasses the brain and connects immediately with the soul.

Mulatu is coming out to Australia for the Melbourne Jazz Festival. Cyclic Defrost were granted 10 minutes on a scratchy line to Ethiopia. Here’s what we were able to salvage:

Bob: How did you come up with Ethio-Jazz?

Mulatu: All musicians have different inspirations and ideas. They all want to be different and creative, and we all want to produce something and give something to the world. That’s the whole idea of going to school, studying and . When I was studying school in America, I had a very interesting teacher and he would say that he could only give me the tools. So I had the tools and I came up with ethio jazz music. That’s what happened. It was about 42 years ago it’s a long time.

We did about 3 LP’s in New York which are so so interesting and very nice and when I really listen back to those tracks after all this time sometimes it’s very interesting to me because it was really something different and something that has contributed to the development of music in the world.

Bob: In recent times you’ve been collaborating with the Helliocentrics. What’s it like working with these different musicians?

Mulatu: Great musicians, really nice guys, very nice to work with. The main thing is that they have a very good understanding of jazz. How I met the Helliocentrics was I usually lecture for Red Bull music academy and I went to Canada to lecture and I met this lady called Karen from England who is a producer. And she liked my lecturing, my music jazz and Ethiopian music and I went back to Africa and I got a call and she said would I like to go and make a concert in England. I said okay I’d be very glad to come over but I don’t have a band. She said I have a band, So that’s how I met the Helliocentrics. I went to England we had a fantastic concert there at a place called the Congo. It was a very successful one, and there was someone from K7 records, so she loved the show, she loved our collaboration together with Heliocentrics and they asked me if we could do a cd. So we did a cd together and the cd became really successful. So our collaboration has been very successful, we’ve been touring a lot together in Europe. We just finished one last week. It’s very nice actually. It’s great.

Bob: So you still play together quite a bit?

Mulatu: Yes we do.

Bob: So I know you’re coming to Australia and you’re playing with a band called the Black Jesus Experience, is that what you do? You travel and then get a band where you go?

Mulatu: No, no. This is the first time I’ve played with a different band. No there’s a band called Either Orchestra in boston, I usually work with them, or the Helliocentrics. The Black Jesus Experience is the first group that I will play with outside the Helliocentrics or Either Orchestra.

Bob: That should be interesting for you?

Mulatu: I think it will. It should be a very nice experience I think, playing with different people. And they’ll have the experience of playing ethio jazz which is so great. It helps for ethio jazz to expand, moving on from different musicians in the world. I think I will enjoy myself, I think it will be great.

Bob: I heard them playing one of your songs on the radio, Yekermo Sew and it sounded fantastic.

Mulatu: That’s great.

Bob: Do you feel like an ambassador for Ethio jazz around the world? Is that something that is important for you?

Mulatu: Well I mean you start something. You create something, I feel grateful for that, and for reaching everywhere in this world that it has. So when you’re creating something and it’s reaching all over the world I’m really proud and happy and I like the experience and also it’s promoting my country, I think it’s fun. I really enjoy it.

Bob: Okay this question is a little cheeky but you’re getting a bit older these days but you seem to be so excited about music that you’re not slowing down at all, it seems like the opposite. Is that true?

Mulatu: Let me tell you something. You can’t be old for music. The older you are, the better the music you can do. You have all that experience. If you read about the past and all the great composers and their works, the best ones happen when you are older and music is a profession that never ever ends. It ends when you die, that’s what I believe. It lives with you everyday. So our life is beautiful always, we never feel old we just keep going on and on and on. And that’s what I think about music.

The Forum
Sun 2 May at 8.00pm
Mon 3 May at 8.00pm

Mulatu Astake (vibraphone, percussion), James Abern, (saxophone)
Black Jesus Experience: Peter Harper (alto saxophone), Ian Dixon (flugelhorn), Thai Matus (keyboard), Nashua Lee (guitar), Cassawarrior (bass), Pat Kearney (drums), Souren Tchakerian (percussion)

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Fragmented Films April 2010

Evil Bong

Vampire Girl Vs Frankenstein Girl (Eastern Eye) is an excuse for slapstick gore that pretends to be a love story. Set in an over the top Japanese high school there are wrist-cutting competitions for emo kids, a mad scientist in kabuki getup mutilating students in the name of science, and a gang of Japanese Obama quoting girls in blackface. When a sexy new vampire schoolgirl has her sights set on the class stud the gore begins.

Fans of Machine Girl and the Incredibly wrong Tokyo Gore Police will find this film the Brewsters Millions of hyper gore, it’s like being given all the KFC you want, only to have the bones stick in your throat. Just when you think it’s gone way too far it escalates, like when during battle Frankenstein Girl unscrews her knife wielding arm and flings it at Vampire Girl, using it as a lethal boomerang. But that’s just the beginning. She then somehow attaches it to her head, it begins spinning, and she becomes a human helicopter. Then of course there’s the dialogue, “dicing one’s daughter is true happiness,” screeches the kabuki scientist. Gold.

Evil Bong (Beyond) is remarkable. It’s totally insane. We’ve had Freddy, Jason, even Chucky, and now a jive talkin Afro Mamma Bong called Eebee that sucks the soul out of all who dare take a toke. Yet that’s not what’s so bizarre here. It’s the totally deranged and cliched vision of America’s youth coupled with some of the most inept storytelling you could ever imagine. A jock, surfer, rich kid turned stoner and a nerd order a haunted bong mail order. After the jock’s girlfriend takes a toke she does what can only be described as a mating dance, inexplicably jumping around in a pogo stick frenzy repeatedly moaning ‘I’m horny.’ Then there’s the ‘supernatural’ element demonstrated via cutting edge 80’s video effects, which is a shame given that Evil Bong was made in 2006. When Eebee steals someone’s soul they are transported into, wait for it, a strip club inside the bong. Which is apparently a bad thing. Then Tommy Chong arrives to save the day with a chainsaw. This is so far beyond genius that genius is but a distant memory.

Veteran Hong Kong filmmaker Johnie To (Election) offers a super cool, hyper stylish cracker of a film in Vengeance (Eastern Eye). When his daughter’s family are brutally murdered, a French chef travels to Hong Kong to exact revenge. It exists somewhere between Bronson’s Deathwish series and a hyper violent spaghetti western, filled with tough men acting honourably in between brutally slaughtering people. “They killed my daughter’s family, I wont eat their food,” offers Johnny Halliday with a straight face. It’s like John Woo used to do it before he went to seed in Hollywood, a mixture of stylish hyper choreographed gun battles and emotional cheese. Many of the action scenes come off as dance, ludicrous set pieces, including the climactic sequence with all the gangsters pushing large balls of newspaper towards each other whilst engaging in a pitching gun battle.

Blood The Last Vampire (Eastern Eye) comes from anime, and it’s so stylishly shot and carefully controlled that to some extent it still doesn’t feel like live action. It’s from the producers of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, which may explain why there’s so much awkward English language in this Japanese film set on a Vietnam era American military base. Demons have infested the earth and whilst the war is occupying the humans, there is another war going on. Heaping cliche upon cliche and existing purely an exercise in style, it’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer meets Men in Black without the humour. Though you have to be happy with one thing – at least they put the demon hunter in a cute schoolgirl outfit.

Can it get any better than Nazi zombies in the snow? In Dead Snow (Madman) before the zombies are unleashed a group of horny teens head to a remote cabin. Before you can say Evil Dead one of the guys goes to the outhouse to take care of business and a girl sneaks out and mounts him whilst he is still sitting on the latrine. Nothing like a spot of coprophilia to kick a movie into gear. Then the splatter begins. Sorry bad choice of words. It’s hilarious and over the top, with the creepiest Nazi zombies since the 1976 Peter Cushing vehicle Shock Waves. Yet those came from the ocean, and these come from the snow which makes them scarier. Right?

Fragmented Frequencies April 2010

There are few things in this world as flat out insane as Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels (Select Audio Visual). Whilst his music is renowned for its weirdness, humour, and creativity, this film makes his music seem normal. It plays out like a confused freak power mash up between Neil Young’s Human Highway and The Monkeys Head directed by a room full of monkeys typing the collective works of Shakespeare.

It’s apparently a critique of the insanity of life on the road, which apparently like the film is bizarre and virtually nonsensical. Frank Zappa appears in the film only as a musician and never singing. He is played however by an uncomfortable looking Ringo Starr, who wanders around in a number of peculiar skits voicing strange oddities and watching people smoke towells. Keith Moon meanwhile pops up in drag as a nun. It’s the result of way too much coffee and the belief that the nonsencial and confused actually means something. Touring can make you crazy, and watching this film can too. You know you’re in trouble when the director, Tony Palmer utilises the liner notes in the booklet as an opportunity to correct all the lies that Zappa spread about the film and take credit for any semblance of narrative, but he does himself no favours, because seriously, if you think this is narrative then your world must be pretty fragmented. Then there’s the London Philharmonic Orchestra who find themselves in the middle of this chaos, providing backgrounds to some very odd spoken wordplays. Apparently it works best on LSD. It couldn’t hurt.

Infinite Decimals are the Melbourne experimental duo of Barnaby Oliver (guitar) and Don Rogers (bass) who walk the line between music and sound in a really interesting way. They’ve just released their debut album 0.18232323… (Audio Actions), which comprises of two pieces, the first a mesmirising shimmer of sound that clocks in at almost 7 minutes and the second, a more difficult elongated piece that develops through repetition and subtle changes into a kind of chugging slab of guitar noise. There’s an almost engine room mentality, rhythmic, mechanical, a locked groove that elicits hypnotic qualities in the listener as the two instruments begin to feel like the one entity. They’re launching 0.18232323… at 3pm on the 24th of April at the Empress with some other great experimental musicians including Tim Catlin.

Speaking of Catlin, his recent duo recording with precocious Dutch producer Machinefabriek, Glisten (Low Point) is nothing short of incredible. Due to its subtlety and lack of bluster (aside from the final third of Haul in which the sound builds into white noise) Glisten’s peace and quiet serves to lower the heart rate and train the ears to operate on a micro level, to appreciate even the smallest gesture. It’s an incredibly still work, Catlin’s prepared guitar drones and Machinefabriek’s manipulations are understated and beautiful, the layers of sound coming across in slow gentle carefully controlled waves, demonstrating the experimental can also be both elegant and restrained.

New Waver is a local artist who is concerned about the social fabric of our society. Particularly Fitzroy. His latest album Bohemian Suburb Rhapsody (Spill) ‘looks at inner city life…exploring culture production and consumption, class relations, romanticisim and real estate.” It’s filled with songs like Hey Dude, which to the strains of the Beatles Hey Jude he wails lines like “the minute the area’s looking hip, we’ll through you out and rent it to bankers.” The video is a camera crusing down Brunswick st. What a passionate man. It’s normally $900,000 but special price for you is free download. http://www.spill-label.org/nw

Fela Ransome – Kuti and Africa 70 with Ginger Baker – Live (Knitting Factory/ Planet Company)

In the late 60’s, early 70’s Fela Kuti and band recorded a number of albums at London’s famed Abbey Road Studios, one of which Cream drummer Ginger Baker guested on. Baker and Kuti enjoyed a lasting and fruitful friendship, with Baker traveling to to Lagos cross country (See the amazing doco Ginger Baker In Africa for a document of that journey) in 1969 to help Fela set up Nigeria’s first sixteen track studio funded by EMI. Whilst in Nigeria he and Fela collaborated regularly, and the fruits of this can be heard on this disc. Originally released in 1971, this reissue has even kindly thrown in a 16 and a half minute drum solo from Ginger Baker and Tony Allen at the 1978 Berlin Jazz Festival.

The album proper which was recorded at said 16 track studio begins with Baker filling Tony Allen’s seat on Let’s Start, kind’ve the equivalent of Ice-T’s L.G.B.N.A.F for it’s day, a call for sex with Kuti singing in his native Yoruba and explaining himself in English. The remainder of the album is one of the funkiest and most groove orientated works in Kuti’s extensive oeuvre, almost aggressively rhythmic due to the two incredible percussionists, possibly the two best in operation at the time interlocking and weaving around each other. Then of course there’s the congas and clave to add to the mix. The horns are impossibly sharp and stabbing and Kuti’s keyboard solos are inspired and mesmerizing. Between songs Kuti also indulges in English banter, ‘I wrote this song especially for Ginger, he doesn’t smell, he takes his bath,” on the opening to Ye Ye De Smell, which according to the liner notes from Kuti’s biographer is a colorful way of saying you reap what you sow. Perhaps most interesting is Kuti’s vocals. These are early days where he hadn’t fully developed his distinctive style and as a result he indulges in a kind of scat mixed with Yoruba, keeping things simple, leaving extended silences and even preempting horn lines, doing call and response with the instrumentation.

Of course Ginger Baker is heavily featured, not just on the final piece at the Berlin Jazz festival but also in an exhilarating extended percussion solo with Allen smack bang in the middle of Ye Ye De Smell. If you like percussion, you’re in heaven as these two together are nothing short of awe inspiring. The final piece is simply a duo recording, Baker and Allen alone, two drums and a sixteen and a half minute onslaught that sends the German’s wild.

Most Fela Kuti albums are something special, yet the presence of Baker really hardens up the groove offering a more relentless and driving feel that somehow makes the music feel more urgent, raw and passionate.

Bob Baker Fish