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)


Fragmented Frequencies – 1st April 09


Possibly the greatest thing Fragmented Frequencies has ever heard ever, in the history of ever, is track five of the new Syringe Stick Up Mamma (Who Says Records/ Dual Plover) album. Whilst the rest of the album is an erratic blast of unhinged politically incorrect at times verbally abusive socially conscious hip hop, with breathless and stupidly fast rhymes over inventive, dense at times break-core beats, I Shit On Ya! takes everything to an entirely new level. It’s a level so dangerous and inventive that the air up there is so thin that few ever get there, and those that do can’t remain there for too long. It starts normal enough (or at least normal in the context of this album which anywhere else would be very very weird), with a bit of Eastern European accented ranting over industrial 4/4 beats, yet then the real ranting begins, the music stops, almost like it gives up, knowing that it can’t even begin to compete with the genius that is about to follow. Or flow. It’s a torrent of abuse for the next eight and a half minutes, a’ cappella ranting as the MC lets all those pent up grudges out, and it’s like opening the floodgates as we get swamped until we can barely breathe. ‘Cunts who are too weak to burn bridges, I shit on ya,’ ‘anyone who’s name starts with the letter a I shit on ya,’ he rails. Yet this is a far reaching totally insane and unfocussed rant so everything is fair game. You dobbed on him in kindergarten? Guess what? He remembers and shits on ya. No one is spared, even the ‘sissy’ who turned off the sound on the mic because he was spitting at the Empress the other week, or a pizza place who doesn’t put enough spinach on his pizzas. That’s right, he shits on ya. By about five minutes his flow gets scattered, he loses track, tangents away and any semblance that this was ever music, and not just a random potty mouthed unhinged lunatic is gone. What makes it so great is of course that it’s hilarious and wrong, but mostly because there’s no censorship or polish. This is not studio trickery or even rehearsal. This is straight up pure improvisation. This music is blood pouring from a wound and no one’s bothering with band aids.

Speaking of wounds, ACMI seem intent on picking the scab and reminding us of the demise of Melbourne’ s best record store a few years back. Synesthesia is a periodic experimental music and audio visual night held in Studio One up until the 18th of May. Over the coming months artists like Qua, Jean Poole and Ang Fang Quartet will be featured, though the series kicks off with colourful electro pop of Mink Engine on the 9th of April whilst the 23rd sees local AV laptop collective Outpost team up with digital messiah Robin Fox who will dust off his oscilloscope for the performance. The best thing about all these performances is that they’re free.

After being subjected to the traversty of Queens of the Stone Age you may be surprised to learn that desert rock is alive and well. The desert of course being the Sahara. Tinariwen are one of the most soulful and inspiring bands around, melding an incredible back-story with some of the most distinctive and evocative blues tinged music you will ever hear. Fragmented Frequencies can’t hear their music without being transported back to the Sahara. They’re in town playing at Hamer Hall tonight.

Of course the Melbourne International Jazz Festival is in town from the 26th of April and this year there’s some interesting internationals. Highlights include improv legend Cecil Taylor, guitarist Bill Frisell, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline (who’s doing a free improv show with Oren Ambarchi and will be interviewed in these very pages) and Ornette’s old bass player Charlie Haden. ACMI are coming to the party with a Jazz on Screen season that includes Sun Ra’s Space is the Place, the making of Charlie Haden’s recent country foray Rambling Boy, the portrait of iconic trumpeter Chet Baker in Let’s Get Lost, Jazz on A Summers Day and the excellent Mancini scored seedy noir masterpiece A Touch Of Evil, from that great man Orson Welles.