When the 16-year-old Mulatu Astatke left his home in Ethiopia in 1959 to continue his schooling in Wales, the plan was to help build his nation by studying aeronautical engineering. Not long after landing in the UK though, Astatke changed course and decided to devote himself to music, but he’s never wavered from that original mission.
As the architect of a musical movement known as Ethio-jazz, a singular melding of Amharic scales, jazz instrumentation and improvisation, and Afro-Cuban rhythms, Astatke has played a singularly significant role in bringing Ethiopia’s musical riches to the world stage. He makes a rare Bay Area appearance Wednesday at the UC Theatre, with Ethiopian-American vocalist, composer, guitarist and bandleader Meklit opening the show.
While Astatke is widely respected in his homeland, where he continues to teach, compose and create new music, “he’s not as beloved as he should be,” says Meklit, who cites Astatke as a primary source of inspiration. “I think he was doing something so ahead of his time, he didn’t always receive the positive response you’d hope for. He is a household name, but at the same time, I think he’d get more appreciation as he’s become an international cultural figure.”
After abandoning his engineering coursework, Astatke transferred to London’s Trinity College of Music, where he earned a degree. But more consequential was his introduction to jazz. Looking to delve deeper into African-American music 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.
As he came into his own as a composer, Astatke created a new sound by drawing on traditional Ethiopian scales, jazz, soul and Latin rhythms. With its spacious textures and Ellingtonian voicings, Astatke’s music is arrestingly sensuous, keying on his lapidary vibraphone lines. He introduced his Ethio-jazz concept back home in early 1970s, becoming a catalytic force in Addis Ababa’s thriving music scene. He collaborated widely with vocalist Mahmoud Ahmed (who performed at Zellerbach last November), and even toured around Ethiopia as a special guest with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
While Astatke 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 after a Marxist military clique known as the Derg deposed the long-reigning Emperor Haile Selassie. The brutal regime brought the curtain down on what became known as the golden age of Ethiopian music (and sparked the devastating famine of the mid 1980s). It wasn’t until Jim Jarmush prominently featured Astatke’s music his 2005 film Broken Flowers that he resurfaced.
“The world kind of discovered him through Broken Flowers, and it felt in like such a relief, that finally he was getting his due,” Meklit says. “After the revolution, the Derg enforced a curfew in Addis Ababa and all the clubs closed. So many musicians lost their careers, and there was this transition to electronic music, where people weren’t gathering in clubs to make songs anymore. Mulatu stayed in Ethiopia and was a teacher for decades. When he started touring again around 2005 it was such an amazing moment.”
While Meklit grew up hearing her parents’ cassettes of popular Ethiopian singers, recordings that often featured Astatke’s arrangements. But she turned on to his Ethio-jazz albums during her undergrad years at Yale, when she was part of a group of friends who held regular music listening sessions.
“The whole point was you had to bring music you thought nobody else would know,” she says. “Everybody would get two songs, and we’d listen for two hours and not talk. Somebody brought one of the early Éthiopiques and I was like, what is this?! It just became part of my listening life. The music really speaks to me, on a lot of levels, on both sides of my identity.”
Meklit is still riding high from the rapturous reviews she received for her gorgeous new album The People Move and the Music Moves Too (Six Degrees Records). She traces the project’s creative trajectory to a 2011 encounter with Astatke when she was performing in Ethiopia. He came by her gig and professed his love for her voice but he also gave her some pointed advice, “saying several times ‘You keep innovating!’” she recalls. “There can be this push and pull where people want you to keep doing the traditional stuff. But he knows artists have to keep evolving.”
She’s been in perpetual motion ever since, with earth-shaking results. Meklit co-founded The Nile Project with Egyptian ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis, and toured internationally with the first iteration of the collective. Bringing together more than 30 East African artists who hail from the 11 countries traversed by the Nile, the organization has evolved into a creative force introducing new ideas for preserving and protecting the life-giving river and the peoples who depend on it. (If you attended Berkeleyside’s Uncharted Festival of Ideas in 2015, you won’t fail to remember her.)
While Meklit isn’t performing with the Nile Project ensemble these days, the experience shaped her new album, particularly the propulsive rhythm section tandem of Colin Douglas on drum kit and Marco Peris Coppola on the frame drum tupan. Her core band also features Berkeley-reared saxophonist Howard Wiley, trumpeter Will Magid, and bassist Mike Shannon.
A manifesto of hybridity, The People Move and the Music Moves Too is a collaboration with Grammy Award-winning songwriter and producer Dan Wilson (Adele, Dixie Chicks, Taylor Swift. Meklit accompanies her translucent, soul-sated vocals on guitar and the six-string krar, an Ethiopian lyre, while the Berkeley-reared Wiley provides pleasingly pungent counterpoint on tenor and baritone saxophones.
Recorded in Addis Ababa, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and San Francisco the album encompasses the Preservation Hall Jazz Band horns, Andrew Bird, ace teams of LA and Bay Area studio players, and a trio of traditional Ethiopian musicians. The result is a 21st century iteration of Ethio-jazz by way of the Bay Area, a soul-steeped sound built on percussion, horns, and Meklit’s unmistakably translucent, fresh-water vocals.