sun 14/08/2022

Mulatu Astatke, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Mulatu Astatke, Royal Festival Hall

Mulatu Astatke, Royal Festival Hall

Ethiopian lounge lizard creates a new sonic world

Mulatu on vibes: Jazz from another planetVic Frankowski / Southbank Centre

It was Jim Jarmusch’s film Broken Flowers that first really got Mulatu Astatke major Western attention – in same way that Angelo Badalementi’s music for Twin Peaks gave a rich and strange dimension to David Lynch’s TV epic, there was an even greater sense of wonderful disorientation, or as Brian Eno put it “jazz from another planet,” with Astatke’s music.

While Astatke values the back catalogue (he played on the same bill as Duke Ellington in front of Haile Selassie in the early 1970s) he has really seized the opportunity that opened up for him to create some genuinely terrific new music.

This month has also seen with the Finding Fela! film in the cinemas, another ratchet up in recognition for the founder of Afro-beat, and it turns out that two of the most influential contemporary composers were both classically educated at Trinity College in London and were working at the same time in Africa – Fela Kuti in Nigeria and Mulatu Astatke in Ethiopia. All composers tend to work within a shtick of certain colours, scales and rhythms, which both of them did for their highly recognisable music, both using it as the base to do all kinds of imaginative leaps, rather more than most “normal” famous composers like Philip Glass with his arpeggios and predictable chord changes. Astatke uses the spine of Ethiopian scales (loads of flattened sixths, for one thing) to create a new sonic world.

Of course, all that is playing around with categories and both Fela and Mulatu could also be categorised as jazz (or funk and alternative pop at certain times for that matter). Mulatu’s show last night had all the good things about jazz – spontaneous improvisations of his top-notch band, most of whom had a go at sometime in the proceedings, all of which were original and none seemingly (the bad part of jazz) self-indulgent or unnecessarily show-offy.

Mulatu’s band were hugely disciplined – Alexander Hawkins would do virtuoso runs on piano one number, but play the minimum chords the next.  As a result the dynamics of the show were almost perfect.  A couple of rapper types came on, a cool Adrian Coker on “Netsanetta” and Afrikan Boy, who was enjoyably vivacious on “Yagelle Tizetta” - these were exactly the right interventions to give a vocal element in an instrumental set, particularly for those new to Planet Mulatu, even if a purely instrumental evening would also have worked for me and other previous converts.

The evening also worked for its ability to veer from more traditional African styles with drums and little else, to the most sophisticated complexities with a kind of slightly sinister lounge music as its default. Mulatu introduced plenty of non-Ethiopian elements into his music such as his love of the vibraphone, a delicious addition. A pleasure was the clever use of sonic colours; the two brass players would switch into different combinations, with James Arben on not just sax, but bass clarinet and flute, while Byron Wallen used his mute to change the trumpet into in a different instrument. One highlight was the moody “Motherland”. 

A danger in music journalism is that you have someone pegged as one thing, when there can be considerable advances while you are looking the other way. I had Mulatu down as an enjoyably exotic lounge lizard type. Turns out he’s one of the great band leaders too, up there with the very best like Wayne Shorter.

I had Mulatu down as an enjoyably exotic lounge lizard type. Turns out he’s one of the great band leaders too


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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