thu 23/05/2019

Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics, Barbican

Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics, Barbican

21st-century psychedelic jazz and 1970s Ethiopian soul exquisitely collide

Mulatu Astatke: Cool vibes (plus Wurlitzer and percussion) from the Ethiopian legend

After only a couple of songs there are shouts from the audience to turn Mulatu up. But these people have missed the point. The clue is in the name of the instrument he's playing: the vibraphone, or vibes for short. The word "vibe" has long been slang for “a good feeling” or a mood, and that’s precisely what its role was in last night’s concert; to add some of that ambient mysteriousness intrinsic to the five-note Ethiopian scale. Mulato Astatke, the supernaturally calm 67-year-old, delicately bounced his three wooden mallets off its aluminium bars, and an enraptured Barbican audience was transported back to a buzzing Addis Ababa nightclub circa 1973.

Mulatu Astatke, having waited 40 years for the international acclaim he now has, seemed perfectly happy to be just a modest contributor to the dense widescreen sound created by the 11-piece line-up of the London-based left-field collective, the Heliocentrics. Having been impressed by last year’s collaborative debut album Inspiration Information, I went to see the band live at KOKO in May of last year. While the album is a relatively contained affair - reined in by the modular nature of the programmed hip-hop and dance grooves it’s influenced by - the live performance was a far more expansive and adventurous experience. But unfortunately the evening was marred by a muddy sound.

No such problem at the Barbican last night. Every instrument was individually discernible, from the workman-like guitar of Adrian Owusu to the hysterical Hendrix-like cello soloing of Dan Keane. In fact, each soloist in the band carries their weight and no more than their weight: as someone with little patience for the masturbatory self-indulgences of many modern jazz musicians, I admired the disciplined way these guys succinctly had their musical say and then went back to the necessary job of keeping the groove moving.

This was music that circled endlessly, built in intensity, but never really came to any kind of climactic fruition - which worked just fine. Astatke’s compositions - and in particular the way the Heliocentrics played them - are all about the stretching and building of the moment; the suspension in mid-air of the single musical idea, until you get pulled in. It's what you might call uneasy rather than easy listening.

I couldn’t imagine a better balance between the cutting-edge contemporary sound of the Heliocentrics with their tides of reverb-drenched sci-fi noise and insistent semi-dissonant soloings and the prowling, snaking, sinuous would-be spy-movie soundtrack tunes of the great Astatke. Song after song from his extensive back catalogue (including “Yekermo Sew” from Broken Flowers - the Jim Jarmusch film that first brought him to a larger audience) were spread out before us like exotic blooms.

Astatke himself spent only a fraction of his time at the vibraphone and Wurlitzer, preferring to play a little percussion while coolly taking in what the rest of the band were up to. A standing ovation was the only possible way this evening could have ended, and my hope now is that this made-in-heaven collaboration goes straight back into the studio to capture what is undoubtedly a new and far more interesting phase of their musical development.

Finally, a word about support band Krar Collective. They are named after the Ethiopian six-stringed lyre that is at the heart of their sound; in fact it is their sound, as the only other musicians were a percussionist, Robel Tesfaye, and singer Genet Asefa. But what a full sound they produce! Using effects pedals, Temesgen Taraken makes the krar sound like a 12-string guitar one minute, and the chunkiest, funkiest electric guitar the next. I first saw the band a month or so ago at a tiny basement bar called Darbucka where they completely won over an initially reserved crowd, getting them to dance the night away. Last night’s performance was a little more staid and a lot more theatrical. But they are certainly unique, and a band, I suspect, that are different every time they perform.

Watch Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics play live:

‘This was music that circled endlessly, built in intensity, but never really came to any kind of climactic fruition; which worked just fine’

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