A maestro for five decades

Nobody fuses the sounds and rhythms of African, American and European music the way Mulatu Astatke does. Known as the founder of Ethio-jazz, Mulatu’s reputation precedes him. The 72-year-old virtuoso multi-instrumentalist was musically trained in London, New York City, and Boston where he combined his jazz and Latin music interests with traditional Ethiopian music. Like a lot of "world music" picked up by western audiences in recent years, Ethio-jazz appeals to a large number of people because it is simultaneously familiar and foreign. Western instruments—trumpets and saxophones, electric keyboards and bass guitars—are played with a different accent, generated by tuning (some Ethiopian music also makes use of non-tempered scales) and timing. In addition, to his musical skills, Mulatu is also a theoretician and is engaged in projects that would bring Ethiopian music to the international audience. Tibebeselassie Tigabu of The Reporter sat with the talented musician to chat about his musical journey. Excerpts:

The Reporter: Let’s start with your current tour in Europe. How was it?

Mulatu Astatke: I did 20 concerts in various parts of Europe. These concerts are sold out concerts with an attendance of up to 120,000 people. So far my musical journey has been a blessing. Sometimes in the middle of the concerts I watch the overwhelming crowd and it sounds unbelievable. With Ethio-jazz I even had unorthodox fans in Brazil from favelas. (Favelas are urban slum areas which are generally considered to be rough. The favelas of Rio have a reputation of being one of the most dangerous places in the world).  I have heard about the drug gangs and I am not going to deny that I was a bit scared (laughs). More than twenty thousand from the favelas came to the show. They were cheering me and calling my name and at the end of the concert they shove each other to hug me. This was unbelievable.  This inspires and energizes me. In the middle of all this I always do not forget the creators of Ethiopian musical instruments. I salute their greatness.

Talking about the creators of Ethiopian musical instruments, you have been engaged in researching Ethiopian modes and musical instruments. Can you tell us more about it?

My inspiration came from my personal interest. I just wanted to know who created Ethiopian popular modes (Bati, Anchi Hoye, Ambassel and Tizita). These modes are the foundation of Ethiopian music.  We all grew up listening to these modes. We danced with these modes not knowing the source. So far, I have been engaged in doing a lot of researches to trace the root. Unfortunately, it is a shame; in fact experts in the area do not have any idea. There are also those experts who claim that the modes emanate from church liturgical music. I do not agree with that claim. The church music has its own mode—Geez, Ezil, Araray—that was composed by Saint Yared. They might have a connection with phrasing but I see it differently. Our lack of knowledge is not only based on the modes rather there are gaps when it comes to Ethiopian traditional musical instruments and traditional movements such as eskista. For instance, Beyoncé incorporated eskista and also dance elements from Gumuz in some of her works. The rest of the world considered it to be her own but the reality is different. Looking at the bigger picture we are not concerned about art and culture so there are no researches, preservation or promotion of Ethiopian culture, art and music. In some instances, I see musicians improvising music without knowing the roots. As art practitioners they have the freedom to do any kind of music but in the end it will result in distortion of the root. The root of the music has been neglected and to make it worse they are named backwards. Let’s have a closer look of Ethiopian musical instruments take the masinko. It has the same sound as cello. Take zumbara; it sounds like a trombone while washint sounds like a flute. These musical instruments have existed for a long time; before the coming of western musical instruments. That is why I say the creators should be seen as scientists.

Part of your research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is working on Ethiopian traditional musical instrument. How is it going so far?

With Ethio-jazz being popular all over the world, I have been busy with tours and I am involved in many projects. I want to introduce Ethiopia to the rest of the world. But I will be back soon. So far, I worked on developing our traditional musical instruments. My initial work has been on kirar. I have managed to develop it and now we can play standard jazz tunes such as “Mercy Mercy Mercy”, “Never on Sunday” and “Summertime”. Bear in mind that these tunes are out of the four Ethiopian modes. By developing traditional music instruments you allow the great azmaris, who are the scientists of our music, to be part of the world musical development. With kirar I am opening new doors for azmaris to think about playing in various scales such as 12 notes. So that is also the aim of one of my projects called “Bringing Azmaris to the 21st Century”. I strongly believe that the kirar can do what the guitar is able to do if we take our time and work on the development. I have more concrete ideas and inputs on how to develop it. Once I am back to it I think it is going to be great.

Why wasn’t it developed until now?

It is very difficult to answer this. The way I see this depends on the interest of musicians and music experts. They must be determined and keen to take it to a different level. This is my assumption but I would not know the exact reason. One thing I can say is I tried to develop it and it is has been successful. So I will be back at MIT to start where I stopped and for me it is a dream.

Ethio-jazz is celebrated all over the world, sampled by mainstream hip-hop artists such as Kanye West; Nas and Damian Marley to mention a few. Did you imagine Ethio-jazz would be this huge?

My main aim behind the creation of Ethio-jazz was to show the contribution Ethiopian music to the world. It has been 52 years since it was created. Now, after five decades, Ethio-jazz has become like reggae and blues—a genre which is embraced and accepted all over the world. I won many prestigious awards. What’s more interesting is that wherever I go I am encountered with Ethio-jazz bands and groups from all over the world. I found bands in New York, Israel, England, and Germany. So far the only group I didn’t meet was in Russia. Also at home there are a lot of Ethio-jazz musicians. It is gaining momentum. The honorary PhD I received from Berkeley stated: “Your Contribution to the World Music Industry”. I am so pleased to see Ethio-jazz reach this level. Ethio-jazz was launched in New York by Worthy Records. Initially three different LPS were released based on Ethio-jazz concept and now we are here.

We are trying to have a big celebration in New York this year. I have concerts in Washington DC, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. I hope it coincides with the period of the celebration. Though Ethio-jazz is celebrated all over the world but the reception at home was not smooth. Addis Ababa, did not welcome me. I had a concert in Ambassador Theatre called “Days of Melodies”; an experimentation of begena, piano and other instruments. Oh yeah the audience shouted at me and yelled at me saying “get off at the stage”. Maybe they were furious with me fusing begena with guitar and other instruments or they could not understand my music. One way or another it was not embraced by the people. It was easy to stop at that instant since people didn’t like my music. However, it did the opposite; it gave me more power. I was persistent and continued pushing and working more. On the contrary, what encouraged me is open mind of the Americans, Europeans and the support of music lovers from all over the world. Now we have fans from places like Columbia, Madagascar, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Lebanon. Recently, I was even invited to perform in Iran. Think about it; Iran! I hear they like my music.  Let me also tell you about my Moscow experience. I collaborated with the famous African-American hip-hop artist Talib Kweli and honestly the audience went frantic. It was overwhelming. Too good to be true! Ethio-jazz has spread so beautifully all over the world.

“Yegele Tizita,” “Yekermo Sew” and “Gubelye” were in the soundtrack for the Oscar nominated film “Broken Flowers”. Did it help with the popularization?

In New York it was popular from the start. To the rest of the world Broken Flowers definitely helped in reaching out to a wider audience. Amazing things happen wherever I perform. In London I performed with Criolo; a famous rap musician from Brazil. The crowds increase wherever I go. We have an attendance of more than 140 thousand people. The crowd is overwhelming.

How do you cope with the fame?

There are people who didn’t know about Ethiopia including its location but know my music. So their introduction to Ethiopia is through my music and I feel so proud and great. I did not think it would get here. But the love and support eople and music lovers from all over the world, who understood the chemistry of Ethio-jazz, got me to where I am today. I hope they will continue supporting and traveling with me.

What inspired you create Ethio-jazz and what were the challenges?

Back in the day, what I knew and experimented on was the four modes. During my undergrad days at Berkley I had a remarkable professor who used to tell us to be ourselves. It was the time when we analyzed giant musicians such as Coltrane, Miles Davis and Quincy Jones. So I started to question how these great musicians became themselves. How did Coltrane become a giant and why not me? I have a brain. So following his advice I looked inwards. I started employing a different approach to music and my Ethio-jazz journey took off. The journey started with fusing five notes and four modes against 12 notes. Honestly speaking, it was not easy to bring the harmony. One has to be careful in blending these notes and modes. So it took me a while to create the beauty, character and sounds of the five notes and four modes against 12 notes. Fusing the five notes against 12 notes and finding the harmony was a big challenge.

The fusion was so interesting. People who heard the blend sometimes used to call it Latin Rhythm. For me there is no Latin music; the source is Africa. Even famous Latin tunes such as cha-cha and rumba are found in Southern Ethiopia. They took many elements from Africa and developed it in New York and that is how they came up with Latin-jazz—a beautiful melodious music. I played in Cuba and Mexico and I told musicians Latin-jazz or the other rhythm has been taken from West Africa and Ethiopia. Ethio-jazz is a combination of world music in a beautiful fused format. One thing that should be clear is our modes are always on top. Now they came up with what they call a world music label and they were here and I told them I started doing world music 52 years ago.

Did the name Ethio-jazz come instantly?

Initially it was named Afro-Latin soul. I looked at the combinations and listened to the fusion of the music and I called it Ethio-jazz.

When did you start looking into Derashe music and also researching about Orthodox liturgical music? What was the inspiration?

My fascination with music from southern Ethiopia came a long time after coming back from America. I started researching and listening to music from southern Ethiopia. It was during the time of Emperor Haile-Selassie that I brought Gambella musicians and I made a beautiful fusion. That is how I started. After that, I expanded my work, conducted deep research and experimented on music from southern Ethiopia. I fused kirar, begena and washint with southern music. It is through my research that I discovered the Derashe people who are out of Bati, Anchi Hoye, Ambassel and Tizita. Surprisingly, these are the Ethiopians who are doing 12 notes of music live in the middle of five notes country. I don’t know how they manage to create and play 12 notes. In addition to that, they also play  diminished scale (an eight-note scale that is built by picking a tonic note, and then altering whole steps and half steps from that starting note) starting from ancient times.

I did a beautiful fusion of Derashe music and in the meantime talked about them in Harvard and Berkley. So I asked the Harvard and Berkeley communities how come there are the Derashes in the remote southern part of Ethiopia and the genius musician and creator of modern jazz, Charlie Park, who was attributed to have created the diminished scale? Simply put, the question was: who created diminished scale was it Charlie Parker or the Derashes? The Derashes have played their music using diminished scale for so long. I asked the professor and all he got to say was “Mulatu you got me”. And that was his answer. We are still exploring more to reach to a consensus on who created the diminished scale. The Derashes use one type of diminished scale and Charlie parker uses two types of diminished scale but the question is who created it?

Did this deliberation shed a new light on diminished scale?

Yes, very much. Now they look at it differently.

You have also talked about Ethiopia preceding other in conducting music using mekwamia? Can you tell us more about that?

Mekwamia is a conducting stick that has been used in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church since the 6th century. People can use it for resting but the sole purpose is for Ethiopian Orthodox Church liturgical music conducting. When you study conducting—whether it is military or symphony—the movement depends on the stick. Before anyone, we had conducting here locally. At Harvard I presented a paper about mekwamia. My paper stressed how conducting is Ethiopian contribution to the world. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has contributed so much to the development of classical music. They conducted music with the stick and they have been doing that since the 6th century. You can research and go to the encyclopedia but you will realize that there was no symphony orchestra in the 6th century. So where did conducting come from? My conclusion was it is us; St Yared should be attributed to that. So I wrote this beautiful Opera with a performance of a Merigeta and another European conductor and they were conducting what I have written. This is a new finding to the rest of the world.  So based on this finding I will probably be doing the first recording in England.

When you present these new ideas, do you face resistance or do people accept it?

The Europeans are open-minded even though I know am challenging the Europeans musical thinking. I presented this at Harvard in the presence of top musicologists from Princeton and Yale universities. They could not say anything. I asked them to prove me wrong if there was a symphonic Orchestra before the 6th century. They could not say anything. That means Ethiopia wins. One thing about most Europeans is they love people experimenting; they always want to hear something new and something different. Whatever I am talking about, whether St. Yared is the first composer or Derashes created diminished scale, I get 100 percent acceptance. If they don’t want to accept that they can come up and talk to me. For me this is what I found out. I talked to professors from all over the world. This challenged their musical history.

Can you tell us more about your research in church liturgical music? What was the journey like?

I used to frequently go to Entoto Mariam Church as early as 4:00AM n the morning. I closely studied the movement of the mekwamia and the chanting. Apart from that I worked with Ethiopian Orthodox musical liturgy experts, merigetas and liqe liqawunts. I learned a lot about St. Yared’s musical notations and other aspects of the orthodox liturgical music. Based on my findings I had a program called Niwaye Mahlet Kidist Merewa on Ethiopian Television. For me all this boils down to one thing. African musical contribution to the rest of the world— whether it is conducting, musical instruments or melodies—it is massive. Not only Africans but also indigenous people from Asia are geniuses who contributed to the development of music. The sad part in this is that they did not get recognition and acknowledgment. The westerners respect the piano maker or the one who made the saxophone. For instance, take piano; there is an African piano called imbiras. The imbira existed long before the piano so where piano come from. It should be researched. I did an experimental work on imbiras from Zimbabwe. I took seven imbira players to Vienna for Mozart’s 250th birthday celebration. The imbira highlighted the stage and the audience had a great time.

You have done a lot of researches in the five decades. How did it change you musically?

Ethio- jazz is developed now. If you hear Ethio-jazz from 50 years ago and now, you can notice the transformation. The harmonic structure, the soloing, the feel and rhythmic sections are different. I have been working with a group called Heliocentric who play Ethiopian electronic music. That is another development of Ethio-jazz. Now I am back to acoustics. I love acoustics. There will be more development into the future for Ethio-jazz. I have a plan to make Ethio-jazz with only developed Ethiopian traditional musical instruments.

What are the challenges in researching?

It is not easy. Looking for the right people, trying to meet the right people, go around, working on it, rehearsing, traveling, discussing ideas, recruiting musicians… It is very challenging but that is the beauty of life. I enjoy it and I am used to it.

Now you are engaged in intensive researches. In a way research became your way of life. What should have been done to make the orthodox liturgical music such as Digua, Tsome Digua, Zimare and the like be more widespread?

They should be studied in the right way and be included in the curriculum. If we do this, it will be possible to have fantastic, educated and all rounded Ethiopians. The rest of the world teaches music, art, painting and other art forms. We should take a lesson and incorporate the ancient Ethiopian Orthodox teachings starting from the language Ge’ez to Zimare and all other aspects side-by-side with contemporary art. With this system young people can navigate what their talent is. During my high school days in England, they taught us everything and every Saturday they assessed each of us. They tried to identify what our inclination was. They gave us guidance on what career to choose. So we explored based on that and now my classmates are great mathematicians and physicists. In this part of the world the drawback in the education system is neglecting arts and culture. That is why you see only average people even if they are engineers and doctors. They might be great out of their love for what they do but we will never become outstanding. I see a lot of people sitting long hours fed up in the offices they seem like they are forced to work in those positions. I hope that the various stakeholders especially those at the Ministry of Education should look in to it

Any last words?

I finally say music, love and peace!