Riffing with Ethiopia’s jazz master in the 1970s, Ethiopian musician Mulatu Astatke made waves when he introduced a new style of music that layered jazz improvisation with Ethiopian folk rhythms and its traditional five-note scale. Now in his early 70s, the father of Ethio-jazz is still mixing things up.
Last year, Astatke released Sketches From Ethiopia, an experimental album heavy in indigenous instruments, from the harplike kora to the masinko lutemasinko lute. He also recently opened African Jazz Village, a music club and school in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, where he’s training the next generation of African musicians while spurring tourism in his oft overlooked country.
Here the jazz legend and nonstop traveler shares part of his story:
A Star is Born: I left Ethiopia to study aeronautical engineering in the U.K. I was good in math and physics, but my teachers told me, “Look, Mulatu, if you become a musician, you’d become great.” So I went to Boston’s Berklee College to study classical music. I was the first African. It was 1958.
Tribal Riches: When friends visit Ethiopia, I say, “Please don’t stay in the city. Explore the music, the dance, the countryside.” There are excellent drummers in Tigray. In Gondar you’ll find shoulder dancing and rich styles of singing. The Gambela region has thumb piano players. In the Oromia region, there’s a tribe, the Arsi [with amazing dance traditions]: They can turn their necks around almost 300 degrees.
Jazz Age: The Derashe from southern Ethiopia have given so much to the development of musical instruments and to modern jazz. They are scientists—they managed to create one type of the diminished scale. Who got there first? Was it these bush people, or was it Debussy or Charlie Parker?
Tours de Force: I go crazy when I see my fans, their love for culture. They sleep on mats, drinking beers all night, singing, dancing. This is what I feed off as an artist. These people could be doctors or painters. You don’t know what role they have, but they all come for one beautiful aim—music. I just love my travels.
World Wonders: A couple of summers ago, I was playing at the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan, a two- or three-hour drive from Tokyo. Oh god, to see the mountain, I was just full of bliss. Brazil was another memorable experience; its people are crazy about music. They have the feel and the touch of Africa, and how they approach music, samba, rhythm, instruments is fantastic.
Native Pride: Ethiopia hasn’t been very open to tourists, but our contributions to the world are big. More people should discover the churches of Lalibela. But first we must learn to preserve our heritage. If the country’s culture isn’t intact, foreign influence could be dangerous. We can learn from tourists while still using our traditional ways.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
This piece, written by Rachel B. Doyle, appeared in the November 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.