Inside Ethiopia's fusion jazz scene

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Everything is done differently in Ethiopia.

Splodges of spicy stews on a vast damp pancake is food that takes some getting used to, the national calendar ignores centuries of papal tinkering meaning this millennium is only two years old and with the hours of the day starting at dawn, not midnight, it is easy to get confused about when you are, if not where.

And then there’s the music, which is based on a unique set of five-note scales drawn from Ethiopia's ancient Coptic Christian church tradition rather than the 12-note scales of Western music. In the 1960s Mulatu Astatke created Ethio-jazz by fusing Western jazz with Ethiopian tradition. Now that distinctive music is enjoying a surge in popularity around the world and back at home in Addis Ababa where Mulatu plans to open a jazz school this month.

The music the 68-year-old "father of Ethio-jazz" writes sounds like nothing else. His distinctive blending of musical styles seizes Western jazz and thrusts it deep into the soil of Ethiopia creating a groovy music that is by turns ethereal and hip-swinging but always enigmatic with his signature vibraphone lilting over the top.

Since the film director Jim Jarmusch chose his music as the soundtrack to the 2005 Cannes prize-winning movie "Broken Flowers," Mulatu and other performers of his Ethio-jazz have seen their popularity soar.

Last month the opening track to the new album "Distant Relatives" by New York-based rapper Nas and dancehall reggae singer Damien "Jr Gong" Marley featured "Yegelle Tezeta" a classic piece of Mulatu’s back catalogue. The song was recorded more than 40 years ago yet its funky jauntiness and heavy bass provides the hit song "As We Enter" with a striking kick-off that sets the tone for the entire album’s mash-up of rap, reggae and roots.

Mulatu also turned up on last year’s "Troubador" by the up-and-coming Somali rapper K’Naan, or “that Somali guy” as Mulatu referred to him in a chat with GlobalPost.

“Through this music I am reaching people who were unreachable,” he enthused. “I am not just in the jazz world, and it’s great.”

“Ethio-jazz was created by me about 42 years ago [by] the fusion of five against 12-tone music,” Mulatu explained. “Forty-two years ago nobody was doing this kind of music, not in Ethiopia, not in America.”

Mulatu asserted that there is more to the fusion than simply crashing Ethiopian and Western styles together.

“You can’t just play with jazz against the five tones, always the problem is the coloring, the
phrasing, and knowing the color and the roots of Ethiopian music,” he said. “You need to have the two cultures going at the same time.”

Mulatu is a case in point. Born in Jimaa, a city in Ethiopia’s western highlands, Mulatu went to a boarding school in Wales, U.K., where he discovered jazz as a teenager. He then studied music at Trinity College in London before becoming the first African student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1958.

Over the years Mulatu has hung out with the likes of John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Ronnie Scott and Fela Kuti.

It was in New York in the 1960s that Mulatu conceived Ethio-jazz but almost half a century later Mulatu is busier than ever.

“I’ve always been a patient man. It takes a long time to reach where I am now,” he said. Today Mulatu is headlining jazz festivals, selling-out theaters, releasing albums, touring and performing with a drive and energy that would exhaust a man half his age.

To add to it all his long-dreamed-of music school, the "African Jazz Village," will be up and running within a few weeks.

With Mulatu touring Europe, his son, Michael, a software engineer and entrepreneur who drives what is likely the only electric blue Mercedes roadster in Addis, gave GlobalPost a tour of the site of the new school. Pulling up outside the only indication of what lay behind were the piano keys subtly painted along the top few inches of the worn sheet metal gates.

Inside is a large open-air auditorium ringed around the outside with practice rooms, each one named after a deceased Ethiopian musician.

There is an indoor venue that is reputed to have been the country’s first cinema, nicknamed the "Devil’s Theatre" because it projected people’s images onto a vertical wall, spooking audiences. At the back is a classroom block and wrapped around the front a rundown bar/restaurant.

The whole place has seen better days but striding around the compound Michael’s enthusiasm for the site’s potential was infectious. Here he would open a little cafe, there CDs would be sold, large and small concerts would be held in this space or that, and his jazz bar would spill out onto the terrace overlook the main drag of Churchill Avenue in the heart of Addis’ urban sprawl.

“It’s a beautiful place, a beautiful venue,” Mulatu said later. He hopes the school will help fuel Ethiopia’s current jazz revival, a trend that has seen many diaspora musicians return to Addis and means that today music fans can tap their feet and dance along to live jazz at clubs and hotels across the city pretty much any night of the week.

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the photo caption. Mulatu Astatke plays the vibraphone, not the xylophone.