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Inside Ethiopia's fusion jazz scene

Distinctive sound of the father of Ethio-jazz captures world audiences after 40 years.

Ethiopian jazz musician Mulatu Astatke
Ethiopian jazz composer and vibraphone player Mulatu Astatke. (Courtesy Mulatu Astatke)

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.”