Connect to share and comment

Inside Ethiopia's fusion jazz scene

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

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.