Mulatu Astatke

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Mulatu Astatke
Mulatu Astatke performing live at Cosmopolite in Oslo in 2017
Mulatu Astatke performing live at Cosmopolite in Oslo in 2017
Background information
Native nameሙላቱ አስታጥቄ
Born (1943-12-19) 19 December 1943 (age 74)
Jimma, Ethiopia
Occupation(s)Musician, composer, arranger
InstrumentsVibraphone, conga drums, percussion, keyboards, organ
Years active1963–present
Associated actsWalias Band, Black Jesus Experience, The Heliocentrics

Mulatu Astatke (born on 19 December 1943; surname sometimes spelled Astatqé on French-language releases, and ሙላቱ አስታጥቄ in his native Amharic) is an Ethiopian musician and arranger best known as the father of Ethio-jazz.

Born in the western Ethiopian city of Jimma, Mulatu was musically trained in London, New York City, and Boston where he combined his jazz and Latin music interests with traditional Ethiopian music. Astatke led his band while playing vibraphone and conga drums—instruments that he introduced into Ethiopian popular music—as well as other percussion instruments, keyboards, and organ. His albums focus primarily on instrumental music, and Astatke appears on all three known albums of instrumentals that were released during Ethiopia's Golden 1970s.[1]


Early years[edit]

Astatke in 2005 at the WSIS

Astatke's family sent the young Mulatu to learn engineering in Wales during the late 1950s. Instead, he began his education at Lindisfarne College near Wrexham before earning a degree in music through studies at the Trinity College of Music in London. He collaborated with jazz vocalist and percussionist Frank Holder. In the 1960s, Astatke moved to the United States and became the first student from Africa[citation needed] to enroll at Berklee College of Music in Boston. He studied vibraphone and percussion.

While living in the U.S., Astatke became interested in Latin jazz and recorded his first two albums, Afro-Latin Soul, Volumes 1 & 2, in New York City in 1966. The records prominently feature Astatke's vibraphone, backed by piano and congas playing Latin rhythms, and were entirely instrumental with the exception of the song "I Faram Gami I Faram," which was sung in Spanish. Though these records are almost indistinguishable from other Latin-jazz records of the period, some tracks foreshadow elements of Astatke's later work, and he is credited[who?] as having established congas and bongo drums as common elements in Ethiopian popular music.[citation needed]

In the early 1970s, Astatke brought his new sound, which he called Ethio-jazz, back to his homeland while continuing to work in the U.S. He collaborated with many notable artists in both countries, arranging and playing on recordings by Mahmoud Ahmed, and appearing as a special guest with Duke Ellington and his band during a tour of Ethiopia in 1973.[2]

Astatke recorded Mulatu of Ethiopia (1972) in New York City, but most of his music was released by Amha Eshèté's label Amha Records in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, including several singles, his album Yekatit Ethio Jazz (1974), and six out of the ten tracks on the compilation album Ethiopian Modern Instrumentals Hits. Yekatit Ethio Jazz combined traditional Ethiopian music with American jazz, funk, and soul.[3]

By 1975, Amha Records had ceased production after the Derg military junta forced the label's owner to flee the country. Astatke remained to play vibes for Hailu Mergia and the Walias Band's 1977 album Tche Belew (which included "Musicawi Silt") before the Wallas also left Ethiopia to tour internationally.[1] By the 1980s, Astatke's music was largely forgotten outside of his homeland.

Recent work[edit]

Mulatu Astatke on stage with the Heliocentrics in Rome, Italy, 2009

In the early 1990s, many record collectors rediscovered the music of Mulatu Astatke and were combing stashes of vinyl for copies of his 70s releases. In 1998, the Parisian record label Buda Musique began to reissue many of the Amha-era Ethio-jazz recordings on compact disc as part of the series Éthiopiques, and the first of these reissues to be dedicated to a single musician was Éthiopiques Volume 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale, 1969–1974, Mulatu Astatke. The album brought Astatke's music to an international audience.[4]

Astatke's music has had an influence on other musicians from the Horn region, such as K'naan. His Western audience increased when the Broken Flowers (2005) directed by Jim Jarmusch film seven of his songs, including one performed by Cambodian-American rock band Dengue Fever. National Public Radio used his instrumentals as beds under or between pieces, notably on the program This American Life. Samples of his were worked used by Nas, Damian Marley, Kanye West, Cut Chemist, Quantic, Madlib, and Oddisee.

After meeting the Massachusetts-based Either/Orchestra in Addis Ababa in 2004, Astatke began a collaboration with the band beginning with performances in Scandinavia in summer 2006 and London, New York, Germany, Holland, Glastonbury (UK), Dublin, and Toronto in 2008. In the fall of 2008, he collaborated with the London-based collective The Heliocentrics on the album Inspiration Information Vol. 3, which included re-workings of his Ethio-jazz classics with new material by the Heliocentrics and himself.

Astatke performs with Black Jesus Experience members Chris Frangou (bass) and Liam Monkhouse (MC) in Addis Ababa in 2015.

In 2008, he completed a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship at Harvard University where he worked on modernization of traditional Ethiopian instruments and premiered a portion of a new opera, The Yared Opera. He served as an Abramowitz Artist-in-Residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, giving lectures and workshops and advising MIT Media Lab on creating a modern version of the krar, a traditional Ethiopian instrument.[5]

On 1 February 2009, Astatke performed at the Luckman Auditorium in Los Angeles with a band that included Bennie Maupin, Azar Lawrence, and Phil Ranelin. He released a two-disc compilation album to be sold exclusively to passengers of Ethiopian Airlines, with the first disc containing a compilation of styles from different regions of Ethiopia and the second consisting of studio originals. On 12 May 2012, he received an honorary doctor of music degree from the Berklee College of Music.[6]

In 2015 Astatke began recording with Black Jesus Experience for Cradle of Humanity, which premiered at the Melbourne Jazz Festival in 2016 and was followed by a tour of Australia and New Zealand. [7][8]

Selected discography[edit]

As bandleader[edit]

  • Maskaram Setaba 7" (Addis Ababa, 1966)
  • Afro-Latin Soul, Volume (Worthy, 1966)
  • Afro-Latin Soul, Volume 2 (Worthy, 1966)
  • Mulatu of Ethiopia (Worthy, 1972)
  • Yekatit Ethio-Jazz (Amha, 1974)
  • Plays Ethio Jazz (Poljazz, 1989)
  • Mulatu Astatke
  • Assiyo Bellema
  • Éthiopiques, Vol. 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale, 1969–1974 (Buda Musique, 1998)
  • Mulatu Steps Ahead with the Either/Orchestra (Strut, 2010)
  • Sketches of Ethiopia (Jazz Village, 2013)

As a musician and collaborator[edit]

Compilation appearances[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Lost Funk Masterpieces of Ethiopia". Retrieved 21 July 2018.
  2. ^ Ethio-Jazz: Mulatu Astatke, referenced September 2010. Archived 29 August 2013 at the Wayback Machine.
  3. ^ Frangou, Chris. "Hybrid Music: Mulatu Astatke's Yekatit Ethio Jazz (2016 - honours thesis)". Retrieved 21 July 2018.
  4. ^ Mulatu Astatke: the Man and His Influence, referenced September 2010. Archived 21 April 2010 at the Wayback Machine.
  5. ^ "Ethiopian Musician Mulatu Astatke to visit MIT: Public talk 23 October, referenced September 2010". Retrieved 21 July 2018.
  6. ^ "Eagles, Alison Krauss, Mulatu Astatke Receive Honorary Degrees at Commencement - Berklee College of Music". Retrieved 21 July 2018.
  7. ^ "History". Retrieved 2017-04-07.
  8. ^ "Mulatu Astatke & The Black Jesus Experience: Cradle of Humanity". 2016-06-15. Retrieved 2017-04-07.

External links[edit]