Music Reviews
5:59 pm
Thu September 26, 2013

After 40 Years, Mulatu Astatke Still 'Sketches' Ethio-Jazz Deftly

Originally published on Thu September 26, 2013 7:19 pm

It is bold indeed for any jazz artist to evoke Miles Davis' landmark album Sketches of Spain. But Mulatu Astatke, like Miles, is a true original.

The music Astatke first imagined 40 years ago sounds as fresh and contemporary today as it did in the swinging Addis Ababa of 1973 when Astatke created a signature "Ethio-jazz" style by blending jazz with Ethiopian music. Decades later, he earned an international following when his early recordings appeared on reissue CDs. Now, Astatke has rewarded fans with new album called Sketches of Ethiopia.

The music Astake makes is cool and complex at the same time that it is easily engaging. It has an almost narrative quality and keeps you constantly wondering what's coming next.

Astake doesn't just compose, arrange, and play jazz. He uses it as a tool to explore cultures, and create musical bridges between them. On the song "Azmari," he fills out his brassy jazz ensemble with Ethiopian drums and the masinko lute, orchestrating it around a cantering, traditional rhythm.

Sketches of Ethiopia incorporates ideas and musicians from three continents and many nations, but the music still maintains a strong Ethiopian stamp. It's never predictable and, for all the surprises, it never feels cluttered or gimmicky. That's the mark of a master. And we're lucky that after all these years, the father of Ethio-jazz has not lost his edge.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In the early 1970s, in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, composer Mulatu Astatke created a signature blend of Ethiopian music and jazz. Decades later, early recordings of his Ethio-jazz earned him an international following when they appeared on re-issue CDs. Well, now Astatke has rewarded fans with a new album called "Sketches of Ethiopia." Banning Eyre has this review.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BANNING EYRE, BYLINE: It's bold indeed for any jazz artist to evoke Miles Davis' landmark album "Sketches of Spain." But Mulatu Astatke, like Miles, is a true original. And the music he first imagined 40 years ago sounds as fresh and contemporary today as it did in the swinging Addis Ababa of 1973.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "GAMO")

MULATU ASTATKE: (Singing in foreign language)

EYRE: Mulatu Astatke doesn't just compose, arrange and play jazz. He uses it as a tool to explore cultures and create musical bridges between them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "AZMARI")

EYRE: On the song "Azmari," he feels out his brassy jazz ensemble with Ethiopian drums and the masinko lute all orchestrated around a cantering traditional rhythm.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "AZMARI")

EYRE: Mulatu Astatke's music is cool and complex, but at the same time, easily engaging. It has an almost narrative quality that keeps you constantly wondering what's coming next.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "ASSOSA DERACHE")

EYRE: "Sketches of Ethiopia" incorporates ideas of the musicians from three continents and many more nations. But the music still maintains a strong Ethiopian stamp. It's never predictable. And for all the surprises, it never feels cluttered or gimmicky. That's the mark of a master. And we're lucky that after all these years, the father of Ethio-jazz has not lost his edge.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "SUMA")

SIEGEL: Banning Eyre is senior editor at afropop.org. He reviewed "Sketches of Ethiopia" by Mulatu Astatke. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.