Who is Mulatu Astatke?: Born in Jimma, Ethiopia in 1943, Mulatu Astatke is known as the father of Ethio-Jazz (this genre gained popularity in the 1970s–but is still beloved today by music lovers). He was educated in London, at the Trinity College of Music, and in Boston, at Berklee College of Music (where he was the first African to ever enroll).
His sound is built around soft, pulsing rhythms (often led by congas which are played by Astatke himself), vibraphones (also often played by Astatke), flutes, guitars, trumpets, trombones, and saxophones. There is much less soloing and noodling than can be found in American jazz–rather, the compositions are designed around definite grooves that are expertly (and subtly) tweaked and reimagined (on the fly) by the musicians under Astatke’s command.
Despite being different from American Jazz, Astatke’s music is nonetheless heavily influenced by it. In an interview, Astatke talked about his time playing with Duke Ellington (his idol), and how a particular performance in which Ellington’s band played his arrangement was “the happiest day of my life”.
These days, he runs a jazz school/club (The African Jazz Village) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The music made there is broadcasted nightly by the region’s only radio station.
Interesting Fact: Astatke scored Jim Jarvisch’s 2005 film Broken Flowers (starring Bill Murray).
Recommended listening: The entire album Mulatu of Ethiopia.