Udin&Jazz – Interview with Mulatu Astatke

On July, 7th, 2017, we had the chance to have an absolutely inspiring talk with the father of “Ethio-Jazz”: Mulatu Astatke.
If you recognize his name, you know that he is a legend in the jazz all-of-fame. If you don’t know him, well, you should find out some time to meet his wonderful, passionate, intellectual and instinctive approach to music. Riccardo Del Fabbro interviewed him for us.

Have a seat and, Ladies and Gentlemen, enjoy the man from Ethiopia, Mr. Mulatu Astatke.

Mulatu Astatke

Ok so first of all thanks a lot for give us the opportunity to meet you and have an interview with you. Through your biography we found out that you spend your academic years between the Trinity College of Music in London and then the Berklee College in Boston.

And also Harvard and MIT as well.

And We also find out that at the beginning you went to Uk for studying engineering and then you change your mind. And so the first question is: Which were the motivation that you find out in music compared to the one in engineering?

Well, as you know, the problem was that I don’t know my talent. Probably because when you’re in your own country it’s very hard to find about yourself because of the subject that you get are very limited. But I had the chance to go to the Uk and over there question for me was: ”How do you create your personal behavior in another country?”. Because over there you have everything, specially in the Uk during that years. I had the possibility to discover the music, the theater, the dancing, physics, chemistry…you know everything… And in that background you have the chance to find out what’s yourself and what you really are. So at the university They used to test us every week to analyzes about ourself. And then they tried to said us in which profession we could be successful. An they told me that I was good in math and physics, but I could become a great musician. And at a certain point I took this advice from them. And It was a good advice because I found out about my talent, about myself and then I went to the Trinity College in London to study music and then after, more or less, one year I had the chance to move to Boston, to Berklee College.

Once in the Us I became the first African student in 1958.
That’s how I started to become a musician. Over there I started to going out listening and playing live music. At the beginning I was studying  and playing classic music, but later on was jazz. And then arranging, composing and also playing instruments.

I remember, it was quite fantastic at the time, all the professor told us “BE YOURSELF”. We had lot of homework on John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Gil Evans. We had to analyze their work. And while I was analyzing this musicians I was asking myself: “How this people could be theirself? And at the same time I was asking myself “ How I can be myself in music?”
This was one of the most important topic for myself at the time, and after a while I moved to NYC. In NYC I had the possibility to create this music called “Ethio-Jazz”, and it’s almost 55 years from now. And after this creation, the “Ethio-Jazz” I became myself, the father of this music. And suddenly I started recording songs, albums, playing in a lot of different places in the US, and finally this music became really famous.

Basically that’s how it happen.

Mulatu Astatke

Wow that’s amazing.
Let’s focus on your Berklee’ years. Again through your biography I read that when you were in Berklee you discovered the “latin music”. Is that true?How it happened? Did you find out some inspiration from this genre?

Nothing! No inspiration from “latin music”. I explain you why. Because all the rhythms that you find out from latin music it’s African! They’re all african rhythms!
I never thought was latin music because, for me, they were african rhythms, my rhythms. That’s our rhythm. You know, through the history of music, these rhythms probably travelled from Africa to Caribbean music, to Cuba, to Latin America. But originally I’m sure they came from Africa. And then these music was taken by latin people. You know I love latin people, they’re great musicians, they’re my brothers. But still, the rhythms and the feelings of latin music they’re africans! So when I was arranging and composing at the time, at the beginning, I was thinking always about Africa, about Ethiopia. That’s how it happen. But maybe at the time, the latin rhythms had the chance to travel all over the world because it started from NYC, that at the time was the center of the world. But if you study all of those you gonna find out that the roots starts from Africa.

Think about this: maybe, if we talk about Montunos in Latin America you should know that in Congo we have this thing called Kikiriki, centuries before this Cuban genre. If you listen to a latin arrangement called Mambo 1 and Mambo 2, one faster than the other. But if you go to Congo, to Kinshasa specially, the Kikiriki arrangements works in the same way, usually at the same speed. So finally, I think we should all think that music it’s a communications between friends and brothers all over the world.

Mulatu Astatke

I had a curiosity right now. How do you immagine the music of the future, and, in general the future of the music?

The future of the music. First of all is to recognize and have respect and love for the bush people. That’ s what we should all be concerned about in music. The roots of our culture in music, and also in other aspects of the culture. So I’ll tell you what is about the future! The more you listen to this people, the more you work on this people, the more you gonna find out some new things in music, something different, something beautiful, that could probably change the nowadays music in something new.

For example let’s talk about the rhythms and the instruments of this bush people.
In africa we used to play with bamboo instruments. For example, in Zimbabwe you can find out the Mbira piano, that was used to play music centuries before the so called western music. So, once again, it’s all about the research of the roots in music. If you’re lucky through the research you can explore some new way to produce and play music, but you always have to think about the roots of the music, in my case through the African roots, from the bush people of Africa and sometimes from other part of the world. That’s where the roots, the creativity and the talent of music come from. So probably when you find out some strange instruments, some strange arrangements, is there that you should research and studying on, to discover some beautiful music to explore. So that’s what I suggest about the future.

So, last question: Can you think about your all-time top 3 album? Or some music that you fall in love with?

More than 50 years ago I did this album called “Mulatu of Ethiopia”, which was reissued in 2017. I was experimenting at the time, you know in Ethiopian music we have 4 different modes and 5 notes, pentatonic. In this arrangements we have the 4 modes all mixed together and this is one of my favorite compositions. In fact, I played this kind of arrangement also for Duke Ellington’s band. And Duke was so surprised because for him it was an “advanced music”.

Ellington said about this pentatonic: “ I was never expecting this from Africa”(Mulatu laughs). I wish I could say to him at the time the most of the roots are from Africa, as I told you before.
A part from that, I was in love with the music of Charlie Parker, what a great music, what a great jazz. I love Debussy, with his different scale of arrangements. And again, some amazing tribes from the south of Ethiopia, arranging music just with 12 notes, so beautiful and completely mysterious in producing it. But I’ll leave to the future the research of this wonderful and mysterious tribes(once again he’s laughing)

And then I asked him to sign me a vinyl and He wrote down “Music, love and Peace. Mulatu Astatke”

Interview by Riccardo Del Fabbro and Luca Pavan.

Thanks to the collaboration of  Udin&Jazz, Euritmica, Marina Tuni and Marco Saurini.

Mulatu Astatke

Mulatu Astatke (Gimma, Ethiopia, 1943), father of Ethio Jazz music in his resume we find several collaborations with John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington. He was the first African student of the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, and in 2005 he was renowned worldwide for Jim Jarmush’s “Broken Flowers” soundtrack.

An Interview with Taro Izumi

Paradoxa – Contemporary art from Japanis the latest exhibition at Casa Cavazzini, Udine. The most representative contemporary artists from Japan are on show from the 17th april to the 28th of august. Manya Kato, Takahiro Iwasaki, Yuuki Matsumura, Taro Izumi e Taturo Atzu (alias Tatzu Nishi – author of the “site specific” work in Piazza Libertà).

Site specific con "la Giustizia" di Taturo Atzu
Site specific, built around “la Giustizia”, statue by Taturo Atzu

The works are dedicated to the concept of “Paradox”. Each work has been created just for Udine’s exhibition, few days before the exhibition opening with the active collaboration of the friulian companyCalligaris. Each work is connected with aspects of everyday life or our habits. The most common objects are subjected to distortion or discussed reaching a paradoxical situation. A useless slide, objects with a twisted usage, perspective variations, a negative sculpture, small artworks made of human hair and visible from a telescope only, a small living room, suspended around a statue on the top of a column, far away from the ground.

This exhibition wants us to reflect, to stimulate our conscience and the aesthetic experience, because the paradox, the error, in oriental philosophies, can be helpful, expanding the ways and the shapes of our thought.

As Denis Viva, the show curator, said

“We are in the presence of Art, when what we see never leaves us as we were before.”

We were at the exhibition opening (find some pictures on Constraint Magazine Instagram page) and we managed to interview one of the five artists, Taro Izumi, who worked on the deconstruction of the Calligaris chairs.

Paradoxa

Taro Izumi, if I’m right this must be your first exhibition in Italy with other artists from Japan. How was the experience in Udine? How was the collaboration with the local company Calligaris?

The collaboration with Calligaris has been very inspiring. I managed to use an experimental method transferring the artworks from my mind to the outside, in the Art World. I think that the process might be similar to the creation of a metropolis, created by people of different trades, with different goals and contradictions. The carpenter also had flexible ideas, I think that we communicated and had fun through the artwork. Now I am in Berlin and next to my apartment there’s a Calligaris shop. I feel like I’m still in Udine. I really liked Udine. I was born in Japan, in Nara, which is close to Kyoto, a very famous tourist spot. I found Udine similar to my birthplace, the fact that the city is close to a tourist city with a great history, Venice.

opera di Taro Izumi
opera di Taro Izumi

The exhibition is based on the paradox theme. What is paradox to you and which paradox did you represent in your art work, here at Casa Cavazzini?

When I’m creating my works I don’t have the control over the elements I’m using. I mix the freedom with the limit. I often obtain artworks that are different from how I am imagining them, but when the work is finished I think over and over about it. To me, the production of artwork is a paradox itself.

"Tickled in a dream (maybe)" di Taro Izumi
“Tickled in a dream (maybe)” by Taro Izumi

The artwork “Tickled in a dream (maybe)” is inspired by the impossible pose of a football player ( the artwork, built from pieces of Calligaris chairs, is a support that allows to take the position of a football player). Is it a tribute to the Italian football passion? Do you share the passion for the game?

I used the picture of the football player because of the shape of the position, more than the subject itself. It is hard to find such pictures in other sports, with so different movements. In football the players duck, stretch or jump, with a lot of variations and moves. Talking with Sai, my interpreter who plays football, I thought that I could make this work in Udine too. The strongest teams of the Japanese championship cannot be compared to a Serie A team. Making this artwork in Italy, the very place in which football is very popular, it seems to me, is relevant to Art.

Artwork by Taro Izumi
Artwork by Taro Izumi

You have studied at the Tama Art University, and now you live and work in Tokyo. What does it mean to be an artist in Japan nowadays?

Art in Japan is detached from society. We have to live feeling this friction with society every day. And even if this friction is perceived, the most serious thing is that a lot of Japanese people are not interested into contemporary art. I think that living in this situation has been a mental training to me.

Paradoxa at Casa Cavazzini, Udine
Paradoxa at Casa Cavazzini, Udine

Udine has nothing to do with Tokyo, but is a small Italian city that is trying to be culturally active and it is slowly opening to internationality. How did you find it, culturally and artistically speaking? Would you get back for a further exhibition?

In Udine I found the appropriate atmosphere to realize the artworks and to set cultural events. I like the way the people hang out chilling. Clearly it’s also nice to be frantic, as in Tokyo, but often the details are neglected. If another exhibition is going to happen in Udine I’d like to participate, but I’d also like to come back as a tourist.

Taro Izumi
Taro Izumi

What are your next exhibitions?

I’m in Berlin now, with the help of Mercedes Benz, I’ll present this works here and then in Japan at the Hara museum. This autumn I’ll be in Miami, and before the next summer I’ll be in Paris “Palais de Tokyo“,then, always in Paris at “GALERIE G.-P. & N. VALLOIS“, and then back in Japan at “Kanazawa 21st Century Museum“.

Interview by Valentina Ercole
Japanese translation by Sai Fukuyama
Contemporary art from Japan
– Udine, Piazza Libertà (site specific)
– Udine, Casa Cavazzini – Museo d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, via Cavour 14
17 april – 28 agoust 2016
22 april al 28 agoust: 10.30 – 19.00
Monday closed
Ticket: Full price 5,00 € – Reduced 2,50 €
Info 0432 1273772 – casa.cavazzini@comune.udine.it – www.casacavazzini.it
Curator Denis Viva
Support: Ambasciata del Giappone – 150° Anniversario delle relazioni tra Giappone e Italia
Main Sponsor Illycaffè
Technical SponsorCalligaris S.p.A.

The site Tatzu Nichi site specific might be mistaken for a building site.
The site Tatzu Nichi site specific might be mistaken for a building site.”

Japanese version:

①私達の記憶が正しければ今回の美術展paradoxaは泉さんにとってイタリアで他の日本人アーティスト達とコラボレーションした初めての美術展だったと思います。
地元のcalligarisという会社とのコラボレーションはどうでしたか?そしてウディネという街をどう思いましたか?

calligarisとのコラボレーションはとても刺激的でした。私が考えている、作品をアートワールドの外側に出して実験していく方法を実践することができましたし、様々な職業の人や目的が違う人間が矛盾を抱えてうごめきながら都市を作り上げるのと似たような方法だと考えています。大工さんも凄く柔軟なアイディアを持ったかたで、作品を挟んで面白いやり取りができたと思います。
僕は今ベルリンに滞在しているのですが、滞在しているアパートのすぐ隣にcalligarisの店舗があり、親近感が湧いています。
ウディネの街のことはとても気に入りました。私の出身地は日本の奈良なのですが、ウディネの近くにベネチアがあるように、奈良の近くには京都があります。なんとなく、観光的な都市の近くにある歴史ある街という意味で繋がりを感じました。

②この美術展はパラドックスがテーマですが、泉さんにとってパラドックスとは何ですか?又、今回の作品で表しているパラドックスは何ですか?

私は制作する時に、必ず自分の考えだけではコントロールできない要素を使い、自由と不自由を混ぜながら作ります。それは私が当初想像していたものではない形や考えが出てくる場合も多いですが、完成した作品を見ながらまたそこから考えます。そういうふうにして世界がどうやって作られて機能しているのか考察することができます。制作を続けることはパラドックスの連続なのかもしれません。

Paradoxa a Casa Cavazzini, Udine
Paradoxa a Casa Cavazzini, Udine

③Tickled in a dream (maybe)ではサッカー選手のプレー中の形、すなわち普通には再現出来ないポーズになっています。
この作品はイタリア国民のサッカーに対する情熱を賛辞してですか?それとも泉さんもサッカーが好きだからですか?

素材がサッカープレイヤーの写真であることについては、造形的な理由が一つあります。それというのも、他のスポーツだとサッカーほどには多彩な動きを捉えた写真が少ないからです。サッカーの場合は、非常に低い姿勢や、伸びた姿勢、跳び上がっているなど、動きのバリエーションに魅力を感じます。まず、通訳してくれた才さんと話した時に過去にサッカープレイヤーだった話を聞いていろいろと考えました。日本で活動しているサッカーチームはイタリアなどの強豪に比べると全く及ばないと思いますが、そのような西洋発の本場で自分の活動を見せるという意味では美術にも通じると思います。

Paradoxa a Casa Cavazzini, Udine
Paradoxa a Casa Cavazzini, Udine

④泉さんは多摩美術大学で勉強されて、現在は東京を中心に活動されています。現代において、日本でアーティストをするという事を泉さんはどう思われますか?

日本でのアートの扱いは社会から縁遠いものであるがゆえに、私達は常に社会との摩擦を感じながら活動せねばなりません。摩擦を感じられるならまだ良いほうで、悪くすれば日本人のほとんどは現代美術館に興味さえないかもしれません。そのような中で活動するのですから、鍛えられている部分はあると思います。

⑤ウディネは東京と大きく異なりとても小さな街ですが、国際的文化活動を積極的にし、徐々に成長しています。泉さんはこの街を文化的、アート的な面をどう思いましたか?もし又この街で美術展をすることになったら戻ってきたいと思いますか? この後の美術展などの予定はどうなっていますか?

ウディネは非常に文化的なことをするのに良い雰囲気を持った場所だと思いました。皆さんの時間の過ごしかたが好きです。東京のスピード感や物量は魅力でもありますが、やはり見落とされるものが多々あるように思います。もちろんまたウディネで展覧会があれば是非参加したいですし、そうでなくてもまた訪れたい街になりました。
今後の予定は、現在ベルリンにメルセデスベンツのグラントを得て滞在しているのですが、そこで作った作品を日本の原美術館、そしてベルリンで発表する機会がある予定です。今年の秋にはマイアミで作品を発表します。また、来年の夏前にパリのパレドトーキョーで展覧会、同じくパリのギャラリーGALERIE G.-P. & N. VALLOIS、金沢21世紀美術館などで展覧会をする予定です。