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.