Ethio-Jazz with Mulatu Astatqé and the Either/Orchestra

Some shows seem obscure until you start to work on them, and then all of a sudden there’s something perfectly natural — familiar, even — about them. The music of Mulatu Astatqé fits that bill perfectly. He’s a sort of national musician of Ethiopia, an instrumentalist (on piano, organ, vibes and percussion), composer, and arranger whose work spans decades and whose collaborations span oceans.

So a quick primer on the music we’ll be talking about this hour, in case it’s not yet familiar to you:

It’s patchwork music, a music of forced migrations and atmospheric borrowings and continental cross-pollinations. It is, basically, a couple hundred years of history in musical form. It’s West African rhythms and melodies travelling on slave ships to the Americas, where they eventually morphed into African-American spirituals and blues and jazz and samba and soul (and on and on). And then it came back to Africa — East Africa — to Ethiopia, where, during the short, magnificent flowering — the “Golden Age” — of popular music that lasted for the decade or so prior to the country’s 1974 Stalinist military coup, all of these Western sounds with African roots (think Duke Ellington and James Brown and Tito Puente) combined with the traditional Semitic-like melodies and modes of the nearby Middle East.

That, in a nutshell, is the pedigree of Mulatu Astatqé, who studied Western music in London and Boston before returning to Ethiopia to brew up the “Ethio-Jazz” movement in front of international audiences in the “Swinging Addis” clubs of the late 60s and early 70s.

It’s thirty years later — we’ll find out about those intervening thirty years during the show — and in Astatqé’s recent collaborations with Boston’s Either/Orchestra, African music comes full circle, and then across the Atlantic again for another go around.

We’ll be talking to Astatqé and Either/Orchestra founder and bandleader Russ Gershon about their cross-generational, cross-cultural, cross-linguistic, cross-everything musical parternship, one that, like their dovetailing traditions, makes a lot more sense the more you hear.

Mulatu Astatqé

Musician/Arranger, Ethiopiques, Vol. 4

[In our Boston studio]

Russ Gershon

Musician/Producer, Ethiopiques, Vol. 20

Founder and bandleader, Either/Orchestra

–> Discography

–> Biography

[In our Boston studio]

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  • aratkillo

    Dear Leslie:

    Thank you kindly for the hosting, and support of what this Ethiopian Legend has been doing for almost four decades with regard to Ethio/Jazz Music. When I was a teenager in Ethiopia, Mr. Mulatu’s music was that, for the first time, introduced me to a very special type of music called Jazz. Today, thanks to Mr. Mulatu’s effort, I am an avid listner of many jazz legends such as Miles, Hampton, Monk, Mingus, Coltrain, and others. Those of who grew up listening to his music in Ethiopia, Live or on Radio, can’t even find the right words to express our deeply felt appreciaition to him. His influence on the music generation that folowed him is enormouse, and for theh many things in life that the people of Ethiopia lack, the nation, and its people could always remain proud of their beloved son, and his contribution to the world at large. God Bless.


    Mr. Melaku Girgiro

    Houston, Texas

  • elias

    Dear Leslie,

    I would like to thank you for inviting one of the legendary Ethiopian composer, arranger, and musician. If I’m not mistaken, he is the only one who influenced ethiopian music scene so much for the last 35 years. Eventhough, I know that he is one of the best in music as a whole, I didn’t know until recently, what kind of music he was educated for. Now, knowing that he studided Jazz in the late 60’s in the US, it make real sense to me as to why his music was so complicated for the average listner back home, beautiful and very much different from the modern ethiopian music. The only work I knew of him was ” Asyo belema” and “a song played during ethiopian easter fasting (sang by Tewodros Taddesse)”, because these were often being played in ethiopian televsion. However, I learnt recently that some four of his works in “Ethiopiqes 4 series” became the soundtrack for the new film ” Broken flowers”, I start to dig to know more about his works and able to collect some of them including his recent collaboration work with Either Ochestra from the US. I myself play musical instrument (Bass) and understand music a little bit, but nothing close to the way he does. His influence can be seen in both traditional and contemporary ethiopian music. I’m very proud of him and of all his works. I am very grateful for his effort towards improving traditional ethiopian instruments such as “Kirar”. Keep up the good work, and May GOD continue to bless him and our beloved country, ETHIOPIA.

    with regards,

    Elias Getahun

    Carbondale, Illiniois

  • kuchiye

    It was a period when Ethiopian music needed to get a shot in the arm. Mulatu surfaced in the Ethiopian musical landscape and gave it new and fresh flavors. In essence he was there to meet the changing taste of time.

    Many were skeptical towards his attempt of fusing Jazz/African and Carribean music with traditional Ethiopian music. Those fears evaporated quickly when he, from the outset, displayed sensitivity to the preservation of the innate virtues of Ethiopian musical traditions. For many music lovers Mulatu is a reinessance man.

  • willnotpaynyt

    The issue of authenticity always arises in this situation – one caller had it right – when he said that this fusion music is basically a filtered version of the authentic stuff served up for American ears. One has to go to the griots and folk musicians right there in Africa and hear the real stuff man – and stop comparing their music to Herbie Hancock !! the real African music stands on it’s own !

  • bw

    look at that

    the next morning none the less!

  • rundfunk

    One should know the history of the real stuff, but there is no need to embalm it in a folklorist’s formeldahyde. Curating the original forms into the ground and calling them off-limits for future interpretation or influence are both fatal. Where would modern jazz be without the building blocks of the blues or Tin Pan Alley? What if those were off limits?

  • Ethio-Jazz is a new breed an artistic cross pollination of Ethiopian musical rhythm with contemporary jazz. For an Ethiopian ear, it feels both contemporary( modern) and familiar (traditional). It marks the significance of the fusion of cultures driven by the new phenomena of globalization. As there is no absolute invention, the inventor (artist) start from some reference point or influences by pre-existing knowledge. In this case Ato Mulatu is influenced by Jazz( western Knowledge) as the original Jazz was influnced by (African Knowledge or rhythm). So debating the authenticity of his invention negate all inventions in all aspects of our civilization.

  • The Either/Orchestra will be playing more Ethio-jazz at a concert for Bank of America Celebrity Series in Boston on Saturday, January 28 at the Berklee Performance Center. The concert is in celebration of Either/Orchestra’s 20th anniversary and will feature Ethiopian guest musicians.

    You can visit our web site for details and updates:

  • More on the “authenticity issue”… The part of the first caller’s coment that I found odd was the assertion that the Ethio-Jazz sounds we were hearing, which, unless it was the Either/Orchestra at the time, were old recordings from the “Swinging Addis” era, amounted, in his estimation, to something to the effect of “Western influenced music for Westerners.” I mean, we’re talking about music that was made between 30 and 40 years ago in Ethiopia. This stuff didn’t break on the “Western” scene in any significant way, arguably, until the Ethiopiques series began releasing its installments about ten years ago. So where was this supposed Western audience from ’65- ’75? There’s an exhuberance in so many of those early recordings that feel, to me, like an excited young culture in the first raptures of a new idea, which is itself almost rootless with ultra modernity and pastiche and at the same time inexorably turning to and rooted in its dreamers’ collective past. Who else could such a music be for, at its inception, but its own community? Call me naive, but I get the feeling from listening that, at the time, they were just playing for each other and loving it!