Having been an avid follower of music for all my adult (and most of my teenage) life, new discoveries of old music are rare. Old but unexplored bands crop up every now and again but I’ve almost always been aware of them before I’ve heard them and in most cases I’ve listened to a song or two beforehand. Surprises are rare, good surprises rarer. But every so often something comes along that is utterly thrilling in its unexpectedness. A couple of months ago I was on a relatively long (by UK standards) and tedious drive, with nothing but myself and my far too familiar car CD collection for company, so I reached for that African CD languishing in my glove compartment that I had been given by my record sleeve designer mate, Matt. Somehow I managed to unwrap the cellophane from the CD case without crashing the car and, lo and behold, on inserting the disc into my CD player a rather wonderful mix of vaguely Arabian sounding horns overlying a more conventional Western sounding jazz background emanated from my C1’s tinny speakers. Then, about three minutes into the track an electrifying electric guitar cuts in. From that point on I knew this was going to be no normal listen. And so it proved…since that time, Mulatu Astatke has been my constant travelling companion and, unlike a lot of music that sounds great the first time through, my enthusiasm for this music seems to grow with each new listen.
For me, jazz has always been a slippery fish, too often veering from willfully difficult to cheesily easy with seemingly little room in between. If I’m totally honest, more often than not I admire jazz rather than love it (Miles Davis’ late 60s/early 70s output being a significant exception). But Mulatu Astatke’s music occupies that middle ground – accessible yet occasionally jarring, unpredictable yet never tangential; rather like Nick’s Four Tet offering on the same evening this is music that’s hard to imagine anyone actively disliking…but at the same time it’s anything but bland.
Those listening to this lengthy compilation (76 minutes in all) expecting to be invigorated by African poly-rhythms and tribal chanting will be sorely disappointed. Unlike, say, The Bhundu Boys (our only other African record to date) this is a subtly African sound and the casual ear would probably find it hard to determine its continent of origin (in fact I tried this out on a couple of friends at the weekend and got back Cuba, Bolivia and Argentina!). The reason for this is hinted at by the compilation’s subheading – ‘New York, Addis, London’. Astatke actually learned his musical craft in the Welsh border town of Wrexham of all places but his subsequent time in the major cities of England and USA has obviously informed his music, to such an extent that many of the tracks on The Story of Ethio Jazz would not sound out of place on the Beastie Boys’ funkiest album – Check Your Head (Mark – if you’re reading this, was he an influence?). Perhaps even more remarkable is the timelessness of the recordings, only the occasionally muffled production hinting that this music is not a contemporary release.
On my initial run through the album I remember thinking that the quality of the songs had to tail off – the compilation started off so well that it must be front-loaded or surely I would have heard of Mulatu Astatke before. But no! All twenty tracks are special, offering a great variety of music, sometimes funky, sometimes dissonant, occasionally mellow but always captivating. Not all tracks are instrumentals but they work equally well with or without vocals.
If you have never heard any Ethio Jazz before (props to Nick who, somewhat inevitably, had) I urge you to give this music a try. It won’t be the same unexpected surprise for you as it was for me, but it could open up a whole world of unexplored music. For me, this has been a supremely rewarding and enjoyable musical journey into the heart of Africa via New York, London, Boston and…Wrexham!
Nick listened: Tom asked us to try and guess what this was and when and where it was from before he revealed who it was by; just asking the question set synapses firing in my brain and correctly sussed that it was late 60s / early 70s and African. I may even have said Ethiopian specifically, as I own a ‘Best of Ethiopiques’ compilation and am aware of the cache the scene / genre / movement / whatever has had in certain circles over the last decade. The compilation I have has a couple of tracks by Mulatu Astatke, and I’ve also seen Broken Flowers, the Jim Jarmusch film which features some of his music, so even though I couldn’t remember his name, I’d heard him before. The music itself is great; funky, hypnotic, with apparently traditional Ethiopian melodic patterns overlaid on much more Western rhythmic and instrumental templates. As Tom suggested, there’s almost literally nothing to dislike; it’s just beguiling and cool and enjoyable. A great choice.
Rob listened: I had no idea.
Graham listened: Nothing to dislike, very cool but doesn’t really inspire me to want to explore any further. Ideal to have on in background but not one I’m likely to say “ssshh, listen to this bit”. Purely down to my ignorance, but found some of the latin influences had a slightly comedic quality to them.