Received WisdomThe father of Ethio-jazz, Mulatu Astatke, reflects on what pushes him forward.

Received WisdomThe father of Ethio-jazz, Mulatu Astatke, reflects on what pushes him forward.

Issue 52

, Directory

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  • As Told To George Upton
  • Photo Joey Lawrence

I’ve always wanted to try and do something new with my music. I had the idea to create Ethio-jazz while I was scoring Duke Ellington and Count Basie pieces as part of my studies at the Berklee College of Music in Boston in the 1960s. I asked myself how they became such celebrated musicians, and it inspired me to start carving out my own direction. I started with the four modes in traditional music of the Amhara people in Ethiopia but introduced new instruments, like the vibraphone and conga drums, and started to use Western scales. I’m in my 80s now and I feel like I achieved what I set out to do with Ethio-jazz. It wasn’t easy—I’ve been working for over 50 years to introduce this music to the world—but when I play in Europe and America today, thousands of people come to the concerts, and they often sell out. I’ve met people from every corner of the globe, and there are a lot of young musicians who are now picking up Ethio-jazz and developing it in their own way.1 

But I’ve come to realize that there’s still so much we can learn from traditional Ethiopian music. There are many great musicians and instruments that have been overlooked, like the zumbara, which sounds like a trombone, or the masenqo, which I believe to be the predecessor of the cello. I once hosted a cello–masenqo “battle” at African Jazz Village, my club in Addis Ababa. 

For me, the most exciting music at the moment is being made by people in the bush in Ethiopia; and to go in a new direction musically, it’s no longer enough to work in the Ethio-jazz style. We need to understand more about the great musical “scientists”—like Yared, a composer from the 6th century—and all the instruments that are forerunners of those used in the West. So that’s what I’m doing now—researching and working with this traditional music and, ultimately, raising awareness of the Ethiopian contribution to world culture.  

ISSUE 52

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