Fifty two blissful, musical years with Mulatu Astatke

Mulatu Astatke (Phd), Musician and arranger

Musician and arranger Mulatu Astatke (Phd) is best known as the father of Ethio-jazz. Born in the western Ethiopian city of Jimma, Mulatu was musically trained in London, New York, and Boston where he combined his jazz and Latin music interests with traditional Ethiopian music. Mulatu led his band while playing vibraphone and conga drums—instruments that he introduced into Ethiopian popular music—as well as other percussion instruments, keyboards and organ. Although Mulatu has graced many prestigious stages and famous global festivals, he hasn’t conducted a large concert in Ethiopia. Now that is all about to change as a concert to celebrate Mulatu’s 52 year old journey in the world of Jazz is set to take place this coming Friday. Capital’s Eskedar Kifle caught up with the musician to talk about his long career as well what he looks forward to. Excerpts;   

 Capital: You have been doing this for 52 years. How was that journey?

Mulatu Astatke: Well, there were a lot of ups and downs, there were a lot of things that didn’t go smoothly but as much as I could, I tried to make everything go as well as possible. It is also a matter of having a goal and a target; knowing this when you start out is very important. If you clearly know your goals and targets, then you will never give up.

When I started working on Ethio-jazz, there were even moments that I was told to get off stage, this could be because I did a lot of experiments with local traditional musical instruments, in those days I was working with the Begena, mixing it with the guitar and acoustic base and other instruments.

Mulatu Astatke (Phd), Musician and arranger
Mulatu Astatke (Phd), Musician and arranger

As you know the Begena is an instrument that is used in the church for worship, and maybe that is why some people were a bit uneasy about it being mixed with the guitar and people didn’t really understand the concept of Ethio-jazz, so there were issues of acceptance.

But it’s like I said you need to have a goal, there are many things that are discouraging and you feel like giving up, but you keep going.

I have gotten some interesting awards during the years from different institutions, my music has been featured in Hollywood films such as Broken Flowers, and recently another film called Dare to be Wilde that is currently being shown in festivals.

I have been a part of famous festivals; having 60 to 70 thousand people at my concerts is very regular. I do many concerts in other parts of the world, I have a lot of fans in Brazil, Colombia, South Africa, Russia, Sweden, France, Germany and many others. I promote Ethio-Jazz, Ethiopia is a country that has given so much to the world when it comes to culture, that is what I work to promote, our contribution.

From the dancing, to the hair style, musical instruments; we have so many great scientists that have created these musical instruments. Our traditional musical instruments and western musical instruments have a lot of similarities, so the question is which one came first?

We also need to look into how we can work towards discovering more about our musical instruments, develop them further. I had an experiment I did on the Kerar, we played European style music using the Kerar and there was a program called “Bringing the Azmari’s to the 21st Century” that is how we have been trying to develop the instruments.

It’s not only working on developing the instruments that matters, we also have to help develop people’s attitude towards music. Help them discover the richness of what we have here, learn about the musical compositions that have been enriched by the culture of the many nations and nationalities, learn to appreciate it.

There is a lot more work to do in the future, me, I don’t slow down, I just keep going. I am only one person and I can’t do everything, but this is what I am committed to.

Capital: For decades you have been committed to music. Back when you started, if your music career had not worked out, what other interests would you have focused on?

Mulatu: I used to like sports, I used to play a lot of soccer but it’s not like I wanted to be a soccer player. I had other interests as well but I was never committed to those interests as I was to music; I loved it so much.

Like I said before, there are so many things to be done with our music; you can’t finish doing everything in your lifetime. I always believe in focusing on one thing and working hard on that and getting results.

So yes, I used to like playing soccer, I love art, I love theater, I have written music for plays and movies that are made in Holywood and around the world. With music, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.

Capital: You have said a lot about focus and commitment. What would be your advice to the young that are in the music industry here? Do you see a lot of dedication from them?

Mulatu: We need to look at the educational system in this country; we need to look at how we are molding people. Going through the educational system, from kindergarten to the university , how will people discover their true self? You also have to know what your talent is; if you don’t know yourself, figure out your talent and start walking in that direction otherwise  you just become an average person instead of becoming outstanding.

So I think the main challenge is this; finding out yourself, your talent and passion. You need to be able to do what you love in order to become successful.

My advice for the young is that to always go for their passion, something they really love and something that is in their blood. I also encourage them to know their country more, learn about the history the culture, visit places.

Capital: You don’t show signs of slowing down.

Mulatu: I have so many more dreams and so many things I want to accomplish in this field. The work that it took to put Ethio-Jazz on the map took a long time but now if you go to France there is an Ethio-Jazz band, same thing if you go to Germany, the UK, US, Brazil and so on, they all have Ethio-Jazz bands. Doing this and reaching this point was never easy.

Because there are a lot of things that I dream of doing, I always looking forward, it makes my life interesting.

Capital: What is your view on music schools here, do students learn about the journey of Ethio-Jazz?

Mulatu: Yes, to some extent, I believe they do. But it should not be limited to music schools, it should be taken up by different universities and research institutions because so much needs to be discovered. You have four major scales in Ethiopian music besides those used in church. These scales; Ambasel, Bati, Anchihoye and Tizita, who created them? This question needs to be answered. I have a lot of respect for whoever it is that has created them. We will be even more interested and have more respect for these inventions if we knew who the inventors were. Ethio-Jazz was based on these notes but I don’t know my heroes, I’m still looking for them.