Mulatu Astatke ‘Mulatu of Ethiopia’ LP/CD (Strut) 5/5

Formerly only available as a vinyl re-issue, Strut have seen fit to make this highly influential album available in several formats and the listener is very much the winner. For those not already in the know, Ethiopian keyboardist Mulatu Astatké studied music at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in the 1960s and while there soaked up myriad musical influences that ranged from the orchestral genius of Duke Ellington (a seminal influence upon Astatké) to the emerging sounds of Latin New York. Astatké regularly attended the mecca of Latin dance music at the Palladium as well as live jazz at the Village Gate and collectively began to form in his own mind a distinctive new pioneering sound which would come to be termed Ethio-jazz, the contents of which make up this album. Three key elements combine Ethiopian; American; Puerto Rican.

Elements of 1960s psychedelic guitar surface on the lovely, ‘Mulatu’, with unison horns, percussion, a wailing saxophone solo and some haunting vibes. It is a sound like no other and over time has attracted attention way beyond the confines of music, with independent film director Jim Jarmusch picking up on the musician and basing the musical soundtrack to, ‘Broken Flowers’, around it. The modal-flavoured, ‘Dewel’, is mightily impressive with an intro that John Coltrane could have conjured up, while the subtle use of layered textures takes a leaf out of the innovative work of Bobby Hutcherson. In general, the music is otherworldly with a stunning Ethio-Latin workout on, ‘Chifara’, complete with Latin piano vamp, while the flute-led, ‘Kasalef ku-hulu’, is heavy on percussion.

The single CD edition, which forms the basis of the review here, interestingly includes both stereo and mono versions of the album. A lavish gatefold edition is equally available in extremely limited quantities.

[This album was also available separately on a very limited edition triple vinyl release]

Tim Stenhouse