MULATU ASTATKE (born 1943) is an Ethiopian composer and multi-instrumentalist best known as the “Father” of Ethio-jazz.
Born in the western Ethiopian city of Jimma, Astatke trained in North Wales and London. Also, he was the first African graduate at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music.
Around 1963, Astatke moved to New York, formed the Ethiopian Quintet group, and recorded Afro-Latin Soul (Volumes 1, 2). It was the era that Astatke credits as “the birth of Ethio-jazz.” In short, the music is a contemporary expression of ancient Ethiopian music. It uniquely weaves a modern groove with age-old melodies, western classical music, jazz, Latin montunos (vamps), and Afro-Funk rhythms.
Astatke collaborated with many notable artists, such as John Coltrane, and after returning to Ethiopia in the late 1960s, worked alongside Poet Laureate Gabre-Medhin for the poet’s stage works. He continued to compose new arrangements of traditional Ethiopian melodies and songs. He emerged as one of the most influential artists in the country’s “golden era” of music and creativity. Also, he performed with Duke Ellington during his African tour in 1973.
Astatke traveled extensively as a board member of the International Jazz Federation (IJF) and participated in the National Black Arts Festival in Nigeria, where he presented a music production called “Our Struggle.”
His audience expanded with the Ethiopiques CD series, which included Astatke’s singular Ethio-Jazz. His popularity significantly increased when the 2005 Jim Jarmusch film Broken Flowers, starring Bill Murray, featured several of Astatke’s songs.
After his collaboration with The Heliocentrics, he recorded Mulatu Steps Ahead (2010) and Sketches of Ethiopia (2013) as a leader.
Mulatu Steps Ahead Preview
During a fellowship at Harvard (2009), he premiered The Yared Opera. Astatke’s music has been sampled by several hip-hop artists, including Nas and Damien Marley, for their track, As We Enter.
After a ten-year absence from the New York music scene, Astatke performed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur accompanied by trumpeter Adam O’ Farrill, saxophonist James Arben, keyboardist Jason Lindner, bassist Tas Massiah, and drummer Daniel Freedman. Ethio-Jazz is alive, well, and poised for a resurgence.

Partial Discography

Mulatu of Ethiopia (Worthy Records, 1972)
Mulatu Astatke featuring Fekade Amde Mascal – Ethio Jazz (Amha Records, 1974)
Plays Ethio Jazz (LP, Polijazz, 1989)
Ethio Jazz Vol.1 (Azmari, 2006)
Mulatu Astatke the Heliocentrics – Inspiration Information (Strut, 2009)
New York – Addis – London The Story of Ethio Jazz (1965-1975)
Mochilla Presents Timeless (Mochilla, 2010)
Mulatu Steps Ahead (Strut, 2010)
Sketches of Ethiopia (Jazz Village, 2013)
Mulatu Astatke, Black Jesus Experience – Cradle of Humanity (LP, CD+ROM, BJX, 2016)

Recommended Reading

Mulatu Astatke – The Making of Ethio Jazz – Abebe Zegeye/Maskerem Assegued, In Conversation with Mulatu Astatke (Unisa Press, 2009)
Tomas Peña
A graduate of Empire State College with a dual major in journalism and Latin American studies, Editor-in-Chief Tomas Peña has spent years applying his knowledge and writing skills to the promotion of great musicians. A specialist in the crossroads between jazz and Latin music, Peña has written extensively on the subject. His writing appears on Latin Jazz Network; Chamber Music America magazine and numerous other publications.


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