Legendary Ethiopian musician Mulatu Astatke’s collaboration with the Heliocentrics hits a lot of key points we’re into, blending fuzzy psych guitars with heavy drums and complex piano runs. It’s an album that successfully mixes old and new without coming across as a self-conscious throwback. Instead, it works as a meeting of minds with a genuine respect for the music that makes up their backgrounds. This isn’t exactly what you’d get on, say, an Ethiopiques compilation, but it draws from that lineage to create something between the worlds of Ethio-jazz and vintage psych rock. Down below download “Masengo,” the lead-track from their album Inspiration Information 3 (out now on Strut) and after the jump check out our Q+A with Astatke, covering everything from his soundtrack work on Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers to his ongoing update of traditional Ethiopian music.
What have you been up to?
I’ve been in Lisbon, Portugal doing a lecture for the Red Bull Music Academy, it was very interesting, I stayed about four or five days. And I’m here for rehearsal for the next tour.
You lecture a lot?
Well I do both, I teach and I play.
Do you teach Ethiopian music to students?
Sometimes. I am teaching in Poland about Ethiopian modes, how to voice them, but I can also teach jazz education. I’m versatile.
Do you like to teach?
I don’t really love teaching, but I love the experience of discussing music with other musicians in the world, because music is an endless profession, you can learn something everyday.
What was the last big thing that you learned about music?
Not something particular, but while I was at Harvard University—and now I’m a fellow of Harvard—I got a fellowship, but I was at Harvard and it was so beautiful and so very inspiring. Everyday I was working on a different subject, different materials. There were three or four other music composers with me as well. And that was one of the places I enjoyed most in my life. That was really great, what an experience, great intellectuals, it was so beautiful.
Can you talk about the five tone structure of Ethio-jazz a little bit?
I had experimented a bit with music in college at Berklee, but when I went to New York I formed a group called the Ethiopian Quintet, so that’s when I blended the five tone with the twelve tone music. Especially when you try to fuse both, it sounds like two cultures going at the same time. So you really have to be careful, blend the most beautifully without losing the character. That’s how I managed.
So your serious training in music allowed you to make that blend?
Yes, training is important for everything: experience, training—so important to put things together.
Can we talk a little bit about the album you did with the Heliocentrics?
They are very interesting musicians, they have their whole way of approaching music, and I have my own way. Another blend. I was here last time to lecture for Red Bull, and we did a show at the Cargo, and people seemed to really love it and enjoy. I enjoyed it myself. So we said, Why don’t we do a CD together, blending jazz and stick with what I’ve been doing 45 years ago, so I said, ok let’s try it out. So I came back, and we did the recording. Heliocentrics have their own studio, we recorded there and that was it.
How long did that take?
I think it was about ten days. Very quick, when you do things with good communication, they were great, loved the Ethio-jazz music, we all have that feeling, so we just blended and played.
I know you are also working on a modern version of a traditional instrument…
I improve musical instruments. My last target for Ethio-jazz is to upgrade all Ethiopian musical instruments to be able to play twelve-tone music. I tried on an instrument called the krarr, I managed to play “Guantanamera” and “Summertime” by putting two more strings on the instrument. So by not changing the shape, just by upgrading the strings, you are able to play those things. The whole thing is young people in Ethiopia today love to learn the guitar, so perhaps they’d forget their own instruments, so I upgraded the krarr to be as good as a guitar and maybe they will stick with it. It’s still very Ethiopian, I’m not touching the shape of the instrument. I won a grant at MIT, so we’ve been working on the krarr and how it can be developed.
Can you tell me a little about how your music came to be in Jim Jarmusch’s movie Broken Flowers?
Jim is a guy who is a very creative person and he was just looking for music in his films. I met him in New York, we had a concert at the Financial Center—Winter Garden—a beautiful jazz place. His secretary called me one afternoon in New York and said Jim wants to come to a concert this evening. So I said, you’re welcome to come, but I didn’t know who he was. So they came, saw the show, the show was great, sold out, and then after the show he came backstage and we had a chance to speak, and he said Mulatu, I love your music, I want to use some of your music in the film. So I said, please you are welcome. That’s it, I left, and in two months they contacted me and it happened. I’ve written for a lot of plays in Ethiopia, for films in Ethiopia, like documentaries…
How did it feel to see your music in the context of that film?
It was beautiful. It turned out so nicely. My fans and people who follow me, they love my music, but I was able to get a lot of fans from film people. So it’s been great, both sides, the film people and the musicians, they love it, it’s been great for Ethio-jazz. If you work hard and aren’t discouraged and keep on working, the result is what it is. It’s beautiful.
Are there younger musicians that you hear that have that mentality?
There is one guitar player called Bibesha, he plays with me sometimes when I’m home, I think he’s one of the upcoming great musicians who loves Ethio-jazz. I wish him good luck.