Mulatu Astatke: The Remarkable Journey and Story of The Father of Ethio-Jazz

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Identifiable by its soulful undertones, swing and syncopation, improvisation, bent notes, and distinctive voices, soulful Jazz or Jazz itself has laid the foundation for what has gone on to become Ethio- Jazz. Ethio-Jazz adds more eerie and ancient-sounding tones and is typical of traditional Ethiopian music. The man who started this genre of music that plays from the streets of Ethiopia to its clubs and across Africa is the legendary Mulatu Astatke. 

The Birth Of Ethio-Jazz

Born in 1943 Mutalo went on to study aeronautic engineering in the late 1950’s in North Wales that was when he was formally introduced to music and the arts during his studies, which led him to discovering his natural talent and eventual passion for music.  He then proceeded to study classical music and instruments at Trinity College in London, which allowed him to work with several leading British jazz players. Although he wanted to learn more about the fascinating jazz world, he still desired to compose and promote Ethiopian music. This passion led him to pursue his musical studies at the Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1958- the leading jazz school globally. As the first Ethiopian, let alone an African student at the college, he became enthralled with the idea of combining Ethiopian music with Western jazz and rhythms. After much thought and improvisation, Astatke finally managed to combine the unusual pentatonic scale-based melodies of traditional Ethiopian music with the 12-note harmonies and instrumentation of Western music, giving birth to “Ethio-jazz.”

If you listen to his signature piece, ‘Yekermo Sew’, you’ll see that it is inspired by his early musical influences and a highly original mixture of sounds from places. 

Ethio-Jazz Spreads Throughout Ethiopia 

 Astatke decided to return to his home country and introduce Ethio-jazz to his people by experimenting with this new, hybrid musical style. Listening to Ethio-Jazz, you will find a mix of sounds from the American jazz scene, like bebop and modal Jazz, and Ethiopian based melodies. 

Although he never migrated abroad as many Ethiopian musicians did because of the difficult years following the Ethiopian revolution, he often travelled to perform concerts, record and introduce his music to an international public.

His music was initially met with mistrust, like many Ethiopians, who consider themselves vital traditionalists having escaped colonization, feared cultural contamination of any form. However, Ethio-jazz eventually picked up momentum during the last days of Selassie’s reign, around 1974, although its popularity remained in Ethiopia, with his persistence, insistence and dedication.

In Ethiopia, he taught and spread the Ethio-jazz to younger musicians, many of whom today perform in sessions at his African Jazz Village regularly, making Ethio-jazz quite popular in Ethiopia and neighbouring countries. Through years of research on varieties of Ethiopian folk music from far-flung regions of the country, he created pieces that have circulated in his frequent radio broadcasts. Along the way, Mulatu became a legend in the worldwide Ethiopian diaspora, which he frequently visits on his tours.

Mulatu’s influence in Ethiopia birthed Ethio-jazz singers like Alemayehu EsheteAsnaketch WorkuMahmoud Ahmed, and Tilahun Gessesse.  

Some examples of new millennial songs that have sampled Ethio-Jazz, showing how the genre has gone on to inspire music globally are: 

1. Nas & Damian Marley “As We Enter” / Mulatu Astatke “Yegelle Tezeta”


2. Jay Z “Roc Boys (And The Winner Is)” / Menahan Street Band “Make the Road by Walking”

3 . Common “The Game” / Seyfu Yohannes “Tezeta”

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