Mulatu Astatke – Sketches of Ethiopia

Mulatu Astatke - Sketches of Ethiopia

Mulatu Astatke – Sketches of Ethiopia

Mulatu Astatke’s latest recording, Sketches of Ethiopia, is a masterpiece.  Released in 2013 on Harmonia Mundi Jazz Village, Astatke’s infectious talent is finally available to an international audience. Beginning his career as a percussionist, Astatke collaborated with numerous jazz legends such as Duke Ellington. The horn and piano sections on this recording pay honorable tribute to those classic jazz lines as they blend into African rhythms and choirs led by Memeru.  It’s that mix of western and African tradition that makes Sketches of Ethiopia so compelling.

The entire orchestration is set in motion from the very first track; the whole thing moves, spins, and shifts.  Each transition is subtle and nuanced, one hardly recognizes them.  Call and response is employed both vocally and musically, but never so in a way that disrupts any of the other rhythms. Astatke has multiple time signatures operating on several levels. Track 1 is the lesson in contrapuntal rhythm.  But, to have so many rhythmic patterns operating within multiple musical canons of afro, jazz, Latin, and funk is truly a remarkable accomplishment from a brilliant musician and arranger. Astatke and his Step Ahead Band have created a kind of musical blessing.   A few memorable highlights from the CD: Astatke himself plays vibraphrones!  The Step Ahead Band and what they achieve on “Assosa Derache” (track 5) is a mini-masterpiece.  I hear echoes of Dizzie Gillespie and Miles Davis throughout, especially on the final measures from the wailing horns on tracks 5 and 7.  These are not stiff and formulaic nods, they are reminiscent and meaningful, and set within the fast moving “ethio” oeuvre that Astatke himself created, they mean even more by contrast.  And they lead up to the big moment—”Motherland Abay”—where all the instruments are on full display; Yohannes Afwork’s washint both rarified and commanding here.  Fatoumata Diawara’s lead vocals on “Surma” are unforgettable, Messale Asmamow’s krarr on “Hager Fiker” very powerful,  Indris Hassun’s masinko is emotionally gutting throughout, but especially so on “Gambella”.

For those lucky enough to see them in concert over the next seven shows through November, enjoy!