Feb 25, 2010

Mulatu Astatke & The Heliocentrics - Inspiration Information Vol. 3



Reviews

Nearly 50 years ago, a bright-eyed Ethiopian teen arrived in Wrexham, a county borough in the northeastern part of Wales. His parents had sent him nearly 4,000 miles from home to attend a renowned boarding school that welcomed a host of Ethiopians students. Young Mulatu Astatke quickly formed a bond with the school's band teacher, developing an interest in the trumpet and clarinet.

After graduation, Astatke set out for the big city, attending Trinity College in London and studying classical and jazz music before venturing across the pond to become the first African student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. A less formal education followed, in the talent-laden jazz clubs of New York City in the mid-1960s with his own band, The Ethiopian Quintet.

Astatke's ten-year stint in the West would ultimately set him on a singular path. Just as the Nigerian artist Fela Anikulapo Kuti mixed African highlife with American funk into a potent blend called Afrobeat, Astatke returned to Ethiopia in 1968 with an entirely new sound to unleash on his homeland: Ethio Jazz. It was unlike anything heard before, chock full of Arabic, African, Latin and African-American influences, with the groove prominent in the mix, enveloped by a swirl of hypnotic, snake-charming brass, wah-wah guitar and an onslaught of percussion.

Astatke has taken his sound all over the world over the past 45 years, but his latest collaboration has taken him full circle. Recruited by DJ and promoter Karen P and the Red Bull Music Academy to play a show at London's famed Cargo club in April 2008, Astatke was linked with The Heliocentrics, a British jazz ensemble that has drawn rave reviews in recent years for its psychedelic, hip hop-inflected sound. The show went so well that the two parties agreed to make a record together, and the resulting album, the third in the Strut label's Inspiration Information studio collaboration series, hit stores earlier this month. Mulatu Astatke and The Heliocentrics: Inspiration Information 3 sees the master and his vaunted band explore their respective sounds but also meet somewhere in the middle, adding a harder, psych-rock tinge to Astatke's Ethio Jazz and injecting traditional Ethiopian instruments and Coptic Church chanting into The Heliocentrics' thick, fluid jazz compositions.

When he picks up the phone at his hotel on a trademark cold, damp late winter evening in London, Astatke is at the tail end of a long day of rehearsals with The Heliocentrics, as well as an appearance on BBC 1 with tastemaker extraordinaire Gilles Peterson. Despite nursing a cold with a cup of hot tea and already in bed, the 64-year-old pioneer is a relentless fountain of positive energy, continuously using words like “beautiful" and “so great" to describe his 45-year career in music and his serendipitous connection with The Heliocentrics.

“It's been so nice and so great," he says. “It's incredible to see younger musicians playing Ethio Jazz. This has been a beautiful collaboration."

Astatke has enjoyed a surge in popularity in the West in recent years behind the soundtrack of Jim Jarmusch's film Broken Flowers in 2005, as well as the 1998 release of the fourth volume of Francis Falceto's monumental 21-volume Ethiopiques series, both of which leaned heavily on Astatke's instrumental arrangements.

But, his latest collaboration isn't a case of a bunch of young upstarts propping up an aging pioneer tenuously grasping at the days of yore. Astatke is fresh off a Radcliffe Institute fellowship at Harvard University, where he premiered part of a new opera he composed based on the musical traditions established by Yared, an iconic Ethiopian figure largely credited with establishing the country's musical framework. He is also in the midst of a project to modernize some of the traditional Ethiopian instruments, hoping to expand their sound without compromising their uniqueness, and is working on a solo album this summer.

“I've worked 24 hours a day to introduce Ethiopian music to the world, and to show what Ethiopians have contributed to the world in culture and music," he says. “I have enjoyed it so much. I've never been discouraged. I just keep on going and going, and this is the latest thing to happen for me. I'll never stop."

“Music just needs the brain to work - you don't have to have big muscles or anything," he continues. “I can play up to 100. You look at the great European composers [and] their best work was done at the age of 80 and 90. Even Duke Ellington was doing beautiful work at the age of 80. It's all how you look at it. It's so beautiful, so nice."

Heliocentrics' drummer and co-founder Malcolm Catto first discovered Astatke's music back in 1994 while on a search for rare gems in New York City as part of his day job for Jazzman Records. But, it was in 2002, when French label L'Arome reissued Astatke's Ethio Jazz album, that Catto was floored.

“That was the one that totally blew me away," Catto says. “When I heard the Ethio Jazz album, I was like, 'Jesus Christ.' We all love that sort of rough edge to it. It had a rawness that opened our minds to using different scales in that music, incorporating different modes and scales."

The discovery sent Catto digging for Arabic and African influences to incorporate into The Heliocentrics' sound, a move that ultimately helped the band land the Cargo gig. Catto and company were just as blown away by how laid-back and easy to talk to the jazz pioneer was when they first met in the days leading up to the Cargo show.

“The guy is totally approachable and so easy to get along with," Catto says. “It wasn't any sort of James Brown sort of business."

Currently on tour in Europe, the band packs into a van with their gear on the road, with Astatke traveling in a separate car and the band members taking turns traveling with him.

“He's just one of the guys, really," Catto says. “He's so easy going you wouldn't believe. He's not in his own world and he doesn't have his own whole separate thing going on at all. He's just there amongst us. What you see is what you get. I like to think that we're all like that and that's why we connect because we basically all try to be fairly honest about it and just love the music."

The feeling is mutual, and Astatke and The Heliocentrics have already discussed future projects that would potentially have the band traveling to Addis Abba to record with more Ethiopian musicians.

“We have some traditional instruments on this record, but going there to work with them would be pretty amazing," Catto says. “We could take this as deep as we can get it, and Mulatu is up for that."

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The third in Strut Records' Inspiration Information collaborative series pairs Mulatu Astatke, 66-year-old father of Ethio-jazz, with London-based astral funk collective the Heliocentrics. The collaboration began with an appearance at London club Cargo in 2008, and has finally borne recorded fruit in the form of an intriguing album that's equal parts sweaty funk and blissfully meditative jams.

Astatke has come to be appreciated outside specialist circles in recent years. His music featured heavily in Jim Jarmusch's 2005 film Broken Flowers, and before that, in 1998, an entire edition of the Ethiopiques album series was devoted to his work. His sound intertwines funk and jazz elements with traditional Ethiopian folk melodies and echoes of Coptic Church music. Astatke's compositions frequently combine his own vibraphone and conga playing with the distinctive sound of the lyre-like krar, which works with five tones instead of the seven-note scale typical of western music. These disparate elements combine to create a heady blend that feels both sacred and profane.

That paradoxical effect holds sway here, with the Heliocentrics adding a glitchy sheen. Their most noticeable contribution at first is the sheer power of the drumming, which on sleazy jam Addis Black Widow and the funky sax-led Fire in the Zoo have an almost breakbeat-like heaviness. Elsewhere, however, they conspire with Astatke to far subtler effect. The electronic effects flecked between the meandering bass, spiralling strings and washint (an Ethiopian flute) passages on An Epic Story are no less compelling for being down in the mix.

There are times when the partnership falters. Blue Nile dips its toes into forgettable downtempo territory, and the closing ten-minute sprawl of Anglo Ethio Suite doesn't build much beyond a promising opening. The good outweighs the bad, however, especially on the woozy stagger of Chik Chikka and the Alice Coltrane-style oddness of Phantom of the Panther. Best of all is Live From Tigre Lounge, where metallic beats combine with a sinister organ and distant howled vocals above a bassline that sounds like its wandered in from an early-1990s hardcore record. At times such as these this project makes perfect, unexpected sense.

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Mulatu Astatke's music is impossible to categorise. There are Ethiopian influences, of course, thanks to his use of the (almost) Arabic-sounding five-tone scale, the echoes of Coptic church music, and his fascination with such ancient instruments as the six-stringed krar, the washint flute or begena harp. Then there are the jazz influences, reflecting the time he spent in the UK and the US. It's a predominantly instrumental style that first shook up the Addis music scene back in the late 1960s and early 70s, reached new audiences thanks to the success of the Ethiopiques albums, and is still evolving. Last year, Astatke gave his first live show in the UK in more than 15 years, backed by the London-based Heliocentrics collective, and now the African bandleader joins them again for an intriguing new studio collaboration. The result is an everchanging kaleidoscope in which his drifting piano work and vibes playing is matched against anything from echoes of Ethiopian folk styles through to edgy or rousing brass work, sturdy bass riffs and moody, gently rhythmic passages that would make great film music. He's now in his 60s, but Astatke is still taking chances.

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OK, listen with me… tranquil soft piano keys playing for maybe fifteen seconds, soothingly melodious, you’re in a trance. At 22 seconds; you hear this gradually building, piercing sound. Is this the sound of a whistling kettle? Yes, and you’re still entranced…cue [what sounds like] a boat horn at 44 seconds accompanied by light tapping of the Congo drums. Stay with me… *drums, drums, drums, boat horn* … South African singing in the most titillating voice, right at the one minute mark. You have now entered the world of Mulatu Astatke & The Heliocentrics via the opening track; Masenqo.

I introduce Mulatu Astatke, the Father of Ethio-jazz who has been freaking his albums for over 4 decades by geniusly merging traditional Ethiopian melodies with Jazz and Funk. Meet the Heliocentrics, “the UK’s foremost freethinking musicians” who broke the scene in 2007 with the psychedelic: funky: hip hoppy: jazzy: debut album; “Out There”. The Heliocentrics’ genre crossing musical scope is heavily influenced by James Brown and Sun Ra. Combine that with Mulatu’s Ethiojazz, and we get the 3rd of Strut’s studio collabo series; Inspiration Information. In short, be ready for the bluesy horns of the 60’s filled with sporadic, yet melodious instruments and sounds a la Sun Ra, and superb production a la Mabanua.

The album mentally takes you on a journey transcending genres, and crossing countries in such a unique way. I’m hearing instruments like the vibraphone, violin, horns, and electric guitars… but in a podcast that you can listen to HERE, I learned that they were also using Chinese cymbals & gongs, copper cooking pans, and a number of Ethiopian percussion instruments to name a few. The sound it has created will have you restarting tracks, and scratching your forehead while rocking along unknowingly.

Inspiration Information captivates by going hard with the instruments, withholding nothing. Mulatu has a 60’s era sound with the blare of the saxophones pushing through. The Thai guitar is delivering mad riffs, and the percussion instruments are creating an overall sound to make you tap your feet. Blue Nile sounds like a contemporary jam session. The tempo pushes you into the booth for a freestyle battle from the rhythmic bass and percussion. The true essence of a live band lives in this joint, if you’re in London they’ll be there in May! Chik Chikka starts on a mission to grip you. A powerful guitar rips, Mulatu stimulates the keys, and The Heliocentrics complement with wild percussion instruments. By far, my favorite track! Phantom of the Panther! If you dance…this is for you! The timbales and congo drums command you to your feet. Short pauses in between the tapping tease your senses… you’re giving all your energy as you submit to the drums unknowingly. Tambourines get your hips moving and you are officially deep in movement. Haunting chants reverberate, you close your eyes because you are now lost in the vibe. Bliss

The aforementioned songs are just my highlights of this work of art that in no way, shape, or form accurately describes the feelings you will experience. This fusion of artists creates the most magnificent international sound, and I’m still astonished that this masterpiece was created in 7 days. Get inspired! The album is to be released April 14th 2009, and is available at Amazon.com for preorder, you won’t regret it!

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For all the excitement they generate, collaborations between artists who are well-established on their own tend to disappoint more often than not. This is especially true in music, but it’s a burden that Ethiopian bandleader Mulatu Astatke has been able to transcend for most of his career. Astatke was a founding figure in the Ethiopian jazz scene of the early 1970s—work that has been documented on the fourth volume of Buda Musique’s Ethiopiques series—but the bulk of his achievements in the ensuing years have been made in collaboration with equally accomplished artists from cultures other than his own.

For the third installment of Strut Records’ Inspiration Information series, Astatke teams up with the London-based Heliocentrics, a band whose debut recording on Stones Throw and associations with artists like DJ Shadow and Madlib has given them some deserved credibility as adventurous musicians of the highest caliber. But not even the esteemed pedigrees of either side of this equation could prepare anyone for what Astatke and the Heliocentrics have attained together—the entire album takes the tenets of collaborative success beyond categorization in the way it blurs the lines between funk, soul, breakbeat, R&B, and Astatke’s vintage Ethiopian jazz. This is not a collection of genre exercises—just uninhibited cross-pollination by an ensemble cast whose creativity knows no bounds.

As anyone who’s heard Ethiopiques Volume 4 (or seen Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, whose soundtrack draws heavily from the same compilation) can verify, there’s something about Astatke’s concept of harmony that defies categorization—it’s exotic, to be sure, but not in the watered-down, stereotyped way that Esquivel or Martin Denny packaged so-called “exotica” to the Glenn Quagmire prototypes of the 1960s. Heliocentrics drummer Malcolm Catto conveys the essence of this quality in a promotional documentary clip on the making of the album: “That scale—the Ethiopian mode. And it sounds a bit Arabic, but it isn’t… it’s some of the most amazing music ever made, and I can say that from the heart.” Describe it as you will, Astatke’s minor-keyed harmonies drive the majority of the pieces, giving the session a funk-noir feel that has few recorded precedents.

It’s presumably obvious by now that each of the disc’s 14 tracks is a highlight in its own way, yet certain pieces demand special attention. “Masenqo” starts the album off on a deceptively pastoral note, before exploding into a ridiculously funky groove powered by Catto and his Heliocentrics rhythm partner, bassist Jake Ferguson—if Charles Mingus had lived to sit in with a live hip-hop band like the Roots, it might have sounded like this. Others like “Mulatu” stick closer to Astatke’s Ethiopian heritage, but still infuse that sound with modern touches, most notably in the form of Adrian Owusu’s stabbing guitar chords that recall John McLaughlin’s playing with Miles Davis on On the Corner.

Continuing onward through strange renderings of the I-IV-V blues progression (“Chinese New Year”) and stellar examples of Astatke’s own musicianship (see the ancient and otherworldly qualities of his piano playing on “Phantom of the Panther”), the album develops so effortlessly that even pieces that seem like little more than basic idea sketches (“Fire in the Zoo”, for example) get fleshed out into vibrant creations. And that’s what makes Inspiration Information 3 such a perfectly unpredictable album—the arrangements surprise throughout with unexpected twists in ensemble voicings or solo placements, culminating in the giddy disorientation found on the concluding track, “Anglo Ethio Suite”. A suite more in length than compositional make-up, it becomes a droning, string-heavy black hole that sucks in all that which has preceded it, leaving only the silence of space—and heads shaking in disbelief—in its wake.

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Strut Records’ Inspiration, Information series was conceived as an exercise in collaboration, though, for its first two installments, it essentially sank into hero-worship– but then, isn’t that usually how these multi-generational collaborations turn out? On paper, the project is meant to bring together one veteran artist with a younger, kindred spirit, and in that regard it’s succeeded, but while the series is designed to give each participant a chance to shine, the first two volumes have left no question as to who is the mentor and who is the apprentice. It only makes sense, then, that for the third and hands-down the finest entry in the series yet, the Strut powers-that-be would enlist Mulatu Astatke– an artist whose long-standing interest in musical community and truly collaborative spirit show just how inspired this type of recording can be when the musicians are well-matched.

If you’re unfamiliar with Astatke’s music, then apparently you’ve never seen Jim Jarmusch’s film Broken Flowers; the director made prominent use of Astatke’s music and gave the musician just the platform he needed to begin expanding his presence in the minds and record collections of Western jazzbos and world music buffs. The movie wasn’t exactly Garden State, and Astatke isn’t exactly the Shins, but as far as Ethiopian jazz pioneers are concerned, it was still a pretty big break.

Now, the legendary composer– who began recording in the 1960s– is sympathetically paired with the UK-based collective the Heliocentrics, and what transpires between the two parties can only be called chemistry. Give much of the credit to Astatke, who practically invented the form known as Ethiopian jazz and who has spent much of his life trying to nurture an artistic community therein; though all of the album’s fourteen tracks were written by him, he treats the Helios not as his pupils but his equals, and the sound of the album is as much theirs as his. For their part, the Heliocentrics are faithful enough to Astatke’s compositions, some of which are classics though most of which are brand new. They don’t try too hard to place their own stamp on this music, but rather find themselves in the grooves, and what results is something that lives up to the album title– real inspiration.

It’s a vibrant and hypnotic assortment of sounds and styles, by turns very Eastern and very Western, tastefully retro but also very forward-thinking, jazzy without being too esoteric and funky without sacrificing the music’s depth and sophistication. Astatke borrows many of his melodies and rhythms from traditional Ethiopian folk music, which grounds it all in a particular tradition, but he also reveals a keen interest in Western modalism, as well as a distinctly spiritual sensibility that no doubt rubbed off on him from his late friends and collaborators John and Alice Coltrane. The Heliocentrics, on the other hand, bring all the musical signifiers of psychadelia, rock, James Brown funk, and film noir soundtrack music. Some of their beats come clearly out of funk, while others sound borrowed from contemporary hip-hop. Astatke doesn’t call attention to himself as a performer, but works himself into the fabric of the music– he does get in a couple of terrific solos on the vibes, and his hand percussion on some of the later tracks reveals an idiosyncratic sense of rhythm– and everything the Heliocentrics do is in service of the songs.

Which is all just a round-about way of saying that this is true collaboration, and it’s thrilling. These musicians share similar interests but also come from very different backgrounds, but when they meet here they not only find common ground, but push each other to explore and stretch creatively. To boot: The music flat-out kicks. It’s a wonderful collection that spans decades and continents, but finds its voice in pure, unified creativity.

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Tracklist

1. Masengo
02. Cha Cha
03. Addis Black Widow
04. Mulatu
05. Blue Nile
06. Esketa Dance
07. Chik Chikka
08. Live From Tigre Lounge
09. Chinese New Year
10. Phantom Of The Panther
11. Dewel
12. Fire In The Zoo
13. An Epic Story
14. Anglo Ethio Suite

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