No offense to Nas and Damian Marley, but the recent excitement over “As We Enter,” a leaked track from their upcoming collaborative album Distant Relatives, focused mainly on a relatively minor component: the slamming, horn-driven sample from Mulatu Astatke’s “Yegelle Tezeta,” a mind-bendingly cool nod to the crucial but often overlooked figure credited with creating a remarkable fusion called Ethio-jazz.
Though a crate-digger’s favorite who’s currently on a long European tour, the sixtysomething Astatke (or Astatqé) has yet to break through in the U.S. But he’s revered in his native Ethiopia as a composer and musician (on vibes, piano, and percussion); he’s also something of a musical activist, working on the business side as a club owner, DJ, and music-school founder. In addition, he is the first prominent Ethiopian musician to receive formal training outside his homeland, with stops in London, New York, and Boston, where he has since returned to lecture at Harvard.
This background gave Astatke the necessary skills and worldview to fuse aspects of jazz and Latin music with Ethiopian rhythms; initially, the resulting fusion had an Afrobeat-style lounge vibe, a sort of Martin Denny exotica, wherein wah-wah guitar, echoing xylophone, throbbing electric piano, and wild-animal sounds filled out the mix. Some African-music world aficionados have already encountered the results on his 1966 debut album, Afro-Latin Soul, and its handful of official follow-ups, but as those are often tough to find, a more likely entry point is 1998’s amazing Ethiopiques, Vol. 4 comp, which featured some of his classic ’60s and ’70s stuff. Last year came both Inspiration Information, Vol. 3 (an excellent collaboration with Brit band the Heliocentrics) and New York–Addis–London, another retrospective, both on the super-hip Strut label.
Keeping up that momentum, Strut now offers the all-new Mulatu Steps Ahead, with the marquee attraction backed by the Heliocentrics, Boston’s Either/Orchestra, and a host of notable African musicians. Whereas his classic material often involved part-time musicians and police bands, this expanded approach comes off as more sophisticated than the lovable cheese of the past. “Green Africa” offers up a classic Afro-jazz rhythm that vacillates between percolating African groove and bebop; meaty, hook-laden horns raise the temperature, recalling the brass heat of Afrobeat and classic soul-jazz. Things cool down nicely on “Motherland” and “Assosa,” a harp-like kora casting an almost mystical spell. More earthy is the aptly titled “Ethio-Blues,” which highlights Astatke’s light touch on vibes as a slinky vamp moseys along, seemingly inspired by the creepy-cool music of Twin Peaks. And “The Way to Nice” is a seamless marriage of Martin Denny’s James Bond soundtrack work and playful Latin funk. Beautiful, varied, and richly detailed, Mulatu Steps Ahead gives us the opportunity to see Astatke as the artist his countrymen already know him to be.