Astatke: New York - Addis - London: The story
of Ethio Jazz 1965-1975 (Strut)
you were there, if you saw Mulatu Astatke live 40
years ago when his Ethiopian jazz first slithered
into the unsuspecting ears of Americans and Europeans,
why are you reading this? I'm a latecomer to the
wonders of Ethiopian music, enticed by the Ethiopiques
series and the more contemporary work of Gigi, Bole
2 Harlem, and the like. This music is a product
of contradictions: there's influence from the trade
routes from Asia and Arabia, though the landlocked
country is relatively isolated on an elevated plateau.
The artists who developed Ethiopian jazz and pop
clearly were listening to Western music, but used
traditional melodies and chords to such an extent
that the result sounds like a completely new genre.
Like they'd hiked along the jazz river through the
funk forest on the way to psychedelia mountain,
but got bored with that and took off through the
bush, forging their own path.
it happend, Ethiopia developed a modern sound that's
unique in the world and far removed from the musics
of its neighbors in North Africa, Arabia, and sub-Saharan
Africa. Mulatu Astatke is one of the pioneers of
this music, and has been featured in the Ethiopiques
recordings. This recording is, we're told, "the
definitive Mulatu career retrospective." Astatke
has a fascinating history as a traveling musician,
teacher, even radio broadcaster. But you don't need
to know any of that to know that his music is golden.
he's playing keyboards or vibraphone or just leading
the band, Astatke's music was funky and innovative.
Take the 1969 tune "Yegelle Tezeta / My Own
Memory," which was featured in the Jim Jarmusch
film Broken Flowers. It sounds like Dengue
Fever doing Afrobeat with its thick organ lead
and tight horn lines. A couple songs later, you're
transported a different part of the world with the
Afro-Caribbean feel of "Asiyo Bellema,"
complete with conga and steel pan. Every bit as
funky as any New York boogaloo being released at
the time. My early favorite, though, is the track
"Mulatu," which was the opening song on
his 1972 LP Mulatu
of Ethiopia. Funk guitar and staccato horns
provide the rhythm as Astatke's vibes shimmer above,
alternating with sax and flute. It's the kind of
song that sounds ridiculous when described, but
is nothing short of delicious when heard. That's
the magic of Ethio jazz, and particularly of the
astonishing Mulatu Astatke.
Kuti : The Best of the Black President
the flavor-of-the-month pop stars; the biggest name
in global music, the biggest enduring name with
lasting impact, may well be the sax-playing son
of a Nigerian feminist and a Protestant minister.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti, or simply Fela, went through
a lot of music and a lot of politics in his life,
and 12 years after his death his influence only
seems to be growing. Bands playing Afropop, the
funky, political big-band music he pioneered, seem
to be popping up everywhere from New York to London,
from Lagos to the Netherlands, from Ghana to Germany.
decade ago, MCA Records re-released a number of
Fela recordings on CD, though the packaging was
sparse. Now Afrobeat fans can rejoice with the announcement
by Knitting Factory Records to re-release the complete
45-title Fela discography on both CD and vinyl complete
with original artwork. At the same time, the new
directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, is
opening on Broadway later this month. I'm envious
of you folks in NYC who get first shot at the show,
but in the meantime I'm grooving to the first release
of the series, The Best of the Black President.
The double album includes a generous 13 tracks,
including many well-known songs ("Lady,"
"No Agreement part 2," "Zombie").
Fela's diatribes against military abuses seem no
less relevant today, and the energy of his music
no less compelling. I've yet to go back and compare
the remastered sound to that of the MCA releases,
but I assure you it sounds great and makes essential
listening for global music fans (or those looking
to start their own local Afrobeat orchestra).
artists : Jazz Around the World (Putumayo)
Torch? Global Nightclub? There's got to be
a better title for this disc, which may fall under
the broad umbrella of "jazz," but is a
narrow slice of the global jazz available today.
Granted, Putumayo are playing to the audience they've
built up with their relatively smooth, accessible
series of CDs, and the included artists provide
11 interesting, quality tracks. But the songs --
from artists including Cameroonian Blick Bassy and
Maori Mataraina Pipi -- have a certain soft sameness
that will appeal to fans of Sade more than those
of Mingus. Often the songs feel more like pop ballads
than jazz. The gentle familiarity is reinforced
by the inclusion of a couple cover songs. Keletigui
Diabate teams up with Habib Koite his band Bamada
on the balafon-led "Summertime at Bamako"
and the Kora Jazz Trio plays a delicious Africanized
version of the Cuban classic "Chan Chan"
woven from kora along with the traditional piano.
Jazz Around the World is a fine CD, just
be aware of just what kind of jazz you're getting.
Iberian Peninsula has long been an area of shifting,
merging culture, in large part because of its position
as a gateway to Africa and the Ottoman world. So
perhaps it should come as no surprise that the latest
Afrobeat troupe to emerge comes from Lisbon, and
also incorporates musical elements of former Portuguese
colony Brazil. Their name comes from a term meaning
"chief" in indigenous Brazilian tribes
plus the "'97" as a commemoration of the
year Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti died. The energy
and arrangements of their self-titled album would
make Fela proud, though as a non-Portuguese speaker
unaided by any song notes or lyrics, I have no idea
if they're singing about social injustice or just
a desire to visit the mall. Okay, their press info
indicates the former, mentioning their "activist
approach and promotion of social awareness"
and a couple of the songs include English lyrics,
but still, would it have killed them to include
some track notes? That quibble aside, this is some
of the freshest Afrobeat I've heard in some time,
and you've got to like a group that can make a Jorge
Ben song (the opening track "Jorge De Capadocia")
sound like it's straight outta Lagos. Highly recommended!
Freddy's Drop: Dr. Boondigga & the Big BW
Black Seeds: Solid Ground (Easy
must be something in the sausage rolls. How else
to explain the remarkable claim of New Zealand to
be the southern hemisphere's answer to Jamaica?
In truth, I haven't heard this claim made explicitly,
but added to the the existing library of Kiwi reggae
(Ruia, Trinity Roots, Katchafire) these two new
releases certainly argue in that direction.
their second full album, Fat Freddy's Drop hones
their soul-dub sound through nine fine tracks. Stripped-down
rhythms, rich harmonies, and sparse horns create
a chilled vibe perfect for beach or party. “I
grew up listening to American Black music from the
early ’70s, loving soul music and loving jazz,
and discovering reggae and hip-hop." explains
Samoan-born electronics wizard Chris Faiumu (a.k.a.
Fitchie). "That music wasn’t that developed
here. I had to look offshore to find good music.
And it mostly seemed to be African-American artists
of the ’70s and ’80s. Indigenous people
drew parallels in the work of Bob Marley in their
own struggle here in this country. Reggae is a music
that suits the taste of life here."
Black Seeds take a more straight-ahead reggae approach,
though the surf guitar riff that opens the CD's
first track "Come To Me" suggests something
a little different. With more focus on vocals than
Fat Freddy's Drop, the Seeds' conscious lyrics are
up front: "Slingshot" admonishes one to
"Simmer down your temper now / Don't inflame
the problem now" or it'll come right back to
you. "Strugglers" makes a powerful case
for taking care of the less fortunate: "Take
what you need / and give what you can." And
who could resist the imagery evoked by the song
title "Love Is a Radiation"? “It’s
all about the island sound: speed ukulele, church
choirs, the rhythm of the Samoan log drum. After
all, if you live on the island, are you going to
put on AC/DC?" says The Black Seeds’
guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter Barnaby Weir.
"There are African rhythms in every music,
and we believe you can find the journey of the rhythm
all the way down to New Zealand.”
it was Bob Marley's visit to Aoteoroa some 30 years
ago that sparked this music, but the Kiwis have
taken it in their own direction, and it's worth
catching this musical wave.
Cradle Songs (Diaphonica)
in the car, driving west into -- I kid you not --
the sunset. Above me a sky with breathtaking swooshes
of scarlet and orange, on the stereo otherworldly
vocal harmonies that seem to transport me to another
time and place. I pull over to watch and listen.
Perhaps somewhere in rural Russia a mother is humming
this same song to a child, for while the tune opens
the new album by Oakland based Kitka, it originated
with Jews in the old country. Hauntingly beautiful
women's polyphonies are the hallmark of Kitka, which
has been together since 1979, and their voices are
perfectly suited to the 18 Eastern European lullabies
on Cradle Songs. Almost entirely a cappella, the
songs range originate in various cultures including
Bulgaria, Albania, Georgia, Russia, and Armenia,
and often sound deeper, sadder, or more nostalgic
than one might expect from songs for children.
Armenian lullaby texts have stunningly beautiful
poetry, with a lot of powerful, natural and cosmic
imagery. But there are also lyrics that convey intense
sadness and longing,” Kitka singer Shira Cion
explains. “The songs tell histories of children
and parents lost, of cultural genocide. In many
Eastern European lullabies, the mother pours out
all the grief, fears, and hopes in her soul when
she sings to her child. Our close friend and mentor
in Ukrainian folk song, Mariana Sadovska, even jokingly
refers to some of the cradle songs from her native
tradition as ‘sadistic lullabies.’”
first, I found these lullabies really challenging,”
reflects Kitka singer Janet Kutulas, whose Greek
family sang her one of the songs the group wove
into “Nani, Nani, Kitka Mou.” “They
seemed almost inaccessibly dark. But the more you
listen to them, the more and more beautiful they
become. They aren’t your stereotypical tra-la-la
I'm generally suspicious of "children's music,"
this isn't the first album of international lullabies
to enthrall me, and this one ranks right up with
Lullabies from the Axis of Evil as an album
that will entice and perhaps soothe adults and children
Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media