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Jun 3, 2024, 7:10am EDT
africa

How a legend is taking Ethio Jazz to the world

Tore Sætre / Wikimedia
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The Scene

Ethiopian percussionist Mulatu Astatke — widely recognized as the father of Ethio-Jazz — wants the sub-genre he helped kickstart nearly 60 years ago to have a more prominent role on the world stage. And he is determined to make it happen.

Speaking to Semafor Africa on the sidelines of the Addis Jazz Festival at the historic Ghion Hotel’s Africa Jazz Village, Astatke, 80, says that the time has come for the world to understand the science behind a sound that is synonymous with Ethiopia’s unique recent history.

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Ethio-Jazz got started in the 1950s after the newly appointed director of Ethiopia’s National Opera, an Ethiopian-Armenian called Nerses Nalbandian, was commissioned by Emperor Haile Selassie to compose music for the Ethiopian National Theatre. He ended up blending traditional Ethiopian music with Western classical instruments which created the foundation for Ethio-jazz.

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The appeal of Ethio-Jazz lies in the way it manages to bring together different worlds, says Astatke, known for playing percussion instruments including the conga and vibraphone. “In Ethio-Jazz you have the Ethiopian four modes on the bottom, laying traditional Ethiopian music composition, that Ethiopian flavor, and you add the world on top of that; that’s the science of Ethio-Jazz.”

Now he has a new project that aims to tell the stories of the ‘scientists’ behind the creation of Ethiopia’s traditional musical instruments. It will, “bring the traditional Ethiopian musicians, the azmaris, to the 21st Century,” he says.

The appreciation for Ethio-Jazz should be extended to the “scientists of Ethiopian music,” says Astatke, “Those who have created its traditional musical instruments.” For Astatke, it’s important that Ethiopians get to love and understand these instruments like the krarr, the begena, and the kebeno “as much as they appreciate saxophone, cello, or piano.”

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He says that it’s time to champion the people who came before him. “Ethio-Jazz has reached Hollywood now, and now I’m standing for those people who created me.”

“You have to be educated to know and appreciate art, music, and culture.” He emphasizes, “Africans have contributed so much culture into the world, and this has to be recognized, more than what’s happening today.”

Ethio-jazz is on the global stage today, but it wasn’t an easy road getting it there traveling across Europe and North America he says. “It wasn’t an easy life. It took me 50 years to get it where it is today.”

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