[live review] mulatu astatke & the heliocentrics @ barbican centre
October 2, 2010
Concert date: September 29, 2010
Mulatu Astatke, founding father of Ethio-jazz, is quite aware of his impact on the country’s music: “I changed Ethiopian music by combining jazz and fusion with the Ethiopian five-note scales,” he says in the programme notes for this performance. “Since then my name has been on the very top of the Ethiopian music scene.”
At 68 years old, he’s quite entitled to feel confident about his contribution to African musical culture, not least because he is influencing another generation of musicians – this time 3,500 miles away in London – with his cosmic brew of 1970s early-fusion (think Bitches Brew/Mwandishi), Ellington’s chamber jazz (think Money Jungle), James Brown-influenced funk and, of course, the sounds and rhythms of his homeland. (Though, believe it or not, he received his formative musical education in Wrexham, Wales.)
Astatke’s relationship with London astro-jazz collective the Heliocentrics dates back to 2008, resulting in live performances and a 2009 album, Inspiration Information (recommended). For this performance, the 15-strong group (including one of my favourite trumpeters, Byron Wallen) largely ignored this release in favour of what the audience was really there to hear: Astatke’s classic 1970s grooves, particularly those captured on the fourth volume of the seminal Ethiopiques compilation series and featured in the 2005 Jim Jarmusch film, Broken Flowers (itself probably responsible for Astatke’s current renaissance).
Needless to say it was wonderful, whisking the audience to a far-flung galaxy of modal grooves. Astatke himself – playing a combination of vibes, Wurlitzer and congas – remained honourably subservient to the collective sound; his contribution is assured enough not to have to steal the limelight from the music itself. It just all came together, bringing most of the crowd to their feet for the final two, unimpeachably good, pieces: propulsive set closer Yègellé Tezeta (My Own Memory) and encore Yèkatit (February), the latter simply the finest slab of exotic jazz-funk ever committed to vinyl.
Astatke is a musician for whom the label “legend” is wholly justifiable, at least among those in the know. One hopes this performance (not least the fantastic accompaniment from the Heliocentrics) will help get the word out to a wider audience. It certainly deserves to.
I can’t close this review without mentioning support act (again London-based) Krar Collective, who showcased a range of traditional music and dance from all parts of Ethiopia – great fun and a perfect scene-setter for the musical journey to come.