Mulatu Astatke

Aug 29, 2019

Mulatu Atatke is an Ethiopian musician and composer considered the father of Ethio-Jazz. Born in the western Ethiopian city of Jimma, Mulatu was musically trained in London, New York City, and Boston where he combined his jazz and Latin music interests with traditional Ethiopian practices.

Atatke is featured in our film Wax & Gold. What follows is an expanded version of what you’ll hear in the film, as told to director Britton Caillouette.

I was the first African student at Berklee College in Boston, which was in 1958. I remember we had this great professor, always telling us, “Be yourself.” We used to do a lot of analyzing chords in the class, like we’d analyze Duke Ellington, analyze Count Basie, other great musicians like Coltrane, some live studies. When this professor was telling me, telling us to be yourself, I always thought to myself, how did these people become themselves -- that was the question.

After I left Berklee I moved to New York, and with all that experience at Berklee, I created a group called the Ethiopian Quintet in New York. That was around 50 years, 55 years ago, something like that. With that group I started experimenting with the different Ethiopian notes.

And as you know, (Ethiopian music) operates on a five-note scale, So I tried to do, like, five against twelve, twelve being European music structures, chord structures. When you’re combining both, you really have to be careful that you don’t lose the color and the beauty.

I put these things together, and I start thinking about how the rhythm could be, so I used what they called Latin music, which, to me, is African. All those rhythms, you can go south of here and you’ll find them, the bongo, the cha-cha-cha. When I was doing this mixing, I never thought of it as Latin, I thought of it as Ethiopian, as African.

New York is a place I really loved and I had a chance to meet great musicians. I also had a chance to listen to different types of music from around the world. It was so great and as I said before -- I try always to be different. That was I had always in my mind. And I had a chance to meet Coltrane, who is really my hero, and somebody who was totally himself, at the peak of his powers, and had a totally new approach.

I had a chance to talk to him, and Alice Coltrane was Ethiopian as well. She came here and we did a recording on radio stations, and involved different Ethiopian musicians and things like that. I also met Armando Peraza, who played percussion for Mongo Santamaria, and I had the chance to meet Tito Puente. It was great to meet those people because their connection to African music is so interesting, and used to listen to them.

And as I said, the roots are here. All of those rhythms we’re talking about are found in Africa. In fact, I remember once, I was in Havana with a group called People To People, which was about 60 people, from a range of musical cultures. And I remember asking them to take me somewhere north of Cuba where there are Africans who first settled.


The African contribution to the world, culturally, is so interesting and so big. I think most of our scientists, I call ‘em the scientists of sounds, are very much neglected in the world. They are not getting the respect they should get. I do a lot of research work about their contribution, especially about the great tribes in the south of Ethiopia, called the Darashis.

Now these tribes do not use Ethiopian notes. They play Persian notes. They play five notes, they play like our great genius, Charlie Parker, and also Debussy. They use a lot of diminished scales, which is especially like Charlie Parker. I remember when I was studying at Berklee, learning how he created modern jazz through these two different notes, which is like whole-half and half-whole.

Charlie Parker and his peers are so great. I have so much respect for these people. But when I came back to Africa, I tell you, these tribes were playing the whole-half diminished scales. I was remembering that I did a lot of fusion work with these tribes because I find them so interesting, because these people are born already knowing the five notes and four notes (that made Parker famous). How the hell it is they’re able to create these scales, diminished scales?

When we talk about Ethiopian contribution to the science of jazz, usually we say the rhythms of Africa. But it’s not only the rhythms; we have also contributed to the melodic development of jazz. If you go to dance, so many movements from Ethiopia have been used in different dances around the world. Can I mention Beyonce? She does our Eskita. She’s never mentioned it, and so people think somebody from America created this movement. On the road she does also another dance from north Ethiopia. Michael Jackson as well -- he did the moonwalk, which is the same as Ethiopian dance. To break it, he walked backwards, but the way in front is the same as an Ethiopian dance. It starts in Africa and it develops somewhere else.
We have this one instrument that sounds like a trumpet. We have another instrument in Ethiopia that sounds like a baritone sax. But all those people who created them, nobody talks about them, which makes me really sad because these are my heroes. I consider them scientists in song because I grew up with them.

We have another instrument called a dita, which sounds exactly like a contrabass. Up here we have a thumb piano, we call it tom, but in Zimbabwe it’s called the mbira, where they play the bass on this hand and the melody up here. I played it, in fact, for Mozart’s 250th birthday in Vienna. I was in the opening, and I took seven of these mbira players there. I rewrote the music for vibes and mbiras, and it was beautiful.

What’s very interesting is they play the bass here and they play the melody up here like this. When you turn it around -- it’s a grand piano, my friend. So these are Ethiopia’s contributions. I mean, these bush people are my heroes.

I’ve always believed Africa has contributed so much. But one thing is we don’t do any research. If most of our universe began in Africa, we should concentrate on research. For example, we can take the masenqo, which you heard last night -- who created the masenqo? Nobody knows. Who created the kraals? Nobody. We need to give respect to all these people, to the geniuses who created all these instruments, but we don’t know them.

I’m so involved with bringing Ethio-Jazz out to the world, you know, and I hope university people, the researchers who write stories and things, look back and try to find out more about our genius people, because I think it’s a very interesting story.

Now, you go to Dire Dawa, you go to Gondar or Gojam, you go to the south, you go east, everywhere these scales are used. Our next effort should be to find who created these scales, who gave it to us? There’s some of it found in Asia, you know, but did we take it from them or did they take it from us? It’s a very interesting question, so that’s what I’m working on next. And also, developing our musical instruments, to be able to play Ethio-Jazz with all Ethiopian instruments.

Before so-called world development, people like these people in the bushes were conquering the world. Great geniuses are not only in Ethiopia, but all parts of Africa, contributing to art, music, generally to culture. And other people might question our existence. I could be a good example of that. In developing countries, how do we educate a person? That’s the first question, starting from kindergarten up to the 12th grade. That’s where you can create a person.

How we make everything available to young people matters. If you start with physics, chemistry, math, music all on the same level, then we can find out what a person’s talent is, then we can pursue, continue with that talent.

Culturally, I hope we’ll also find people to do a lot of research, a lot of experimental work, and attract great respect for our people who built our culture. I always say we should give more respect to culture generally in the third world countries because, for instance, in Ethiopia, a person with no culture is nobody. It’s important to learn, to love and respect the people who created it and passed it down to us. This is what I think we should do to become greater and go farther.

This is special, this club. It’s a very historical place. Before I took over as an Ethio-jazz club, it used to have singers, like Muluken Melesse. Ethiopian singers used to sing at this place before it changed. So it was a different style, different feel, different approach. Bob Marley stood on this stage, singing No Woman No Cry.

Lots of good people have come here; the German president came to listen to our music, the Austrian Prime Minister was here. It has become interesting and important worldwide. It helps with Ethio-Jazz development. I hope the African Jazz Village will continue, and that the next time you come, you will be able to hear all cultural instruments playing Ethio-jazz.