Gig review: Mulatu Astatke at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds

Mulatu Astatke
Mulatu Astatke
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It’s not often that one musician can claim authorship of an entire genre.

The beaming, sprightly septuagenarian composer and band leader stationed behind a post of vibraphone, organ and percussion at the front of the stage tonight, however, can claim credit for a distinctly cool, Ethiopian brand of instrumental music known as Ethio-Jazz.

These mysterious, melancholy but robustly rhythmic sounds almost ended up lost, however. Having made his most renowned recordings in the 1970s, before Ethiopia was gripped by a dictatorship with a predictably constraining effect on cultural life, Mulatu Astatke’s music was largely forgotten for decades.

That changed when American director Jim Jarmusch gave a starring role to a handful of cuts from the installment of the brilliant Ethiopiques series – proof that roots reggae’s famous fondness for Ethiopia isn’t the country’s greatest musical claim to fame – dedicated to Astatke’s classic recordings in his Bill Murray-starring 2005 tragi-comedy Broken Flowers; as if to highlight the film’s importance to Astatke’s late-blooming international renown, it’s shown at the Howard Assembly Room later this month as a tribute to this rare live appearance by the Ethiopian legend, who also refers to the film in a song introduction.

It’s more than likely that music this unique and vibrant would’ve floated back to the surface eventually even without Jarmusch’s inspired intervention. The opening moments inch worryingly close to burying Astatke’s horn-powered, haunting melody lines and hypnotic rhythms under robust outbreaks of avant-jazz noodling. By a sizzling rendition of ‘Yekermo Sew’, Astatke and the seven-strong band have located their mutual, percussion-heavy groove.

Rather than opting for the cosiness of replicating the tightly orchestrated vintage studio cuts, Astatke and the band use them as a springboard for sprawling but rarely indulgent explorations that allow ample time in the spotlight for each musician; it turns out that Astatke has a disarming habit of humming the notes as he hits the keys on the vibraphone.

Tonight’s set provides a compelling lesson in how to keep vintage material fresh without losing sight of what made it special in the first place.

They know when to scale it back, too: although it’s a more recent cut, the beautiful ‘Motherland’ resembles Astatke’s classic sides in its spare use of instrumentation, with musicians entering the mix one by one as the performance gradually grows in stature.

As proven by an excellent recent collaboration with the Heliocentrics, Astatke remains more interested in the here and now than rehashing past glories; tonight’s set provides a compelling lesson in how to keep vintage material fresh without losing sight of what made it special in the first place.

Sometimes, legends get a rapturous response purely for still being around to gawp at. The standing ovation at the end of tonight’s generously portioned outing, however, is completely deserved.

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