8 out of 10: A master finally receiving his dues
It’s an unlikely story: one of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival’s biggest drawcards is Mulatu Astatke, a 67-year-old Ethiopian jazz musician whose superb compositions had sunk into obscurity after civil war and famine engulfed his homeland with the Derg’s disastrous rise to power in 1974. Ever so justly, a volume of the French-produced Ethiopiques series devoted to his classic recordings and the Jim Jarmusch film Broken Flowers paved the way for his journey to Melbourne’s shores and the long-due recognition of his status as a musician of the highest order.
Astatke’s compositions are sexy, atmospheric, smooth, melding Latin rhythms and jazz arrangements with traditional Ethiopian music. His melodies slither snake-like across sumptuous beds of sparse, hypnotic funk, and if one were ever to be sipping martinis and smoking hookahs in a steamy harem on the trail of a two-bit hustler, no doubt it would be Astatke supplying the musical backdrop.
Recent years have been busy musically for Astatke. He’s collaborated with the Heliocentrics and the Either/Orchestra as well as releasing an album of mostly original material just this year. And at the Forum tonight, he plays for the first time with Australia’s own purveyors of music from around the world, the Black Jesus Experience.
Astatke takes centre stage in traditional Ethiopian dress. Softly spoken, he unassumingly introduces each song before stepping back behind the vibraphone or some percussion and playing. Astatke allows his compositions be the primary focus, eschewing overlong solos and any trace of self-indulgence so that his melodies and harmonies, which sound so naturally distinctive to an ear raised on Western music, effortlessly beguile the audience.
Detracting from the performance, however, is a too-loud horn section. When the trumpet and two saxophones are blown in concert, the sound overpowers the rest of the delicately arranged music, bludgeoning what else is being played rather than blending with it. The Black Jesus Experience is not as tight as one would like to begin with either. As the night goes on, though, the band does grow into the music, and by the time Astatke turns to his more upbeat numbers, compositions such as Yegelie Tezeta and Sabye positively shine.
Tonight, Astatke reconfirms his place in the musical pantheon. Such heavenly music makes you think the Rastafarians might have been half-right after all: an incarnation of the divine was born in Ethiopia, even if it wasn’t Emperor Haile Selassie as they suppose.