The story begins in 1896, following Ethiopia’s victory against the invading Italians at the Battle of Adwa. Russian tsar Nicolas II sent Emperor Menelik 40 brass instruments. It became the imperial music – and planted a seed. Then, on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1924, the prince who would become Emperor Haile Selassie met a marching band of young Armenians orphaned in the recent Ottoman massacres. He shipped the “Arba Lijoch” (“Forty Kids”) back to Addis Ababa and installed them as the imperial band. The emperor’s new big band ensembles proved to be incubators for the stars of a new sound craved by a young generation demanding musical – as well as social and political – change.
The father of Ethio-Jazz is Mulatu Astatke. Born in 1943 in Jimma, a city in the Western part of Ethiopia, Astatke unexpectedly chose to study aeronautic engineering in North Wales in the late 1950s. Formally introduced to music and the arts during his studies, he eventually discovered his natural talent and passion for music. Inspired by other African students in Trinity College in London who were presenting their music and culture to European audiences, he started to want to compose and promote Ethiopian music. After much thought and improvisation, Astatke finally managed to combine the unusual pentatonic scale-based melodies of traditional Ethiopian music with the 12-note harmonies and instrumentation of Western music, giving birth to ‘Ethio-Jazz’. The bigger jazz scene in New York compelled Astatke to move once again, and it was during the 1960s that Ethio-Jazz fully came to life. Greatly inspired by the likes of Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
In Addis Ababa, Emperor Selassie had made a number of liberal changes following the social turmoil of 1960, and Addis was in full swing. The period up until the mid-1970s was described as the country’s golden age of music and creativity. Although this new music style was first met with distrust of those who feared a cultural colonization, Ethio-Jazz eventually picked up momentum with a fast-growing appreciation during the last days of Selassie’s reign.
Apart from Astatke, there are others musicians who greatly contributed to transform the country’s musical landscape in the 1960s. Saxophonist Gétatchew Mèkurya, who started his career at the Addis Ababa city band and went on to play alongside many of Ethiopia’s biggest orchestras, later releasing his acclaimed album Negus of Ethiopian Sax. Another unforgettable Ethio-Jazz veteran is Mahmoud Ahmed, who is often mentioned together with Astatke, whenever Ethio-Jazz comes to mind. Ahmed became similarly famous for combining Ethiopian music with western jazz and rock, and released the album Ere Mela Mela in 1975. Famous Ethio-Jazz singers include Alemayehu Eshete who, together with Girma Bèyène, founded the Alem-Girma Band and composed about 30 singles before the arrival of the Communist regime.
The Derg, the Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile-Mariam in 1974 squashed Ethiopia’s budding musical scene and liberal social life. Considered a Western import, much of Ethiopia’s popular music was censored, and musical creation and practice were largely limited to patriotic songs. As a result, many musicians fled the country or kept a low profile, and a generation grew up with hardly any memory of Ethio-Jazz. In spite of this, Astatke opted to remain in the country. As a board member of the International Jazz Federation, this afforded him a certain amount of freedom as well as a chance to travel.
The revival of Ethiopian music as a world export started in 1997 with Francis Falceto, a French music producer, fascinated with “World Music” by compiling a 23-volume series called Ethiopiques on the French label Buda Musique. Through this extensive series, Ethio-Jazz finally hit the international scenes on the eve of the new millennium as various actors in the world music arena become acquainted with and captivated by Astatke’s work. Ethio-Jazz reached an even wider audience when Jim Jarmusch, completely taken in by Astatke’s work, used a number of Astatke’s songs in the soundtrack of his film Broken Flowers in 2005.
Just over 70 years old, Mulatu Astatke is as active as ever. Completely absorbed by music, Astatke continues to innovate, modernising traditional instruments, taking up new opportunities for musical cross fertilisation and tirelessly working on establishing a profound imprint of Ethio-Jazz on the history of world music. On top of participating actively in a number of festivals and speaking at international events, Astatke has also established the African Jazz Village, a music school and jazz club dedicated to promoting Ethio-Jazz in Addis. Working closely with young bands and his students, Astatke is paving the way for the next wave of Ethio-Jazz musicians. Far from being a passing music phase of the moment, Ethio-Jazz has continued to thrive in the modern day Ethiopia and beyond, against all odds, constantly evolving but staying true to its strong Ethiopian roots.