Mulatu Astatke: in review at Astra Kulturhaus

The journey of Mulatu Astatke through music is a long journey full of ancient drums and jazzy horns.

The story is told every time he hits the stage: at 75 years old, he keeps the storytelling intact. Whilst his sound has changed (as well as his band members), the feeling remains the same. For decades he has made music, from Ethiopian progressive music to Latin jazz influenced by New
York’s boiling scene in the 80s.

At Astra Kulturhaus, he showed us how the evolution of his music is the evolution of himself. Eight musicians on stage giving it all to the crowd, plus a little strange instrumentation – having a cello incorporated, two horns, a double bass, percussionist, a piano player, a drummer and Mulatu playing his famous vibraphone, the congas and the piano depending on the song and the mood he was in.

The solos were as expected from experienced jazz players, astonishing. Each of the players had his opportunity to do so depending on the song, each featured one musician giving him space to speak the secret tongues of jazz language.


The sax player was leading the breaks of the band, and, when his time to improvise came, he gave more than the crowd could handle. His melodies flew across the air of the venue as a bird on flames, shrieking along the way to its final cry, a controlled desperation of freedom in the world of Ethiopian jazz, a contradictory planet of ancient rules with modern languages.

Then came the piano player. His solo started as a mammoth walk, heavy and groovy feet stomping on the ground, lifting dust that covered the harmony. The pianist went crazy on his instrument -hitting the keyboard with all of his forearm at the end of the solo, the feeling of joy and freedom expressed in arrhythmic extasis to finish with a groove. Mulatu in the background, watching his musicians speak the tongue passed through his generation.

You couldn’t tell when a mistake was made, because they disguised it as truth.

The bass player impressed with his emotional solo. We all know how quiet and then again low a bass solo sounds, but he made it something out of this world. He started by hitting the chords frantically making noise and then started to hit the body of the double bass, head banging across his speech and in perfect timing beginning the countdown for all the band to start again in an impressive synchronized performance.

All of the musicians were superb (you could say flawless if the word existed in the language of jazz) but Mulatu Astatke came to Berlin to show us that jazz and traditional music are part of the human world, full of imperfect feelings that need to be talked about. You couldn’t tell when a mistake was made because they disguised it as truth. We humans are full of it, and jazz is human. In the end, it’s not about the mistakes you make, but how you solve them.

The band and Mulatu himself had a great time: you could tell by how each looked at each other on stage. The piano player was making fun of Mulatu because of the humbleness he had when receiving a nonstop applause from the crowd. The percussionist changed rhythms just to see Mulatu’s face change in surprise. The cello and bass created on-the-go breaks to emphasize the drummer. The language of the unspoken.

We all hope Mulatu Astatke plays for as long as the world will let him, his music and the musicians he has chosen to play with in this final passage of his story is just a conclusion of a time that was forgotten and just remembered by the revival of vynil. The collectionists thought he was long gone when his recording rediscovered, fortunately for us his still on stage providing us sacred verses from holy lands.

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