Earlier this month we were fortunate enough to attend one of the two shows hosted at YAAM Berlin featuring Mulatu Astatke, also known as the father of Ethio Jazz. Mulatu pioneered Ethio Jazz after years of musical training in London, New York City, and Boston, where he was also the first African student to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music. Combining his knowledge of classical jazz and Latin American influences learned throughout his studies with his own roots of traditional Ethiopian music, this unique and beautiful hybrid of sounds came into being.

Born in 1943 in Jimma, Mulatu’s love for many different types of sounds and instruments developed quite early on in his childhood and he started playing a little of everything after being encouraged by one of his high school teachers. This contributed to Astatke’s talents as a multi-instrumentalist, playing the vibraphone, conga drums, keyboards, and organ in addition to his main focus as a composer. Mulatu is not only a household name in his native country, but renown internationally, especially following his musical contributions to Jim Jarmusch’s 2005 film Broken Flowers, which garnered him an even wider fan base.

Mulatu is a humble, kind, and fascinating individual and we sincerely enjoyed spending time with him after his special performance here in Berlin. Read our interview with Mulatu below:

F: What are you most proud of? 

M: Well you know, usually people must have a target in their life. Ethio-jazz has been around about 52 years now. I was also the first African student at Berkley in Boston and I was at Harvard also. I love experimenting, I love searching, looking for different sounds, music, people. I did a lot of research in Ethiopia, especially with the bush people – those people are my heros. I love them. They are so great, and very creative people. Most of the instruments you hear now were invented centuries and centuries ago by them. They make a lot of fusions, jazz fusions.  A very interesting one is a sound of a sound of Ethiopia; there is a very interesting tribe called the Dirashi tribe. They play a diminishing scale, they play one type. (There are two types.) 

My target is to upgrade their instruments so they could be able to be played, like European instruments.
So this is what I’m doing.
F: How do you think that jazz has changed since you started in the 60’s?
M: Well, there are so many great talents coming out – instrumentalists, composers who are all really doing things in all different directions. But I always feel that Africa has played one of the biggest roles in the development in modern music in the world. I always feel that those great people have been neglected. They should be known. We should talk about their contribution. I always feel we should do more research. We have to think of the roots first. How did we get to this? How did we get up to this level? I always think we should talk more about the roots and the creators of these things.
 F: Do you have a particular artists you’re interested in right now?
M: Well, the bush people, I tell you! I have a great love for them, and a big respect for them. The Dirashe people who play twelve-note music. Those are my heroes.
Before, when I knew about Charlie Parker and those great guys, I started researching and noticed that they were using a diminishing scale as well, not both but one. Now, they’ve become my heroes. Those type of people I follow in Africa, in Ethiopia. Those are my people. I love them, and they are great.
F: What’s your favourite feeling?
M: I love sports very much, that’s something I really enjoy. The other thing is my music, that’s my life. I’ve been doing it for a long time. Music is a part of me.
Music feeling.
F: Is there a special daily ritual you have?
M: I love practicing. I love always doing something strange and different. We have so many things that should be explored and should be known. Especially in the third-world countries. Mostly I am busy with music because it’s so wide open. There are so many things that haven’t been done.