‘I require only 3 things of a man. He must be handsome, ruthless & stupid.’
- Dorothy Parker, So Much Fun


Mulatu Astatke

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jul 28, 2015
Category: World

EARLY ‘MARRIED SEX” READERS: If you are among the 100 who read an early draft, I have a signed book for you. But only if you send me your address. Offer expires: Friday. Write to HeadButlerNYC@AOL.com.

The ingredients sound…odd. Mulatu Astatke grew up in Ethiopia but went abroad to study jazz in America. He was influenced by Miles Davis and John Coltrane — and by the organist Jimmy Smith. What he brought back to Ethiopia was a blend of soul and jazz. Which he then proceeded to blend, once more, with traditional Ethiopian music.

The result is easy to listen to and hard to describe. The horns play cool jazz figures. But under that is a groove that could have been created by Booker T and the MGs. And connecting the two are some Ethiopian chords that sound exotic, space-changing, hypnotic.

Think desert cha cha. Cuba goes to Memphis. Desert trance music.

Like nothing you have ever heard before.

Mulatu Astatke is the man in charge of all of it: He writes the music, arranges it, and plays piano, organ, vibes and percussion. Although the Golden Years of this Ethiopian music were ancient history — from 1968 to 1974 — Astatke is still a major figure in Ethiopian music, regularly playing and teaching. 

Happily, Jim Jarmusch is one of those directors who not only listens to a lot of music, but looks for a way to integrate it into his films. "Music often leads me," he says. "I discovered Mulatu Astatke’s music maybe seven years ago, and I was blown away by a few things I found that he had recorded in the late sixties. I was on a hunt for a number of years: I bought some vinyl; some of his jazz stuff; some Latin jazz recorded in the states; other Ethiopian stuff. And then I was like, "Oh, man, how can I get this music in a film? It’s so beautiful and score-like." Then when I was writing ‘Broken Flowers’, I was like, "Well, this neighbor [Jeffrey Wright] is Ethiopian-American, I can turn him on to the music."

There are other musicians on the soundtrack of “Broken Flowers” — and four songs by Astatke that are crucial to the feeling of the film. They’re certainly crucial to my jaded ears, which perk up as soon as his songs start. And which led me to order a CD with much more of his music: the highly-regarded “Ethiopiques, Vol. 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale, 1969-1974.” [To buy the CD from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.] Recently I added Information Inspiration, Vol. 3.” [To buy the CD from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]

You’ll want to be the first on your block to hear this music. Not because of the ‘hip’ factor, though I won’t pretend that’s unimportant. But because of the pure pleasure — this is very happy music, and happy in a smart way. Each time you listen, you hear a little more. With a hundred encounters, you may actually get what this genius is doing.

Short takes

The movie to see: “Mr. Holmes”

It’s 1947. Sherlock Holmes is 93, living in Sussex. He’s not retired, not waiting for death; he’s haunted by his last case, 50 years ago. So much past, so much age — this is not an action movie, yet I was transfixed. I could hype “Mr. Holmes” by saying that Sir Ian McKellen gives a performance that should get him an Oscar nomination, but that’s too small a lens. McKellen gives a master class in acting, in aging, in being a mind fighting off emotion. This level of performance sends you home drained, wet-eyed and grateful.

A ghost speaks… softly

When Bill Novak writes a book with a major celebrity, you know about it — he’s the king of ghosts. Sometimes, though, he writes books you never hear about. Private books. In the Times, he tells all.

The first gift of Christmas: “Joy”

I am such a sucker for films like this. Of which there are so few.