Mulatu Astatike, the 74-year-old father of Ethio-Jazz, is a musician, composer and arranger of a unique fusion of traditional Ethiopian beat with jazz and Latin music. Born and raised in Jimma, Mulatu was the first African student to enrol at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, in the United States. Since then he has recorded over nine albums, sold-out international concerts, played with the likes of Duke Ellington and is known for playing the conga drum and vibraphone on international stages. Recognised internationally, prominent musicians including Damien Marley, Nas and K’naan have featured his music in their recordings. FORTUNE’S EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, FASIKA TADESSE, sat down with Mulatu for buoyant discussion. YOU CAN READ THE FULL INTERVIEW HERE.
Fortune: Had you not been a musician and arranger, what would your profession be?
That is a difficult question. I was good in subjects like physics, math and chemistry and I loved those subjects, which gave me my passion for studying Aeronautical engineering. Then I went to North Wales, England to study Aeronautical engineering. The school took me through a process to shape me towards my talent.
After letting me practice music, theatre and art, the school recommended that I become a musician and that I would be successful, and I became a musician.
If that didn’t happen, I could have pursued my engineering career and became an Aeronautical engineer.
Q: Your music is more popular in western countries than in Ethiopia. Why is that?
It is a matter of awareness and knowledge. In western countries, music is a science like physics, chemistry and biology. Our world’s prominent scientists innovate something by mixing different chemicals. Just like musicians mix different sounds to make music, which is why the westerns consider music as a science. Out of the various genres, Ethio Jazz, which was innovated 52 years ago, has many followers globally.
Ethio Jazz’s local acceptance is little. However, it is showing a good progress time to time. Even though it is a bit difficult, it is possible to make Ethio Jazz popular locally.
Making music compulsory at elementary schools and conducting comprehensive research on Ethiopia’s music can change a lot. Considering music beyond a tool of entertainment, we have to start viewing it as a science.
Q: Which social media platform do you prefer to promote your works?
My manager uses the major social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter. I also have my website.
Q: You were interviewed by different global media such as The Guardian, CNN and many local media, what is a question you wish you were asked by those media but never was asked?
There was no question that I wished they [the media interviewed me] would have asked me. They bring all the questions especially about Ethio Jazz that they wanted to know, and I had addressed all of them. And if there is any more questions, I am willing to answer.
Q: Rate the best performance you have had?
My biggest performance was in England with 140,000 audiences. And It makes me proud that I am still alive to see the growth of Ethio Jazz.
Q: What was the longest you have played the conga drum or vibraphone?
Everywhere I play conga drum or vibraphone between two to two and a half hour. But the minimum I played is for an hour.
Q: What stage do you wish you had performed on but did not succeed?
I wanted to perform at Charlie Parker Festival held in Central Park and luckily I played on that stage last year, and it was a great experience.
Q: Where were you on your last vacation?
It was a week ago, and I was in Cape Town, South Africa. Even though the city is beautiful and preferable for vacation, it was not up to my expectation as it has a nature of western cities, not an African touch.
I was also there to perform at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, that was attended by 70,000 people. In the festival, I took part in a workshop in which I got a chance to present about Ethiopian Jazz and Ethiopia’s cultural contribution to the world.
Q: What was an entertaining incident you have encountered on stage?
I actually don’t remember that kind of coincidence. I have a manager and road manager. Therefore I go on stages after they make sure that everything is done and ready.
Q: Where is your next performance?
My next performance is in Berlin and Hamburg, Germany, Denmark, London, France and South of France. They are all sold out concerts.
Q: What is the brand of the phone you use?
I use Samsung. But I like iPhone, which uses my music as a ringing tone.
Q: Who is on your playlist at the moment?
No one, I just listen to songs of Ethiopian nations and nationalities, which help me with my research for work, to compose music.
Q: If you are told that you can own only one type of musical instrument, which instrument would you prefer to have?
Vibraphone will be my choice right now. But maybe in the future, Kirar [five- or six-stringed bowl-shaped lyre] will be my choice. I am working on amplifying Kirar to be used for Jazz, and I have succeeded in making five jazz music using the Kirar.
Q: Which football team do you support?
I am a fan of Manchester City from English premier league and both St. George and Ethiopian Coffee from the Ethiopian premier league.
Q: What if St. George matches with Ethiopian Coffee, which club will you support?
[He laughes] I will support the winner [He laughes]
Q: Which award excited you the most?
The honorary doctorate of music degrees I have received from Berklee College of Music excites me the most. The award was given to the most prominent stars like Aretha Franklin.
And locally, the one I got from Jimma University inspires me.
Q: What genre of music other than Jazz do you enjoy?
I usually listen to the nation and nationalities songs because I think there are a lot of things that have not yet discovered with them. These nations are the roots of the current music and dances, and it is really heartbreaking to know that they are the least covered and promoted.
Q: From the many hip-hop artists who have sampled your music, whose arrangements and or composition did you enjoy most?
Many artists including Damien Marley, the American rapper Nas and K’naan had sampled my music, but I liked K’naan’s song.
Q: You went to the UK to study engineering. Apparently, you joined music school, these days over half of the students who attend universities study engineering. How many musicians do you think the country has lost to engineering?
Music is science as is engineering but the basic issue is how somebody can be the person that he wants to be, and it will still go back to the lower classes, kinder garden, a foundation for students. A person without a nature of outstanding will be an average person, as the nature of outstanding doesn’t exist in him.
The question is not how many engineers or doctors a country could create; rather it should be how many people could be created in the right way at the right place and time. This is how an outstanding person can be created. This is a problem in the third world.
In the developed nations the talents of the students are identified when they finalised high schools and they will be sent to respective schools based on their demonstrated talents.
Q: Which music of yours describes Ethiopia well?
A 10-minutes music which is going to be released soon describes Ethiopia the most. The music is dubbed as “Ethiopia”, and it fairly used almost all of the traditional instruments of the country.
Q: What will be your next work?
My near future work will be ‘The Yared Opera’, that blend the old and the new, and incorporate traditional chant texts in Ge’ez, the Ethiopian liturgical language. I am working on it especially on this 55-day fasting season with 70 to 80 symphony orchestra members.
Q: If you get a chance to work with one of the young trending musicians, whom will you choose?
I would want to collaborate with any of them that play the music of Ethiopian nations and nationalities.
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