My first exposure to Mulatu Astatke, and likely that of many American fans, was through Jim Jarmusch’s film Broken Flowers. The film, like many of Jarmusch’s works, used a unique soundtrack to lend a certain mystique to the art, much as RZA’s tracks did for Ghost Dog, Neil Young’s instrumentals did for Dead Man, or Tom Waits tracks did for Down by Law. In Broken Flowers, however, protagonist Don Johnston (portrayed by Bill Murray) goes on an extended drive across America to find his son, set to a soundtrack of Ethiopian jazz and funk, which, rather than conveying any specific emotion, served as transitional pieces, their exotic grooves serving as a mirror to Johnston’s venture into unknown territory. As much as I loved the movie, I found the soundtrack so captivating as to rival the film itself, and soon thereafter sought more of Astatke’s music, which actually proved somewhat difficult to find.
Four years later, Astatke’s presence has become more widespread in the U.S., thanks to a few recent performances and a greater number of releases available. However, Strut Records, a part of the !K7 label group, has issued a series of albums titled Inspiration Information that couple modern artists with legends, the latest of which finds Astatke collaborating with British psych-jazz group The Heliocentrics. While the collaboration is no doubt intended to fuse the new and the old, what Inspiration Information 3 mostly does is highlight the unique talents of Astatke while adding a fleshed out jazz-funk sound behind his Ethio-jazz style.
One of the factors that makes this collaborative effort such a resounding success stems from Astatke’s own penchant for fusion. Take “Cha Cha,” which blends Ethiopian sounds with Latin jazz, coming across almost like an African influenced Cal Tjader. Yet the track’s wah-wah scratches give it an extra psychedelic touch, making it sound that much cooler. “Addis Black Widow,” meanwhile, is a laid-back track bolstered by some high-energy beats, and “Mulatu” is a dizzy waltz of powerful horns and cowbell. “Blue Nile” has a breezy, downtempo vibe, while “Chik Chikka” is an extended jam built upon a scratchy guitar hook (hence “chik chikka,” I would hyphothesize).
On Inspiration Information 3, Mulatu Astatke and The Heliocentrics traverse back and forth from songs most strongly defined by Astatke’s unique Ethio-jazz style to more modern funk breaks that sound more like remixes. The Heliocentrics provide a kickass foil to Astatke’s more hypnotic sounds, and when the artistic partners hit a groove, there’s no stopping them. Astatke and The Heliocentrics already sounded pretty great individually, but together they create something new and wonderful, a fine addition to both artists’ catalogs.
Yesterday’s New Quintet – Sound Directions: The Funky Side of Life
David Axelrod – Songs of Experience
Various Artists – Broken Flowers OST
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.