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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Mulatu Astatke is an Ethiopian musical pioneer. It all began for him in the early '60s, when he fell in love with jazz. He's been perfecting his take on the genre ever since. He's recently released an album called "Inspiration Information." And critic Robert Christgau says Astatke has never been more impressive.

ROBERT CHRISTGAU: Mulatu Astatke experienced his musical conversion as a teenager while supposedly studying engineering abroad, mastering piano, vibraphone and Latin percussion in London, Boston and New York.

(Soundbite of music)

CHRISTGAU: After he returned home, he immersed in Ethiopian music, as well, conceiving a fusion he calls Ethio-jazz. He plays (unintelligible) on this single recorded in Addis Ababa in 1969.

(Soundbite of music)

CHRISTGAU: The half-Arab feel of the horn voicings on that tune, which features all Ethiopian players, is based on a pentatonic scale peculiar to the culture. That sound is the signal attraction of a lot of Ethiopian music. But there's a problem with the Ethio-jazz idea.

Although Ethiopia is one of the world's oldest nations, its musical traditions don't run especially deep. It lacks the polyrhythmic complexity of sub-Saharan Africa. For reasons like these, Ethio-jazz doesn't come naturally. Notice the much lighter groove on this Mulatu Astatke track from his new collaboration, "Inspiration Information."

(Soundbite of song, "Cha Cha")

CHRISTGAU: Appropriately, that one's called "Cha Cha." And rather than playing piano, Astatke is the percussionist. The piano is by Oliver Parfitt of The Heliocentrics, an experimental funk band from England, who are equal partners on "Inspiration Information."

Historically, Astatke has tended to record with conventional jazz musicians, whether Ethiopian or not. But The Heliocentrics aren't conventional. They push him, loosen up his sound, adding thunderous beats here and importing traditional Ethiopian instruments there. On this track, Astatke doesn't even appear, but playing an end-blown flute called a washint, Ethiopian multi-instrumentalist Dawit Gebreab does.

(Soundbite of music)

CHRISTGAU: Because the music of Ethiopia is more European formally than that of other African cultures, "Inspiration Information" isn't the first attempt at a fusion. The French jazz band Le Tigre and the English mixmaster Dubulah have both done Ethiopian-flavored albums. But "Inspiration Information" is both the edgiest and the easiest such effort so far, just the right combination of funky and strange.

Hear how The Heliocentrics' version of those horn voicings is offset by Mulatu Astatke's keyboards on this standout track, "Esketa Dance."

(Soundbite of song, "Esketa Dance")

SIEGEL: Robert Christgau writes the Consumer Guide to CDs at msn.com. He reviewed "Inspiration Information" by Mulatu Astatke and The Heliocentrics.

(Soundbite of song, "Esketa Dance")

SIEGEL: You can hear songs from this album at our Web site. And this weekend, NPR Music is live from the Newport Folk Festival in its 50th year. You can listen to performances from the festival at the new npr.org.

(Soundbite of song, "Esketa Dance")

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