TONY COX, host:
Like many developing countries, the images out of Ethiopia are often bleak. The images of poverty, war and famine are all too familiar. But few people outside Africa are familiar with the sounds of Ethiopia.
(Soundbite of music)
COX: That is Mulatu Astatke. He is the godfather of Ethiopian jazz and thanks to crepe-digging(ph) DJs and the 2005 movie, "Broken Flowers," his music has now reached a global audience. Mulatu joined us recently to talk about his long legacy of music making. I started by asking him why Ethio jazz was becoming popular with international audiences today.
Mr. MULATU ASTATKE (Jazz Artist): It's been taking like actually very long time for this music to be accepted, you know? So from places I play, places I perform, and you know, things like that, and also during recording, lot of musicians seems to love it and seems to like it very much.
COX: How would you describe it, that sound?
Mr. ASTATKE: So how I described it is - is five tone against 12 is how the Ethio jazz is, like the five tone being Ethiopian scales and the twelve tone will be international known very famous permissions(ph). So it's actually the connection of these two cultures, I should say, makes a (unintelligible).
COX: It has to me, as a listener, kind of an eclectic sound, which means to me that it's - you're drawing from different types of music, different cultural sounds. Is that correct or not?
Mr. ASTATQE: (unintelligible) is very Ethiopian, and what you have, actually, combined is the harmonic stretches, what we call the twelve-tone musical stretches because our musical instruments hasn't reached to that stage, so I have actually to use pianos or guitars to actually combine three- to five-tone scales.
COX: Really. So you're saying that the instruments that are made or created in Ethiopia don't have the musical range for you to do the things that you want?
Mr. ASTATQE: Yeah. What I'm trying to say actually is - you see, our music usually is based on five-tone scales or what you call pentatonic. Our cultural musical instruments hasn't been developed.
COX: Let's go back to the 1960s in Ada Sabba(ph). Talk about the jazz music climate in your country at that time.
Mr. ASTATQE: I started the new format in America. I was at Berkeley in Boston. You know the situations mostly in the third-world countries, their attitude to music was actually very low. They have - they were taking music as a science or as a regular subject like math or physical something, whereas in developed country music has been taught in high schools, elementary schools and kindergarten as compulsory like in every subjects, you know. So I been one of the lucky African to attend high schools in England. Actually, that's where I found out my talent because I got a chance.
So, at that time, my teachers there, European teachers there would actually teach the musicians rave and play charts from different bands here from America, actually, music charts and things like that. They could play very nice, but as far as improvisations, as far as the jazz feeling, actually, was not alone. I remember always teachers telling us at Berkeley, said, we can only give you the tools. After that it's you what's to do with it.
COX: Now, you were the first African student at Berkeley, correct?
Mr. ASTATQE: Exactly.
COX: What was it like for you to come from home to there, to be put in that musical surrounding, particularly given what you just described about the lack of really foundation of support?
Mr. ASTATQE: Actually, I went from England to America. So by the time I came to America, I think I was OK. I know exactly what was happening. You're also going to Berkeley, that was like class too, to work(ph) little to what I wanted to do. So always telling us we can give you only the tools, and then I came out - off to New York. I created a music called the Ethio jazz.
(Soundbite of jazz music)
COX: Now let me ask you this. Talk about your interaction and your meeting and your involvement with the great Duke Ellington. How did that come about?
Mr. ASTATQE: Well, that was great. Duke was one of the great musician I've admired always in my life. Even I was staying in America whereas at Berkeley, and we also used to study his compositions, his arrangements as well. And I always wanted to, you know, to meet a great man like him. So, he came over to Ethiopia for the jazz ambassador's tour, and that's when I met him. So, in fact, the American embassy make me his escort, you know. I was supposed to be his escort by the American embassy.
So we're staying at the Hilton Hotel. There we'll be discussing about music, and I took him around, and I showed him some of our very interesting musical instruments for him to borrow it and talk about. And finally, I had the opportunity to write music for this event and perform together at the Sabba Hilton.
COX: That should have been something.
Mr. ASTATQE: I tell you, that was - that was my really great dream, and it happened with Duke's band, you know. So, we're privileged. I really thank him so much. I played my music, and all in my life, I will never forget what he said. He said, I've never expected this from African. That's what he said.
Mr. ASTATQE: So, it was very interesting.
COX: Talk for a minute, if you can, about how your music has changed. You're the godfather, the founding father of Ethio jazz in the '60s. Compare what that sound was then with what your sound is now.
Mr. ASTATQE: It's about 45 years since I've done my recordings, you know.
Mr. ASTATQE: My dream of Ethio jazz, the future would be to upgrade Ethiopian musical instruments so they can be able to play 12-tone music. So to play Ethio jazz with our cultural instruments using all our traditional and musical instruments will be my dream.
COX: Hip-hop artists have been sampling your songs, repurpose them into new compositions. How do you feel about that?
Mr. ASTATQE: To tell you the truth, I don't feel very well about that because my line is different than hip-hop. What I'm dreamt to those music, to those melodies, to those rhythms actually was different from the Ethio jazz. But what they did to those melodies and things and arrangements are totally different approach towards our thinking about those melodies. But anyway, people seems to love it. And I'll just watch and see what the next move is going to be.
COX: You recently recorded an album with the UK band, the Heliocentrics. You don't want the hip-hop artists to sample your music but you don't mind doing this. Why is that?
Mr. ASTATQE: Well, I mean, Heliocentrics is not very hip-hop. So we try to come up with something different, work from there. So it's like jazz fusions, all kind of things is happening on this recording, you know.
COX: I was caught by one of the songs because it had an Afro-Cuban sound to it, Cha-cha. I would not have ordinarily thought of it, Ethio jazz expanding to Afro-Cuban sound.
Mr. ASTATQE: Well, to tell you the truth, all this rhythm you mentioned are belong to Africa. That's where the roots is and where it comes from. So, Cha-cha-cha.
COX: This is great. Thank you so much for coming here.
Mr. ASTATQE: Thank you so much.
COX: It's been our pleasure.
Mr. ASTATQE: Great man, thank you. Thank you so much. Bye-bye.
COX: That was Mulatu Astatqe, godfather of Ethiopian jazz. He joined us here at the studios of NPR WEST.
Next on News & Notes, do you know the story and intrigue behind the building of the nation's capital? We'll have some surprising answers from the author of a new book on the history of Washington, D.C. You're listening to News & Notes from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.