EITHER/ORCHESTRAfeaturing MULATU ASTATKE as part of the What Is Classical? festival, at Harbourfront Centre (235 Queens Quay West), Saturday (July 26), 9:30 pm. Free. 416-973-4000.
The enchantingly exotic and furtively funky music of Mulatu Astatke might make the appearance of the legendary Ethiopian composer/arranger and vibes virtuoso with the adventurous Either/Orchestra seem like a strange choice for the What Is Classical? festival at Harbourfront this weekend, but Mulatu and his charismatic cohorts from the Swinging Addis scene of the 60s have been showing up in many unlikely places lately.
Earlier this month, Mulatu led a Buena Vista Social Club-like gathering of golden-age stars of the popular Ethiopiques reissue series, including Mahmoud Ahmed, Alemayehu Eshete and Getachew Mekuria, in a triumphant debut at London's posh Barbican Theatre and a rocking show for a rowdy horde of hipsters at the massive Glastonbury Festival the next day.
Russ Gershon, whose 10-piece Either/Orchestra served as the backing band, is still reeling from the experience.
"We weren't sure what kind of reception we'd get from either audience," allows saxophonist/composer Gershon. "But we received standing ovations from the London Symphony Orchestra crowd at the very sold-out Barbican show, so that was definitely a home run.
"I'd describe the Glastonbury gig as a ground rule double, but we definitely won over a lot of indie kids, or I should say the music did. There's something about those darker scales that really connects with people into punk rock; I know that's part of what drew us in when we started playing this music 10 years ago."
The seductive slink that characterizes the captivating music of Mulatu - who is to Ethiogroove what Fela Kuti is to Afrobeat - is a combustible concoction of traditional Ethiopian modes and rhythms mixed in with some nasty Nuyorican boogaloo and busted out with the boisterous bash of a Question Mark and the Mysterians frat rocker.
Jim Jarmusch deftly built his critically acclaimed 2005 film Broken Flowers around Mulatu's unique sound that's simultaneously familiar and otherworldly, while Kanye West sampled it for Common's standout single The Game from last year's Finding Forever album. ABC's Good Morning America is even using Mulatu's 1968 recording of Yegelle Tezeta to accompany its weather updates.
That might not seem like such a big deal, but for Mulatu it's a dream come true.
"I was very surprised and delighted when I heard a recording Seyfou Yohannes made many years ago being used in a new song (Common's The Game) on the radio," smiles Mulatu, who's currently engaged in ethnomusicological research and development on a Radcliffe Fellowship at Harvard University. "It shows me that younger musicians and producers in the United States and more people around the world are becoming aware of Ethiopian music. That's something I've been working toward my whole life.
"For far too long, Ethiopian culture has been a closed subject, and very few people outside of the country knew anything about it. But in recent years things have been opening up. Tourism has increased, bringing a greater awareness of what Ethiopia has to offer. In addition, the Ethiopiques CD reissue series, the Broken Flowers film, as well as my frequent concerts and festival appearances in many different countries, have all helped people discover the beauty of Ethiopian culture."
Mulatu may be Ethiopia's number-one cultural booster, but don't think for a second that he's any sort of blinkered preservationist hellbent on recreating the past. On the contrary, he's as progressive-minded as they come, which is a big part of the reason why he continues to collaborate with the Either/Orchestra. They're a portable jazz big band of advanced improvisors who enjoy stretching out and elaborating on Mulatu's classic compositions and arrangements to create something entirely new each performance.
And Mulatu has been obsessed with chasing what's next since graduation from London's esteemed Trinity College and becoming the first African-born student at Boston's Berklee College of Music in 1958, where Gary Burton was a classmate. Much of Mulatu's important schooling, though, happened after classes in smoky nightclubs. That's where he picked up his signature instrument.
"I used to go to Ronnie Scott's in London all the time, and that's where I first encountered Tubby Hayes. A wonderful man and a great saxophonist, but he also used to play the vibes, and I loved the sound he got. I've always learned a lot from observing other musicians, so I would go to watch him whenever I could. I heard some similarities to the African music I knew played on marimba, yet Tubby was using the instrument in a modern jazz style. I thought to myself, ‘I should try learning to play the vibes and see what happens.'"
After scoring a few gigs as a percussionist for hire, briefly sitting in with the Edmundo Ros Orchestra on congas and whatever else came along, Mulatu jetted to New York, where he spent the rest of the 60s soaking up all the Latin, post-bop and rock 'n' roll inspiration he could handle. After using the money earned from recording dates to buy an organ, amplifiers and other instruments, he returned home to Addis Ababa to get his local scene up to speed.
Evidently not everyone was quick to embrace Mulatu's bold new vision.
"When I first returned to Addis, many people were concerned about the Americanization of their music. At that time in Ethiopia, there was not a very good understanding of European classical tradition or American jazz music.
"I remember how many people were upset when I first got a radio program and started to play the music of Beethoven, Brahms and Chopin on the air. So you can probably imagine the reaction to playing modern jazz. There were many protests and even death threats.
"But eventually, more and more people came to appreciate the music. And now all the younger people in Ethiopia, particularly the musicians interested in modern music, have a great respect for our accomplishments."
It's not just in Ethiopia that the next generation of musicians are taking tips from Ethiopia's long-lost recorded past. An intriguing consequence of the massive 23-volume Ethiopiques archival reissue program - the Very Best Of Ethiopiques two-CD sampler serves as an excellent introduction - is that contemporary groups have begun applying elements of Ethiogroove to their own recordings.
When I rhyme off a list of bands that his music has inspired, including Atlanta garage rockers the Black Lips, Staten Island funk ensemble the Budos Band and UK indie rockers Foals, Mulatu slaps one of his business cards in my hand and says, "Have them call me. I'd love to collaborate on something."
"Which group do you mean?," I ask.
Mulatu laughs, "All of them!"