mulatu astateke

Taking Ethiopian Music on the Global Stage was My Mission

Mulatu Astatke, the “Father of Ethio-Jazz,” is an iconic musician and cultural ambassador whose innovative blend of Ethiopian musical heritage and jazz improvisation has captivated audiences worldwide. While there’s no exact starting date, Mulatu Astatke’s musical interests emerged in the early 1950s and blossomed into active playing in the 1960s. This long career span has allowed Mulatu to leave an indelible mark on the global music scene. His compositions and performances showcase the beauty and complexity of Ethiopian music, fusing traditional scales, rhythms, and instruments with the harmonic structures and improvisational spirit of jazz. Through collaborations with renowned artists and his pioneering album “Mulatu of Ethiopia,” he has brought Ethio-Jazz to the forefront, shaping the cultural narrative and preserving Ethiopia’s artistic legacy. Mulatu’s legacy is one of inspiration, cultural preservation, and global recognition, leaving an enduring impact on the fusion of cultures, creativity, and cross-cultural understanding. In an exclusive interview with EBR’s Eden Teshome, Mulatu, the “Father of Ethio-Jazz,” shares his remarkable musical journey and vision.

How has your approach to music evolved throughout your career, mainly as you recently celebrated your 80th birthday?

My approach to music has evolved significantly throughout my career, mainly as I recently celebrated my 80th birthday. I am proud to have been innovative in blending jazz and Latin music with the rich traditional music of Ethiopia. Drawing inspiration from my studies in the United States and my deep Ethiopian heritage, I have continually experimented with different musical genres and fused them to create a unique style known as Ethio-jazz. By incorporating Ethiopian scales, rhythms, and melodic structures into my compositions, I have strived to showcase the beauty and diversity of Ethiopian music to a global audience. Over the years, my exploration of various musical influences and collaborations with talented musicians worldwide has broadened my musical horizons and allowed me to push the boundaries of my creativity. As I reflect on my journey and celebrate my 80th birthday, I am humbled by the recognition and impact that my music has had. It brings me great joy to witness the continued influence of Ethio-jazz and to see younger generations of Ethiopian musicians building upon the foundations I laid. I am excited to see how Ethiopian music will continue to evolve and thrive.

As the “Father of Ethio-Jazz” how would you define this genre’s essence and unique characteristics?

Ethio-Jazz is a beautiful fusion of Ethiopian musical heritage and jazz’s improvisational and rhythmic elements.

It captures the soul and spirit of Ethiopia by weaving together traditional scales, rhythms, and instruments with jazz’s harmonic structures and improvisation. Ethio-Jazz transports listeners to Ethiopia’s rich cultural tapestry, expressing its people’s joys, sorrows, and aspirations through music. It serves as a universal language, reflecting the beauty and complexity of Ethiopian culture while bridging gaps between musical traditions. The genre blends traditional Ethiopian and modern Western instruments, creating a vibrant and dynamic sonic palette. Ultimately, Ethio-Jazz celebrates Ethiopia’s musical heritage, embracing improvisation and uniting cultures through its captivating and distinctive sound.

Can you share some significant influences that have shaped your musical style and creative vision?

Throughout my musical journey, I have been fortunate to encounter various influential experiences that have shaped my style and creative vision:

Growing up in Ethiopia immersed me in the country’s rich musical heritage. Traditional Ethiopian scales, rhythms, and instruments have profoundly influenced my approach to composition and performance.

Exposure to Western jazz music has been pivotal in my artistic development. Jazz’s improvisational nature and harmonic explorations, particularly the works of iconic figures like John Coltrane and Duke Ellington, have inspired me to push the boundaries of my musical expression.

I have drawn inspiration from Latin and Afro-Cuban music, incorporating the indistinctive rhythms and instrumentation into my compositions.

These diverse influences have come together to create my unique style of Ethio-Jazz, fusing the essence of Ethiopian music with the improvisation and global musical perspectives that have shaped me as an artist.

In what ways do you believe your music has contributed to Ethiopia’s cultural identity and heritage?

Through my genre of Ethio-Jazz, I have blended traditional Ethiopian musical elements with jazz improvisation, preserving and showcasing the richness of Ethiopian music on a global scale. My compositions serve as a medium for expressing the stories and emotions of the Ethiopian people, shaping the cultural narrative and preserving the country’s artistic legacy. Collaborations with international artists have facilitated cultural exchange, bridging musical traditions and creating a universal language. As a result, my music has contributed significantly to promoting and preserving Ethiopia’s cultural identity and heritage, bringing its beauty and complexity to audiences worldwide.

How do you feel about the growing global recognition and appreciation of Ethio-Jazz in recent years compared to the previous ones?

I am thrilled and deeply gratified by the increasing global recognition and appreciation of Ethio-Jazz in recent years. It has become a unique and influential genre in international music, transcending cultural boundaries. This recognition validates Ethiopian music’s artistic and cultural significance and fosters collaboration and exchange. The growing appreciation of Ethio-Jazz allows for a deeper understanding of Ethiopia’s rich musical heritage and its contributions to the global music scene. It also revitalizes traditional Ethiopian musical elements, preserving and shedding light on unique scales, rhythms, and instruments. I am grateful for this development, as it bridges cultures and promotes a greater appreciation for diverse musical traditions. I am excited about the future possibilities and impact of Ethio-Jazz on the global stage.

Throughout your career, you have collaborated with various artists. Is there a particular collaboration or project that holds a special place in your heart?

Yes! Duke Ellington [was an American composer, pianist, and bandleader who led his famous orchestra for over five decades. He is considered one of the most influential figures in jazz history]. He was an iconic figure in jazz and a true pioneer in the genre. Collaborating with him was an incredible honour and a significant moment in my career.

I had the privilege of performing with him during his visit to Ethiopia in 1973. We blended our musical styles and created a unique fusion of Ethiopian and American jazz traditions. This musically enriching collaboration symbolized a robust cross-cultural exchange between two influential musicians.

Duke Ellington’s mastery of jazz and deep understanding of music were awe-inspiring. Working alongside him allowed me to learn and grow as a musician, expanding my horizons and pushing the boundaries of my creativity. It was a transformative experience that left an indelible mark on my artistic journey.

What are your most significant achievements or milestones as you reflect on your musical journey?

Well, several significant achievements and milestones stand out. Firstly, the development and popularization of Ethio-Jazz itself is a considerable ac c ompl i s hment . By blend i ng Ethiopian musical traditions with jazz improvisation, I created a unique genre that has gained domestic and international recognition. This fusion has brought Ethiopian music to a global audience and enriched the diversity of the worldwide music scene. One milestone that stands out is the release of my album “Mulatu of Ethiopia” in 1972. This album showcased my innovative compositions and arrangements, making it a landmark recording in Ethiopian music history. Its impact extended beyond Ethiopia, resonating with listeners worldwide and solidifying Ethio-Jazz as a distinct and influential genre.

Collaborations with international artists have also been significant achievements. Working with musicians from diverse cultural backgrounds has allowed for exchanging musical ideas and creating unique artistic expressions. These collaborations have expanded the reach of Ethio-Jazz, fostering cultural exchange and enriching my musical perspective.

Recognition and honours for my contributions to music have been a source of pride. Being awarded the prestigious French Order of Arts and Letters and accolades such as the BBC Radio Three Award for World Music affirm my work’s global impact and importance. Lastly, my music’s cultural impact and legacy within Ethiopia are significant. I have contributed to the country’s cultural identity and heritage by preserving and innovating traditional Ethiopian musical elements. My music resonates with Ethiopians, inspiring and influencing generations of musicians.

What advice would you give aspiring musicians who aim to incorporate their cultural heritage into their music?

My advice to aspiring musicians who aim to incorporate their cultural heritage into their music would be to start immersing themselves in their cultural traditions. Understanding and appreciating our cultural songs, dances, and instruments is crucial. This knowledge forms the foundation upon which they can build their musical journey. Take the time to study and understand the traditional music of our culture. Learn about the historical context, the meanings behind the songs and dances, and the techniques used in playing traditional instruments. This understanding will help them grasp the essence of the cultural heritage, enabling them to incorporate it authentically into their music.

The youth should immerse themself in the sounds and rhythms of our culture. By embracing our cultural heritage, we will develop a solid musical identity that will set us apart and give our music a unique flavour.

I advise them to experiment and blend traditional elements with contemporary styles. Find ways to incorporate traditional melodies, rhythms, or instruments into their compositions or arrangements. This can be done through creative reinterpretation or collaboration with musicians from different genres or cultural backgrounds. Don’t be afraid to push boundaries and explore new possibilities. Your goal should be to create music rooted in your cultural heritage and relevant to contemporary audiences. Embrace innovation while staying true to the essence of your cultural traditions.

Remember that incorporating your cultural heritage into your music is a lifelong journey. Continuously learn, explore, and refine your craft. Embrace the richness of your cultural heritage and let it guide and inspire your musical creations.

What do you hope your legacy will be as a musician and cultural ambassador for Ethiopia?

My legacy will be one of inspiration, cultural preservation, and global recognition. Above all, my goal is to inspire future generations of musicians within Ethiopia and worldwide. I want my music and my journey to serve as a testament to the power of blending cultural influences and pushing artistic boundaries. I want to encourage aspiring musicians to explore their own unique musical identities, embrace their cultural heritage, and create innovative and meaningful music that deeply resonates with audiences.

Another significant aspect of my legacy is the preservation of Ethiopian musical traditions. Throughout my career, I have strived to blend Ethiopian musical elements with jazz and other genres, giving birth to the genre of Ethio-Jazz and introducing Ethiopian music to a global stage.

Furthermore, as a cultural ambassador for Ethiopia, I have made it my mission to represent my country globally and facilitate cross-cultural understanding and appreciation. Collaborating with international artists, performing in various parts of the world, and receiving recognition have been integral to showcasing the beauty and diversity of Ethiopian culture.

Ultimately, I aspire for my legacy to celebrate the fusion of cultures, inspire creativity, and promote cultural understanding. I want to be remembered as a musician who fearlessly pushed boundaries, embraced innovation, and brought the mesmerizing sounds of Ethiopian music to the world stage. My contributions have left a lasting impact within Ethiopia and the broader global music community, continuing to inspire and resonate with people for years to come. EBR

12th Year  May  2024   No. 129

Eden Teshome

Editor-in-Chief of Ethiopian Business Review (EBR). She can be reached at

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