Ethiopian Musician Mulatu Astatke to visit MIT: Public talk October 23
For Immediate Release: Sept. 8, 2008
MIT Office of the Arts
77 Massachusetts Ave, Rm E15-205
Cambridge, MA 02139
Cambridge, MA… Seminal Ethiopian jazz artist Mulatu Astatke will be an Abramowitz Artist-in-Residence from October 10-24 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He will present a public talk and conversation titled, “Ethiopian Contributions to the Development of World Music Instruments” on Thursday, Oct. 23, at 7 p.m. in Room 10-250 (enter 77 Massachusetts Ave.).
Mulatu (Ethiopians are generally referred to by their first names) is one of Ethiopia’s major musicians. Born in 1943, in the city of Jimma, Mulatu originally wanted to be an engineer.
“The problem with most [developing countries] is that music wasn’t taken very seriously,” he said in a May 2008 interview in Evil Monito Magazine. “Science, like biology or chemistry, was given more importance in the education system. Actually, I had an early desire to become an aeronautical engineer, so I had the opportunity to go to an international school in North Wales that gave its students the freedom to try all different types of subjects, including music and the arts. I was one of the lucky few from my country to go to Europe and study. I didn’t necessarily grow up with music; actually, I was really involved in mathematics and physics. Because of that my approach to music is different from others’. As a scientist, you would mix chemicals; in the same manner I would mix sounds.”
From there, Mulatu went to a science school in Birmingham, but soon transferred to Trinity College of Music in London, where he studied clarinet, harmony and theory. In the late 1950s, Mulatu was the first African student at Boston’s Berklee College of Music.
A multi-instrumentalist, mastering vibraphone, keyboards, organ, and percussion, Mulatu is credited with adding instruments associated with Latin styles such as bongos and congas to Ethiopian music. In New York City he founded the Ethiopian Quintet (comprised mostly of Puerto Ricans), recorded his first album in 1966 before returning to Addis Adaba at the end of the decade, where he blended Ethiopian traditional music with Latin jazz to create a unique hybrid he called “Ethio-jazz.”
“I changed the whole Ethiopian music combining jazz and fusion with the Ethiopian five-tone scales,” Mulatu told the New York Times in October 2005. ” Since then my name has been on the very, very top of the Ethiopian musical scene.”
Recently, Mulatu has been the center of renewed interest in the West through a compilation on the Parisian series “Ethiopiques” (Buda Musique) and a 10″ 4-track compilation on the Soundway label of Brighton England. Most notably, a number of Mulatu’s compositions were featured in director Jim Jarmush’s 2005 independent film “Broken Flowers,” starring Bill Murray and Julie Delpy.
While he remains a ubiquitous presence in the Ethiopian music scene, as club owner, music school founder, radio DJ, composer, arranger and instrumentalist, Mulatu maintains strong Massachusetts connections. He frequently collaborates with the Massachusetts-based Either/Orchestra, one of jazz’s longest running and most important large ensembles. Mulatu met them in 2004 when the orchestra was the first non-Ethiopian band to perform at the annual Ethiopian Music Festival in Addis Ababa.
And, Mulatu has just completed a 2007-08 Radcliffe Institute Fellowship at Harvard University, where his goals were to research how to develop the krarr, a traditional Ethiopian five-string instrument, with electronic music specialists; write an opera based on Ethiopian Coptic Church music written around AD 380, which will be conducted using the mekwamia, an ancient conducting stick; and write a book on the historical context of instruments used in the Ethiopian Coptic Church and their contribution to the development of world music.
The first section of Mulatu’s “The Yared Opera,” which blends old and new was premiered at Harvard’s Sanders Theater in April 2008. Mulatu hopes future performances of the opera which is based in part on the chant of St. Yared, the founder of Ethiopian church music, will feature live musicians in concert with the electronic version, and staged at the rock churches of Lalibela, a holy city in northern Ethiopia.
Mulatu will return to MIT in April to follow up on projects started during this residency.
The Abramowitz Memorial Lecture, presented by the Office of the Arts, was established at MIT through the generosity and imagination of William L. Abramowitz ’35 as a memorial to his father. It has been sustained since his death by the devoted interest of his wife and children. Since 1961, the Series has brought renowned performing artists and writers to MIT to perform, present public lectures, and collaborate with students in free programs.