The third in Strut’s Inspiration Information studio collaboration series brings together an intriguing pairing between one of Africa’s great bandleaders, Mulatu Astatke, with the next level musicianship of The Heliocentrics collective from the mighty roster of Stones Throw / Now Again.
Known primarily through the successful ‘Ethiopiques’ album series and the film soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Broken Flowers’, Mulatu Astatke is one of Ethiopia’s foremost musical ambassadors. Informed by spells living and studying in the UK and the USA, his self-styled Ethio-jazz sound flourished during the “Swinging Addis” era of the late ’60s as he successfully fused Western jazz and funk with traditional Ethiopian folk melodies, five tone scale arrangements and elements from music of the ancient Coptic church.
The Heliocentrics have become known as one of the UK’s foremost free-thinking collectives of musicians, inspired by a wide palette covering Sun Ra, James Brown, David Axelrod and all manner of psych, Afro and Eastern sounds. Now a fixture within the Stones Throw / Now Again roster, they forged their own genre-breaking directions in the astral analogue groove on their 2007 debut album, ‘Out There’.
The recording liaison took place thanks to some inspired programming by Karen P for her ‘Broad Casting’ session at Cargo in London on 17th April 2008. Securing Mulatu for his first UK live date in over 15 years, she called on The Heliocentrics to back the maestro and, with only a day of rehearsal, they tore the place up with a series of original Mulatu classics, chalking up one of the most memorable gigs of the year. The show itself was recorded for Red Bull Music Academy Radio (Mulatu has been involved with the Academy for some time) and is still available to listen to on-demand at www.rbmaradio.com A Gilles Peterson Maida Vale session followed for BBC Radio One.
The new recording is a mouth-watering prospect. Driven by groove and melody ideas exchanged upfront of the sessions, the bulk of the album was laid down at Quatermass studios, an analogue HQ in East London during 8th to 14th September 2008, a week of frenetic writing and recording. Alongside Mulatu, London-based Ethiopian musicians including Dawit Gebreab, Yezina Nagash, Mesafnit Nagash and Temesgen Taraken guested on several tracks, contributing traditional sounds using instruments like the krar (a six-stringed, five tone instrument), washint (a flute traditionally made from bamboo) and Begena (a ten string instrument dating back to the 15th century, sometimes referred to as “David’s Harp”).
Joel Yennior from Boston’s Either Orchestra scored and arranged the horn lines on the fly and the Heliocentrics overdubbed and arranged each track following the main recording period, adding the individual production touches to each piece of music. The result is a true fusion of styles. At times the feel is reminiscent of Mulatu’s earlier recordings, at others The Heliocentrics sound cuts through with Mulatu bringing his haunting vibes lines into more experimental territory as the band whip up their own fresh Ethio-hybrid.
Mulatu: “There are new compositions like, ‘Cha Cha’, and ‘Dewel’, heavily influenced by an Ethiopian Coptic Church composer called Yard. The band took it and added what they feel. It’s a nice experiment.”
The Heliocentrics: “We haven’t tried to recreate an ‘Ethiopiques’ LP, this is more a collision of both our musical worlds, complete with the diverse influences and experiences that the alliance encompasses, a true exchange of ideas and influence. Something new, grounded in something old.”