From 2013. That rare album that has the likely potential to appeal to both jazz and world music audiences, an even bigger audience still may well discover Astatke with this quite remarkable record. It has that everyman quality. The composer, arranger and vibraphonist sees Sketches of Ethiopia as “talking about all of Ethiopia, from north to south, from east to west and even about the diaspora communities.” And it’s a complex affair with several fascinating layers.
Recorded in Addis, London, and in Paris with overdubs and mixes in various additional studios it was a complicated album to put together, but sounds nevertheless organic to experience as a listener. Featuring Mulatu’s arrangements stand-outs include closing track ‘Surma’, with Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara superb against an infectious near-reggae beat.
There’s a big London jazz scene presence on the album with luminaries in the Step Ahead band here including notably trumpeter Byron Wallen of Lineage, and Alexander Hawkins and John Edwards (both of Decoy); while lesser known, but no less effective, saxophonist James Arben, who also plays flute and other instruments, also contributes some additional arrangements.
The album opens with a composition of Either/Or saxophonist Russ Gershon’s, a paean to the griot-like azmari. The third track ‘Hager Fiker’ develops this prevailing Ethiopian traditional music aspect of the album, as does ‘Gumuz’ named for this particular Ethiopian and Sudanese people.
The album’s distinctive sound includes contributions from washint (a bamboo flute), six-string lyre the krar (beloved of the Azmari) and the masinko, a single-stringed lute. There’s also a good deal of modal and contrapuntal intricacy meticulously developed on ‘Assosa Derache’ and full-on extended improvising from the soloists including Astatke throughout the eight tracks.
Sketches of Ethiopia feels like an album where there is a conversation in full flow both rhythmically and melodically between the musicians operating as a collective, instinctively reaching out to their invisible listeners; and it’s accessible without being at all obvious. ‘Gumuz’ is rootsy and quite trippy with lead vocals from Tesfaye; while ‘Motherland Abay’ with cello and kora is the most chamber-like portion of the album, an ominous meditation. Yet overall Sketches of Ethiopia ultimately is a joyful noise, and an unalloyed delight at that. SG