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Mulatu Astatke's 'Ethio-Jazz' Gets A New Edge

Mulatu Astatke experienced his musical conversion as a teenager while supposedly studying engineering abroad, mastering piano, vibraphone and Latin percussion in London, Boston and New York. After he returned home, he immersed himself in Ethiopian music, as well. Many of his tunes have a half-Arab feel, and are based on a pentatonic scale peculiar to the Ethiopian culture. There, he conceived a fusion he calls "Ethio-jazz."

The problem with the Ethio-jazz idea, however, is that Ethiopian musical traditions don't run especially deep. The country's music lacks the polyrhythmic complexity of the music in sub-Saharan Africa. Its first brass band was made up of Armenian orphans imported from Jerusalem in 1924. Consequently, Ethio-jazz doesn't come naturally.

For his latest release, Inspiration Information, Astatke teamed up with The Heliocentrics, an experimental funk band from England. Historically, Astatke has tended to record with conventional jazz musicians, whether Ethiopian or not. But The Heliocentrics' members aren't conventional. They push him and loosen up his sound; they add thunderous beats here and import traditional Ethiopian instruments there. Their sounds complement each other — as on the standout track "Esketa Dance," in which The Heliocentrics' horn voicings are offset by Astatke's keyboards.

Because the music of Ethiopia is more European formally than that of other African cultures, other attempts have been made at a fusion. The French jazz band Le Tigre and the English mixmaster Dubulah have both recorded Ethiopian-flavored albums. However, Inspiration Information is both the edgiest and the easiest such effort so far, striking just the right balance of funky and strange.

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Robert Christgau contributes regular music reviews to All Things Considered.