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Like many great jazz originals liberated by the idiom’s openness to all manner of borrowings and hybrids, the Ethiopian multi-instrumentalist and composer Mulatu Astatke created a new sound by unlikely alchemy – between the Latin grooves and jazz-rock wah-wah guitars he heard as a student in the States in the 60s, and the wide-interval modes and fluid rhythms of his homeland’s ancient traditions. The 70 year old Astatke’s seductive “Ethio-jazz” fusions have made him a global-jazz star since his rediscovery after midlife obscurity by French producer Francis Falceto in the late 1990s.
Astatke has been sampled by legions of rappers and producers in the decades since, but in recent years, the band best attuned to his ancient-to-modern sensibility has been Melbourne Australia’s beloved Black Jesus Experience a horn laced octet who add funk and hip hop to the tracks boldly fusing hypnotic grooves deep into the mix that are more the sum of their parts . this wonderful collective of singers, rappers, and jazz improvisers of Moroccan, Zimbabwean, Maori, Ethiopian and Australian origins fall right into the beats conjuring nothing short of musical magic on the collection of nine tunes mystically titled To Know Without Knowing.
Track o5: To Know Without Knowing / 7:35
On an old classic, Mulatu, the composer segues his glowing vibraphone sound into a bright trumpet theme and a floating drums/keys/wah-wah groove, before MC Mr Monk’s driving political rap. Ambassa Lemdi, an Ethiopian traditional song that mesmerising vocalist Enushu Taye learned from her grandmother, is delivered by her in Amharic with tone bends and drifting lines of solemn wonderment. The headlong wedding song Kulun Mankwaleshi is rammed with more rhythm-stretching melody than its groove ought to have room for, the polemical 10-minute Living on Stolen Land is a highlight, while Astatke’s racing Mascaram Setaba and Lijay have a beguiling Afrobeat bounce.
Track 01: Malatu / 6:20
Track 06: Lijay / 5:25
Astatke gets to reprise a couple of his quirky, groundbreaking classics from half a century back, his vibraphone skills intact, but now with a rapid-fire rap or Afrobeat drums dropped in. The musical palette is broad, driven by a fierce horn section led by co-founder Peter Harper, with reggae, funk and Cuban flavours in a mix that’s softened by Taye’s vocals on a brace of Ethiopian wedding songs.
The entire set – BJE’s second collaboration with this unique musical legend – feels like the band’s more than the veteran master’s, and the magnificent Taye’s singing balances better with the music than Mr Monk’s delivery, but To Know Without Knowing nonetheless confirms how brightly Mulatu Astatke’s Ethio-jazz vision still burns on through each mesmerizing cut and musically inclined generations to follow.