Arts & Culture

Mulatu Astatke gives a primer on Ethiopian music, culture

6 min read

It’s not easy to be a musician in most of the Third World, said legendary Ethiopian composer and musician Mulatu Astatke, who is a 2007-08 Radcliffe Fellow. Music is not typically taught in elementary schools, and in later life, opportunities for musicians are limited by poverty.

In Ethiopia “we have beautiful music, beautiful dance, and in general we have a beautiful culture — but little chance to develop,” said Mulatu (Ethiopians are generally referred to by their first names) in a Feb. 27 presentation.

The slight, soft-spoken composer was at Radcliffe’s 34 Concord Ave. Colloquium Room to give an audience of 70 a primer on Ethiopian contributions to world music — and on his own contributions as a transnational composer. (Mulatu originated a jazz fusion form known as Ethio-jazz. He recently composed music for the soundtrack of director Jim Jarmusch’s 2005 “Broken Flowers.”)

Early on, Mulatu wanted to be an engineer. But he went to high school in North Wales, where a rich arts curriculum allowed him to uncover his talent for music. “I found my calling there,” he said.

Then came more music schooling in London, before Mulatu moved to Boston, where in the late 1950s he was the first African student at the Berklee College of Music — “the only place in that time,” he said, to study jazz.

After further training in New York City, and more than a decade in the West, Mulatu moved back to Ethiopia, where he survived decades of civil war and the vagaries of changing political regimes. Mulatu taught for a living, though he was pressured out of one university job for promoting “imperialist music.” He also pioneered a groundbreaking radio music show in Addis Ababa and traveled frequently into the countryside to perform.

Today, the 67-year-old composer considers part of his musical mission to revive and improve upon the traditional instruments of his country. Modern groups are recording music based on Ethiopian rhythms and musical themes, said Mulatu, but none is reawakening the potential of traditional instruments.

For one, he pioneered the idea of increasing the number of strings on the krar, a bowl-shaped six-string lyre traditionally made of wood, cloth, and beads. He upgraded the instrument — now commonly amplified — to eight strings, then to 12.

If traditional instruments are limited, young players will turn to more versatile Western instruments — and lose a sense of their own culture, said Mulatu. There are ways to alter and improve the old, he said, without compromising the tonal qualities that underlie Ethiopian music.

The composer’s own signature instrument is the vibraphone, a set of graduated aluminum percussion bars that resemble a marimba or a xylophone. In Mulatu’s hands, said Kay Kaufman Shelemay, “the vibraphone becomes the dawal” — the resonant “bell stones” that call the faithful to prayer at Ethiopian churches. (Shelemay, also a Radcliffe Fellow this year, is Harvard’s G. Gordon Watts Professor of Music and a professor of African and African American studies.)

After his Western training in music, Mulatu made a study of the complex layering of regional Ethiopian music traditions. It’s “a very diverse and a very [musically] rich country,” said Radcliffe Fellow Steven Kaplan, a professor of African studies at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. At the presentation, he praised Mulatu for delving into lesser-known musical traditions among tribes in southern Ethiopia.

The composer once brought musicians from four different tribes together in an Addis Ababa television studio and orchestrated a cross-tribal fusion performance. Clips from that filming were among the several musical and video interludes played or shown during the Radcliffe event.

To the Western ear and eye, the wind instruments were captivating. They included long trumpetlike wooden horns called malakat and end-blown flutes that each produce one pitch and together a complex melody.

The ideal way “to explore multiple forms” of music, said Mulatu, is through jazz.

Performance opportunities like the one in Addis Ababa also give obscure musicians (many of them farmers) artistic exposure beyond their villages, he said. “These people have been deprived of being heard in the world, or even their own country.”

Performance is also one way of bringing Ethiopian music into the modern age, and to “give identity to modern Ethiopian music,” said Mulatu. “I’ve been writing music here to come up with that identity.” He described the Radcliffe experience — with its opportunities for reflection, collaboration, and composition — as “one of the best years of my life.”

Mulatu is writing music for an electronic opera, and the first section of it will premiere in Harvard’s Sanders Theatre April 14. “The Yared Opera” will blend the old and the new, and incorporate traditional chant texts in Ge’ez, the Ethiopian liturgical language.

Part of the opera score was sneak-previewed on DVD for the Radcliffe audience. It’s based in part on the chant of St. Yared, the founder of Ethiopian church music thought to date back to the sixth century. Mulatu hopes future performances will feature live musicians in concert with the electronic version, and staged at the rock churches of Lalibela, a holy city in northern Ethiopia.

While at Radcliffe, Mulatu is also working on an oral history project with Kaplan and Shelemay. The two scholars have recorded 11 sessions with him so far, including the Feb. 27 presentation. Kaplan and Shelemay sat on either side of him, and alternated asking questions.

The oral history sessions, including DVDs and recordings, will be added to a new collection on Ethiopian musicians in the United States that Shelemay is assembling for the Library of Congress. She called Mulatu an “ambassador” for Ethiopian artistic tradition.

The premiere of the first section of Mulatu Astatke’s ‘The Yared Opera’ is part of a free performance of his works by the Either/Orchestra at 8 p.m. April 14 in the Sanders Theatre. The concert is the final note of an April 13-14 Ethiopian Cultural Creativity Conference at Harvard, which features scholarly presentations on the visual, musical, and literary artistic contributions of the Ethiopian diaspora. For details, visit