Album of the Day: Mulatu Astatke, “Afro Latin Soul”

The discography of Ethiopian jazz pioneer Mulatu Astatke has become the stuff of legend. Following the 2017 reissue of Astatke’s brilliant Mulatu of Ethiopia, stories spread of the musician’s early days in America in the 1960s and ‘70s. With Strut’s newest reissue, Afro Latin Soul Vols. 1 & 2, we hear Astatke’s first forays into the pioneering sound that would become his trademark.

The album begins with “I Faram Gami I Faram,” an adaptation of an Ethiopian warrior song, with lyrics updated into Spanish to reflect the Cuban influence in Astatke’s work. The song begins with horns that screech to a stop, before a piano takes a brief saloon-style riff, eventually evolving into a South American cumbia groove that hints at where Astatke’s interests would lie for years to come. The LP isn’t nearly as fleshed out as Mulatu of Ethiopia, but it’s a fascinating document that sheds light on the bands Astatke worked with in the mid ’60s. This one in particular features Ethiopian, Latin, and black musicians, all of whom pair the grooving drum parts of Cuba with the structure of American jazz and blues. “A Kiss Before Dawn,” with its foggy horns and faint percussion, is what you’d get if Louis Armstrong performed Brazilian lounge music.

If Mulatu of Ethiopia blended Astatke’s Ethiopian background with his fascination with American jazz and Cuban rhythms, then Afro Latin Soul is the crucial moment in which Astatke synthesized his process. It’s a maturation in real time, a beautiful metamorphosis boiled down to 19 songs.

-Will Schube

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