The Heliocentrics & Mulatu Astatke Inspiration Information

[Strut; 2009]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: jazz, psychedelic funk, Ethiopian music
Others: Yesterday’s New Quintet, Fela Kuti, David Axelrod, Mahmoud Ahmed and others on the {Ethiopiques} series

I saw Mulatu Astatke, one of the most important and brilliant Ethiopian artists of all time, play to a packed auditorium several weeks ago. It was the Ethiopian jazz composer’s first time in Los Angeles, and he was performing on the same bill as DJs Cut Chemist, Quantic, and Egon as part of the Timeless composer series by V-Tech, where contemporary hip-hop musicians are juxtaposed with the artists who inspired their music. The atmosphere was spectacular as the DJs and emcees all spoke about the profound influence of Astatke’s music and what an honor it was to be on the same stage as the Ethiopian legend. Astatke, playing his signature vibraphone alongside an abridged orchestra, dazzled the fedora’d and pristine-sneaker’d audience with two sets of his classic Ethio-Jazz tunes.

The experience was not only exciting for the adept musicianship and funkiness of the songs, but also because it was astonishing to see firsthand the fluidity of Astatke’s music, how easily it can be adapted into modern styles. He created gorgeous sprawling compositions that fused traditional and Latin jazz styles with African funk, the result being a distinctive musical sound that helped to differentiate Ethiopia from its African neighbors and turn its capital, Addis Ababa, into a burgeoning global cultural center. Years after his hey-day in the late ’60s and ’70s, Astatke has played an integral part of the Ethiopiques CD compilations that have been released by Buda Musique since 1998 and helped bring Ethiopian music back to the world stage. Astatke’s music is widely appreciated, particularly by the beat-makers of the world. His pieces are largely rhythm-driven and can range atmospherically from swinging dancefloor bop to the tender afterhours, thus providing an easily “sampleable” palette for today’s cut-and-paste geniuses to flesh out a modern sound.

With Ethiopian music all the rage, it comes as no surprise that Astatke would get hooked up with The Heliocentrics, a UK-based progressive jazz/psychedelic outfit that garnered much critical acclaim for its 2007 release, Out There. As other “in-the-know” urban artists have been trying to do for years, The Heliocentrics indeed have the talent, adaptability, and patience to successfully shake up vintage funk with a modern twist. So, on their new album Inspiration Information, The Heliocentrics collaborated with Astatke to take on his exotic rhythms and soulful melodic lines.

Taken as a whole, Inspiration Information (also the title also of Shuggie Otis’ masterpiece album) is a swinging effort that plays with varying degrees of success. It's an extremely clever idea and ambitious task to reinterpret Astatke’s music from a progressive funk angle, which proves to be a most rewarding change from the standard hip-hop cut-ups that do not always showcase the full complexity of Astatke’s original recordings. Still, there are many competing styles and influences that pull the tracks of Inspiration Information in many different directions, occasionally cluttering the sound and veering toward the psychedelic and avant-garde. This is all good, but since there is so much going on, it takes considerable energy from a knowledgeable listener to sieve the hot beats, wah pedals, horn solos, and astral effects to understand how all the elements are interacting. Without a lot of concentration, the listener may have the tendency to drift off and relegate Inspiration as background music for a trendy wine bar.

True to his “usual” method of playing, Astatke plays his own instruments (including vibes, Wurlitzer, drums, and keyboards) with a very light hand. For example, you can hear his delicate touch during the excellent vibes solo halfway through the new composition "Cha Cha." But The Heliocentrics do more than pick up the slack; they take Astatke’s influence and create a completely unique sound. As such, with original Astatke compositions lined up with newly-created Afro-jazz pieces, Inspiration Information does not necessarily fit seamlessly in the Ethiopiques entries. Rather, the album is a frenetic, genre-rejecting project that deserves a listen from anyone who appreciates deep grooves, solid musicianship, and worldly influences (essentially fans of Gilles Peterson and BBC Radio One). Inspiration Information is a fun effort, and I hope any success from this album inspires future collaborations.

1. Mansengo
2. Cha Cha
3. Addis Black Widow
4. Mulatu
5. Blue Nile
6. Esketa Dance
7. Chik Chikka
8. Live From Tigre Lounge
9. Chinese New Year
10. Phantom Of The Panter
11. Dewel
12. Fire In The Zoo
13. An Epic Story
14. Anglo Ethio Suite

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