Mulatu Astatke with The Black Jesus ExperiencePhotos - Nick Pitsas

The Melbourne International Jazz Festival yearly lures musicians of worldwide reputation to this city to play for jazz lovers and to interact with our local musicians. Amongst the many special events and visitors in 2010 is Mulatu Astatke, world-renowned musician, composer and arranger from Ethiopia. This is his first ever visit to Australia and for his two performances he was on stage with the local group The Black Jesus Experience.

Astatke is known as the father of Ethio-Jazz – his own distinctive blend of traditional Ethiopian melodies with jazz and Latin music. Born in Ethiopia in 1943 Astatke trained in the UK and the US and was the first African student to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston. A multi-talented musician (vibraphone, conga and percussion), composer and arranger, he has performed across the world and was a guest artist with the Duke Ellington orchestra when they visited Ethiopia in 1971. Popularly he is possibly best know for his score for Jim Jarmusch's 2005 film Broken Flowers.

Astatke's key instrument is the vibraphone and, under the magical touch of his talented hands, the mallets caused the instrument to hum, sensual and evocative, sending the musical vibrations into every part of the body. As a music lover rather than a practicing musician, I don't find myself in a position to comment on the finer points of the performance, but what I can say, as a jazz lover in particular, is that I found the music highly distinctive and constantly surprising. One minute I found myself in Africa with driving percussive rhythms incorporated in the jazz evoking images of African dance; at others I was in a smokey nightclub in a Latin American city watching the sensual moves of cha cha dancers. Then I was suddenly somewhere in Arabia, with the haunting notes of a flute.

I wasn't able to secure a playlist and often couldn't quite hear Astatke's introductions, however many, if not all of the pieces where his own compositions, including the one he wrote for himself, Mulatu (this man has a sense of humour) and two pieces from his soundtrack for Broken Flowers.

Joining Astatke were James Arden on saxophone and Melbourne based Hip Hop/Jazz/Afro ensemble, The Black Jesus Experience, featuring Peter Harper on alto sax, Ian Dixon on flugelhorn, Thai Matus on keyboard, Nashua Lee on guitar, Cassawarrior on bass, Pat Kearney on drums, and Souren Tchakerian on percussion. They formed a magical mix of relative youth and wide experience and brought with them the influences of their varied home countries including Ethiopia, New Zealand and Australia. True to the jazz tradition, they each seemed to revel in the collaboration and drew the audience in to savour every element of the performance. Ethio-Jazz as played by these talented musicians, makes it impossible to stay still. Feet at least must tap, in some cases seated bodies sway and others in the audience cannot resist the temptation to stand up and dance in the aisles.

If you missed the performances, you are still able to enjoy Astatke's music, much of which has been re-released through the Ethiopiues series. Fortunately for us The Black Jesus Experience are locals and you will be able to catch one of their performances somewhere close to you. And the Festival itself continues until Saturday 8 May.


2010 Melbourne Jazz Festival
Mulatu Astatke
with The Black Jesus Experience

Venue: The Forum
Dates: Sun 2 & Mon 3 May at 8.00pm
Tickets: $72 full, $65 concession
Bookings: Ticketek ticketek.com.au