Review: Mulatu Astatke @ Roundhouse (London, 1st February 2016)

Since his contribution to the soundtrack of Jim Jarmusch’s 2005 movie Broken Flowers Ethiopian musician Mulatu Astatke has  become a global “pop-star”. However, this is a recent event in his fifty-year career, and his many fans have always considered him to be something special. His latest performance at the Roundhouse was a showcase for the greatest hits of the godfather of Ethio-jazz, who appeared on stage looking perfectly at ease in his trademark white long-shirt.

After fifty years in the limelight Mulatu Astatke still enjoys playing the principal role, and no one could undermine his status. However, little by little, he left more space and initiative to his outstanding musicians. Astatke acts indeed as stage director and keeps busy making sure that all the pieces fall into places.

The sold-out Roundhouse show was the only UK performance in his Peace, Love and Ethio-Jazz Tour. It didn’t take long for the audience to fall under Mulatu’s spell. In the same way that he led his band, the audience was directed by his watchful eye, bewitched by his calm stage presence and sincere words. The soft lights and mellow colours that accompanied the first half of the performance created a refined accompaniment to the music emanating from Astatke’s vibraphone and percussion. The Ethiopian artist bestowed on the audience some hypnotic (“Tsome Digua”), rarefied (“Dewel”) and nocturnal (“Yèkèrmo Sèw”) tunes. Then it was he turn of Mulatu’s musicians to steal the limelight with some allusions to untamed free-jazz and visionary Afrofuturism. In this way, everyone could enjoy the free flights of the brass played by James Arben (sax) and Byron Wallen (trumpet), the malleability of John Edwards’ double bass and Danny Keane’s unpredictable cello.

It took other two songs to get the Roundhouse crowd into the flowing momentum of the performance and fluidity of solos – and then everything turned upside down. Mulatu decided to put away the Ethio-jazz mood and dust off some afro-funk and afrobeat. The lights became more vivid and the rhythm suddenly picked up the pace. Richard Olatunde Baker’s percussion came to the fore, then grime MC Afrikan Boy hopped on board to steal the scene, igniting the audience with some pure South-London freestyle. Despite all this, Mulatu kept his cool while the audience went wild. They jumped up from their seats and danced to the groove of “Chick Chika”, following the example of the two dancers on stage. Then the unmistakable flow of “Yègellé Tezeta” represented the definitive triumph for Mulatu, the Horn of Africa’s musical giant.

As a farewell to his fans Mulatu decided to recapture the spotlight and keep it for himself throughout the encore. He introduced “Mulatu” solo, but even when he was re-joined by his musicians and Afrikan Boy he still dominated the stage. He cheered and bowed to his audience followed by his nine outstanding stage partners, adding yet another well-deserved standing-ovation to his fifty-year career.

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