By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Hailed as one of the most influential jazz musician to emerge from the African continent, Ethiopian keyboard player and percussionist Mulatu Astatke returns to the UC Theatre in Berkeley for the first time since a transcendent concert at the venue in the summer of 2017. Astatke’s career in music began when he was sent by his family to study engineering in Wales during the late 1950s when he was a teen. Instead, he ended up attending Trinity College of Music in London.
He also got his first professional performance experience in the UK, playing with Guyanese singer and percussionist Jack Holder. In the 1960s, Astatke would move to the United States, becoming the first African student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he developed an interest in Latin Jazz.
Switching ably from piano to vibraphone to drums, Astatke made his recording debut as a bandleader with Afro Latin Soul on Worthy Records in 1966. The album recorded in Brooklyn became a hit with it’s sinuous grooves and mix of Latin and African rhythms and led to a second volume released that same year.
The following decade, Astatke returned to his native country with what he termed “Ethio jazz” while still traveling to the States regularly to record. His later albums Mulatu of Ethiopia and Yekatit Ethio Jazz would incorporate elements of funk and ululating Ethiopian vocals that combined to create Astatke’s uniquely transporting sound. While the musician would continue to perform and record in Ethiopia, he would remain an underground sensation among DJs and record collectors who started trading his rare early singles for sizable sums of money. Hip hop producers also began mining his hypnotic grooves for samples.
A series of Ethiopian music compilations issued by the French label Buda Musique would focus on Astatke for its fourth volume Éthiopiques 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale 1969-1974 that was released in 1998, leading to a renewed interest in his music. Since then, Astatke’s classic songs have been used extensively in films (most notably Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers) and commercials. The revival has also led to new recordings including collaborations with London group Heliocentrics (on the acclaimed 2009 effort Inspiration Information) and Boston’s Either/Orchestra. In the summer of 2017, Astatke came to the U.S. to perform as one of the more unusual guests at the otherwise metal-focused Psycho Las Vegas festival and SummerStage in New York City’s Central Park in addition to playing a handful of rapturously received headlining dates including a sold-out night at the UC Theatre.
More recently, he has recorded two albums with Australian Ethio-jazz group Black Jesus Experience, including their latest release To Know Without Knowing which came out last year. While his most recent U.S. tour had to be postponed twice, Astatke and his band finally return to the Bay Area this weekend to play two nights at the UC that are sure to be packed with longtime fans and more recent converts. On Friday, they will be joined by local Malian funk revivalists Orchestra Gold (featuring noted dancer/lead singer Mariam Diakité) while Saturday’s show will be opened by Oakland-based Mulatu Astatke disciples and Ethiopian jazz specialists Sun Hop Fat.
Friday-Saturday, Feb. 28-29, 8 p.m. $42.50-$67.50