CD review

Mulatu Astatke & The Black Jesus Experience – “To Know Without Knowing”

Mulatu Astatke & The Black Jesus Experience – To Know Without Knowing
(Agogo Records – AR135CD|AR135VL Review by Graham Spry)

Mulatu Astatke is undoubtedly the most important and well-known proponent of Ethio-Jazz: a branch of jazz that incorporates elements of traditional Ethiopian music. Not only a great composer, Astatke plays keyboards and a wide range of percussive instruments of which many are unique to Ethiopia. He developed his style of jazz while studying in Britain and America in the 1960s and took his music back with him to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, during a brief period of extraordinary musical creativity in his home country, just before it was mostly suppressed by a series of intolerant governments. Astatke is one of the stars of a landmark series of compilation albums released in the 1990s entitled Éthiopiques, of which there were ultimately 30 volumes, that was the sole means whereby the music of Ethiopia’s golden age first became known to the general public outside of Ethiopia.

The Black Jesus Experience are a truly cosmopolitan group of musicians based in Melbourne: a city that can lay claim to being one of the most vibrant in the world, and certainly the Antipodes, for contemporary jazz. The group’s primary musical influence is Ethio-Jazz, so Mulatu Astatke is their ideal collaborator, but the music has a more extensive range of influences that includes hip-hop and funk. The lead saxophonist and co-founder of the eight-piece band is Peter Harper who was introduced to Ethiopian music by his father, a music teacher for the Ethiopian Navy band in the 1960s. They are most notable for their live performances, which includes a performance at the Glastonbury Festival in 2017. It is a shame for audiences in the UK and elsewhere that they aren’t able to tour their latest album given current circumstances.

To Know Without Knowing is the second studio collaboration of The Black Jesus Experience and Mulatu Astatke and is the culmination of over a decade of having performed together. It is a varied album. Only the song Kulun Mankwaleshi is very much like the type of Ethio-Jazz that can be heard on the Éthiopiques compilations. The vocals on this track comes from Enushu Taye, the band’s co-leader and principal singer who in 1992 was forced to leave Ethiopia where she’d sung for her local community, before eventually emigrating to Melbourne. The vocals on the album are shared with the Zimbabwean/Australian MC, Mr. Monk (Liam Monkhouse), whose style of rap is of the type prevalent across modern-day Africa and whose lyrics emphasise tolerance, consciousness and community.

The first track on the album is Mulatu, a tribute to Astatke without whom there would be no Ethio-Jazz, which rhythm is most prominent in the harmonious horns that lead the first half of the track before Mr. Monk’s rapping provides the lyrics. There is a taste of West Africa on the second track, Ambassa Lemhi, where Taye weaves her voice around the trumpet and sounds almost like the great Oumou Sangare. Taye mostly sings in Amharic except on songs such as Living On Stolen Land where she sings in English.

The mix of international musical influences is generally seamless and unforced throughout the album. The title track, To Know Without Knowing, moves from one style to another, where it features in turn Taye’s Ethiopian vocals, Mr. Monk’s rap and lilting horns and piano. The single Lijay, a paean to motherly love, is underlaid by a lilting African reggae with Taye and Mr. Monk swapping the microphone between them until midway through the song where it settles into a chugging rhythm conducive to a dancing audience. Blue Light begins with Mr. Monk’s rap before becoming perhaps the most conventionally jazz track on the album. The album ends with two tracks, Mascaram Setaba and A Chance To Give, that would be ideal for swaying to at an open air festival on a lazy hot sunny day.

There is much on this album for the enthusiast of Ethio-Jazz to enjoy, but much else for fans of jazz and other forms of global music. To Know Without Knowing and its collaboration between Mulatu Astatke and The Black Jesus Experience are a good fit for Agogo Records, a Hanover-based record label that features danceable music of all styles from around the world.

LINK: Agogo Records

 

 

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