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Out of Africa—and Italy
Take your pick of Ethiopian jazz or Italian New Wave
Sketches of Ethiopia
Mulatu Astatke, born in Ethiopia, represents an unusual amalgam, having studied music in England and the United States and known for combining Latin music elements with traditional Ethiopian styles within a jazz idiom. Considered the father of Ethio-jazz, Astatke brought his unique fusion back to Ethiopia in the ’70s to be a figure in Ethiopia’s “Golden ’70s” and later earned attention from Western audiences via a collection in the notable Éthiopiques series and inclusion of his work in the 2005 Jim Jarmusch film “Broken Flowers” starring Bill Murray. His latest album, Sketches of Ethiopia, features his England-based band Step Ahead, and it contains his refined style, which seems to be more informed by jazz sources like Duke Ellington than other origins, despite the cultural inflections.
It’s a subtle, restrained album and one that could have a broad appeal; “Hager Fiker” features a call-and-response mode with Harmon-muted trumpet and piano melodic jaunts, a nest of hand-struck drums and Astatke’s vibraphone soloing, with a sense of politeness. “Gambella” feels more lively, with a complicated web of notes, prominent drum kit beats and hand-drum flutters and reed playing, and one gets the notion that at any moment, it might attempt to lift off into a full-on Afro-beat vamp; however, it never does. Its genteel nature evokes having a spirited party while trying not to disturb the neighbors.
“Assosa Derache” is mostly a measured and in-control piece that lives in light jazz territory, with one exception: a trumpet solo that temporarily goes into free jazz space; “Gumuz” is even smoother, with a soft fusion approach and vocals from Tesfaye. The album’s finest songs are saved for last; “Motherland Abay” begins untethered by a rhythm with gentle and satisfying violin and reed wanderings, before a rhythm enters with a slow groove, and “Surma,” featuring lead vocalist Fatoumata Diawara, is marked with some tight, synchronized runs. While this writer doesn’t expect everything to be intense all the time, apart from a few highlights, a certain promise and potential doesn’t seem fulfilled, although the delivery is clean and impeccable.
In the United States, the social atmosphere in the ’80s was marked with a Cold War paranoia, while in Italy, there was turmoil during the “Years of Lead,” marked with terrorism from right-wing and left-wing groups, including the 1978 assassination of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro and the 1980 train station bombing in Bologna. The liner notes of the double-album compilation Mutazione, subtitled “Italian Electronic & New Wave Underground 1980-1988,” frames the collection within the “Years of Lead,” which incubated Italy’s countercultural forces, primarily taking inspiration from British post-punk and industrial bands rather than original punk acts.
The term “new wave” can evoke ’80s pop-music nostalgia a la VH1’s “I Love the ’80s,” but on this collection, the proceedings generally have a disquieting atmosphere, with an unavoidable darkness and anxiety, while simultaneously enjoying a fearless liberation, free to experiment musically, influenced by bands such as Throbbing Gristle, Suicide, Joy Division and The Residents. These Italian acts will largely be unknown to American ears, and many tracks have a similar vibe, owing to limited types of chilly drum machines available (recall the very beginning of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass”).
The primitive technology and Italian accents might very well be amusing to modern audiences, who may be most familiar with detached imitations of new-wave acts, unfortunately. “Jacho’s Story” by 2+2=5 features a post-punk vibe, with the thump/plunk of a funk bass and ghostly electronics, and “1984-1985” by L’Ultimo Arcano creates tension using shuffling drum machine beats and synth alarm tones and sirens. The compilation’s superior second half features an animated yet ominous Doris Norton track, made on an Apple computer, “Romero’s Living Dead” by Spirocheta Pergoli, with skronks and screeches and a damaged sci-fi circus vibe, and the brief “I Am Strange Now” by Plath which sounds like it features a demon-possessed woman. With meticulously assembled liner notes, Mutazione is at its most interesting when it breaks from the synth-wave homogeneity and truly lives up to its title.”