Mulatu Astatke has continued to be embraced by young generations of music fans, and not solely for the classic 1970’s records that laid the foundation for Ethio-Jazz. His collaboration with UK collective The Heliocentrics in 2009 was a resounding success, showing an interest in experimentation and modern sounds unexpected in a gentleman of his years.
His latest collaboration on the album Cradle of Humanity and this tour, is with Melbourne based band Black Jesus Experience. The band, all white men dressed in vaguely African clothing, began the show with an awkward and confusing introduction from bandleader Peter Harper about Ethiopia being the birthplace of coffee.
It was a treat to watch Mulatu beginning Yekermo Sew solo at the instrument with which he is most famously associated, the vibraphone. The stillness of the room allowed his voice to be heard, singing along to the melody, seemingly mesmerised. This spell was broken when the bass player entered the song somewhat uncertainly, adding a pulse, which was swiftly followed by the rest of the band.
The bass playing in general remained fairly unglued from the drums and were a distraction, while the drumming itself was overly simple for this type of music. It felt as if the rhythm section were pulling in one direction and the horns and keys in another.
The deep funk of Netsanet had some good moments, with Mulatu switching to Rhodes keys and Harper delivering a killer saxophone solo.
The horn section, which also included flugelhorn player Ian Dixon, often handled the main melodic lines, and sounding wonderful together. Pianist Bob Sedergreen was by far the most impressive player of the BJX (their abbreviation) and provided tasteful virtuosity as well as showmanship.
While The Heliocentrics collaboration felt like a true combination of styles, this instead felt like a funk band trying to jam their sound into Mulatu’s compositions. To make things worse, we couldn’t really hear Mulatu. The man who should have been at the center of the action instead spent much of the show watching it from behind conga drums.
Liam Monkhouse joined the group occasionally to deliver some fast paced rapping which seemed completely out of place. Every time that he did this guitarist Zac Lister and bassist Chris Frangou would jump up and down as if they were in Rage Against the Machine.
While it was a pleasure to see Mulatu and hear some of his classic songs, it was surprising the extent to which this meeting of two worlds did not work.