Album Review: The Heliocentrics and Mulatu Astatke (2009)

The first time I’d heard of Mulatu Astatke was in Jim Jarmusch’s film Broken Flowers (2005). I became obsessed with a track from the film called Tezeta, by Astatke from the Afro-Latin Soul album. Known as the father of Ethiopian Jazz, Astatke’s music reflects his experience, born in Ethiopia, musically trained in the UK and USA and taking a keen interest in Latin music. This background and his prowess on the vibraphone, conga drum, percussion and keyboard made his work unique and influential.

With success early in his career, his work lost international popularity by the 1980s until it was rediscovered again in the nineties by collectors.  His appearance in the Ethiopiques series and in Broken Flowers reawakened Astatke to the mainstream. A bit of a favourite for samplers and producers his work can be heard in the music of Kanye Wes, Cut Chemist and Damien Marley amongst others.

The Heliocentrics are led by Malcom Catto and involve a large group of musicians who make music that is kind of, well…hard to explain. It’s not abstract enough to be called experimental, it’s not consistent enough to be called funk or fusion. It’s not really any one thing and yet it is definitely singular in it’s sound. With sound bites and phrases that have been pulled from all over the musical universe, I think this quote from Stones Throw says it well, ‘influence from the funk universe of James Brown. But there’s also the disorienting asymmetry of Sun Ra’s music. The cinematic scope of Ennio Morricone. The sublime fusion of David Axelrod’.

That brings me to the album review, The Heliocentrics and Mulatu Astatke. These two entities have come together to create something a little bit more jazzy than pure Heliocentrics and more progressive than Astatke alone. This album has some really cool beats, some raw and scratchy fiddle,  floating piano phrases and mellow production. You can read reviews of the album all over the place. I’m not here to review it in the context of the universal music landscape, I want to talk about it in the context of this blog.

This album is sexy and smokey and very funky. It has a repetitive, hypnotic quality reminiscent of a David Lynch film soundtrack. The music is a little too distracting and changeable to be used as a soundtrack to writing or composition. But it would be perfect for any of the other arts in terms of setting a scene of gritty, retro, Ethio-funk. At times it sounds like the soundtrack to a seventies car chase scene or a blaxploitation film. Some of the dirty, bass brass reminds me of the betrayal scene in Godfather 2 when Freddo takes Michael, Senator Geary and Johnny Olaf to a sleazy sex club in Havana. It also reminds me of the bass sax sound of Morphine. However, the variety of the music and ethnocentric vocal samples and snippets prevents this album from being sleazy. It has a nice blend of variety and consistency that makes for a pleasant listening experience without being challenging or boring.

Indelibly Astatke, you can recognise the Ethiopian modes throughout the album and it’s nicely complemented by The Heliocentrics’ edgy, progressive interpretation. It’s a great album to dip your feet into the pool of Ethio-funk without being completely submerged in the sound of the seventies. Perfect postmodern listening.

You can buy this album directly from Stones Throw Records or any good record store. It’s also worth checking out the Broken Flowers soundtrack, which contains three Mulatu Astatke tracks and various other worthy songs from various other worthy artists.

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