Floating on the Southbank with Mulatu Astatke: Review, Africa Utopia

AiW Guest Lennon Chido Mhishi

By the time the music has started playing, I am excited inside already. For a moment my mind is lost somewhere, and I only realise then that there was a solo on the piano, but my eyes were searching all over the room for friends, and wondering what the music is going to be like. It is the Africa Utopia weekend, and it has already been filled with so much magic, with different talks and stalls providing spaces for exploring what is just a part of the multiple ways of seeing, and being Africa. With Africa Utopia touted as a celebration of African art and ideas, sometimes there is unease around the ‘fashionising’ of such spaces in ways that supplicate to what are regarded as versions of consumer zombification, synonymous with certain economies of materiality and desire; yet the creation of spaces for conversations, which may turn critical, and that acknowledge the fluidity and malleability of what may be called ‘Africa/African’ remains important. The music of Mulatu Astatke makes such spaces even more significant.

africa-utopia-brand-webBorn in Ethiopia in 1943, Mulatu Astatke chose music over engineering, being trained in London, and moving on to New York City and Boston, where he found the allure of Latin music, and merged it with traditional Ethiopian music to produce his signature version of ‘Ethio-Jazz’. His music spans almost the last half century, a sign of the depth and vastness of experience, as well as the timelessness of his music. From working with people such as Frank Holder and Duke Ellington, to being sampled by K’naan, Nas, and Damian Marley, among many, Astatke represents a resilient and inspiring musical adventure.

I have not listened to the ‘father of Ethio-Jazz’ live before, and my familiarity with his music comes from my encounter with Damian ‘Junior Gong’ Marley and Nas, on the album Distant Relatives, where they sampled Astatke’s track Yegelle Tezeta. I listened to this opening song of the album as an eclectic mix of African sounds, and a manifestation of the diasporic musical connections that continue to exist, and to influence musical cultures across time and space. These connections were reinforced on stage at the Southbank with the introduction of two young African rappers, who spun their lyrical webs around Mulatu’s sound, or was it the other way round? The intertwining of the jazzy, and the hip of urban and diasporic Africa is both innovative and significant, as it keeps the language of certain musics alive, even as the form and content shifts over time. I thought well, if Nas and Damian Marley could do it, then why not Afrikan Boy? The music travels and circulates with the people. It floats with them.

Mulatu himself is the very embodiment of transnationality, with entwined musical influences that span various spaces and places, as well as his own movements that have taken him across the world, and have seen him collaborate with artists across musical cultures. The transnational and diasporic routes the music and people take in this instance converge on London, a magnetic city that has and continues to attract and experience different musics, and is home to a substantial African diaspora, and a route and space for continued transiency.

There seems to be something about the musical experience, of listening to someone like Mulatu play that makes it difficult to translate into words. The Krar Collective and dancers Dan-Kiri open the gates for us on our journey into the land of Ethiopian music. The Krar collective, named after the traditional krar harp that is central to their music, are led by Temesgen Zeleke, a former student of Mulatu, who later joins the band for a song with his harp. As I watch the dancing and the singing of the group, my shoulders and my feet move with the rhythm, and my head bobs, up and down, side to side. I feel warm and fuzzy. The dancer’s outfits are rich and colourful, and as I watch the men, then the women move, it is as if the taste of something really sweet has just hit the back of my head. At times though, I fear that something will break on the bodies of the dancers, the way they move their shoulders and heads as if their joints are all fluid.

As I look around, the audience is glued to the stage, and the appreciation is a crescendo, from the unsure claps and whistles, to thundering applause for the energy that is exuded from the stage. Saturday night at the Southbank is just being made.

When Astatke graces the stage, the audience has been more than warmed up. There is a lightness, a darkness, a slow, and then a quick anticipation to the music. In a performance that lasts for just over an hour, (although I lose track of my time) I am unsure where the sound is taking me, one second it’s on some dark alleyway where I expect something to pop out, the next I am basking in the rich color and light, but I am enchanted, and I let the music hold my hand, and float with me in this world of exquisite sounds and rhythms, of a bodily (maybe out of body?) experience that even as I write, the tingling sensation of recollection is pervasive in me. I want more Mulatu! In my dreamy state, I catch morsels of the interludes, where Mulatu introduces the songs, sometimes talks about when a song was used for a film, or something about the time or space it was composed. I am just eager for the sound to recapture me. The line, in this moment, that separates where I am sitting, and my floating, is a very fine one. Call it hypnosis.

Remember I just said there is something about listening to someone like Mulatu that is difficult to translate into words? A poignant moment is when the guy on the trumpet goes for a solo. He blows, and blows, and blows, and pulls and pushes, that even I, from my seat far in the audience, start losing my breath too. I heave a sigh with him when he is done, as if I too was blowing and pushing and pulling. I am still staring at him even as he shakes the saliva and sweat that has collected in the trumpet whilst he was playing, and as it gushes out like the remnants of magical musical waters. One has to be sitting there, and losing breath, and shifting in your seat, to be able to fully imagine this experience of floating.

I was a bit disappointed that there was not much dancing from the audience, although I could see some people up in the boxes busting some moves. Maybe it is the nature of the venue, or the music was just too powerful that people got mesmerised and could not even stand, until the end when they had to give a standing ovation. People shuffle out slowly of the Royal Festival Hall, bodies that wanted to remain in trance to the music, but they don’t go further than the Central Bar, for more drinks, and more Ethiopian music and dance. A semi-circle forms around the dancers, and bodies move and shake, and sweat, and the sweat mixes with spilt drinks to form shapes on the floor, and the shapes seem to wriggle and dance, together with the feet of the revellers.  Saturday night is now made, and I keep floating.


Lennon Chido MhishiLennon Chido Mhishi is a PhD candidate at SOAS, University of London.  His research looks at Zimbabwean migrants in London, with a focus on music, place and identity.

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2 replies

  1. That sounds like a fantastic evening! I was at the event all day on that Saturday but could not wait for the boat party to enjoy the amazing Mulatu Astatke – thanks for sharing, now got to look for his CD!


  1. Africa Utopia, Southbank Centre, London, 10-13 September 2015 |

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