Mulatu Astatke/The Heliocentrics
Inspiration Information 3
The third in Strut's Inspiration Information series, this matching of Ethiopian composer/ vibraphonist Mulatu Astatke and British psych-funk wonks the Heliocentrics is the best one yet.
You may know Astatke from Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers soundtrack, which featured his strangely haunting jazz pieces; Astatke is also one of the stand-out artists on the long-running Ethiopiques compilation series. The Heliocentrics have backed DJ Shadow on record, and their leader, Malcolm Catto, possesses vast knowledge of subterranean music's richest veins. The Heliocentrics' aptly titled 2007 album Out There reflects their assimilation of Sun Ra–like astral jazz, BBC Radiophonic Workshop's analog-synth blippertronics, soundtrack composer Roy Budd's suspenseful tension-building, and the sort of OG funk that built hiphop's golden-age foundation.
Inspiration Information's opening cut, "Masenqo," starts with a moving, gorgeous female vocal, possibly in Amharic, and then breaks into a suave, midtempo jazz-funk glide, featuring glancing strings, fleet, rambling piano, and distorted guitar riffs that recall those David Axelrod deployed while producing the Electric Prunes. In other words, these folks intend to give you something you've never quite heard before.
They mostly keep their promise throughout the disc's 14 tracks. "Mulatu" combines Afrobeat and off-kilter jazz funk, as languid brass contrasts with the urgent, coiled rhythm. "Esketa Dance" is slow, elegant, stealthy—at once staccato and melismatic, again with a pronounced rhythmic/melodic disjunction that creates a dynamic friction. "Addis Black Widow" and "Live from Tigre Lounge" flirt with Miles Davis's tense, humid fusion fission circa On the Corner. On the opposite tip, "Blue Nile" renovates beautiful, blissful triphop, like mid-'90s Nightmares on Wax bolstered by contemplative, Tortoise-like guitar. "Anglo Ethio Suite" closes the album with a rich darkness, as if converting a Shakespeare tragedy into music.
The elements Astatke and the Heliocentrics use aren't unprecedented, but the manner in which they combine them is. They're evoking elusive moods, throwing strange shapes, generating unusual sounds—aided by things like washint (bamboo flute), begena (ancient 10-string harplike instrument), and krar (six-stringed five-toned instrument). It's the rare music that can do these things and not sound incoherent. Here's hoping this isn't a one-off collab.