Two Ethiopian Music Legends Bring Ethiopian Jazz and Funk to Los Angeles

For many people outside of the Habesha community, their first experience with Ethiopian music came from the soundtrack of a Bill Murray movie. That movie, 2005’s Broken Flowers, concerns Murray’s character trying to make contact with an adult son of his who may or may not exist. In the movie, Murray’s character is helped on his journey by his neighbor, played by Jeffrey Wright, who not only plans out Murray’s quest, but maybe most importantly, provides him with a soundtrack in the form of a playlist on a burnt CD consisting mostly of the elegantly fidgety Ethiopian funk of vibraphonist and pianist Mulatu Astatke. The music, funky, with hard drum breaks, soil deep bass lines, hauntingly melancholic brass solos, steady keyboard vamps that break out into wistful sentiments, and the occasional reverb heavy wah wah guitar rejoinder, is an essential element in constructing the mood and emotional ambiance of the movie, so much so that the director, Jim Jarmusch, makes a point to show a large portrait of Mulatu Astatke in the home of Jeffrey Wright’s character.

“It was a revolutionary time for music in Ethiopia” says Hailu Mergia, a Ethiopian pianist and accordionist, describing the late 1960s and early 1970s in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa during the time period that both he and Mulatu Astatke were making music. “Before the late 1960s, there weren’t too many nightclubs in Addis, but in the late ’60s, a lot more clubs started to open, and a lot of musicians started to come out to play,” Hailu goes on to say, “everybody was trying to play with a band. I call it the ‘Band Era.’’’

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