A homecoming, of sorts. Mulatu Astake’s musical career may have began with his studies in the UK, including a spell at London’s Trinity College Of Music, but his influences are from elsewhere. The Ethiopian musician draws not just on the modes of his birthplace, but on latin jazz, and the arrangements of Duke Ellington. Last year’s collaboration with the Heliocentrics on their Inspiration Information album saw Astatke drawn into more modern territories, the UK collective adding electronic and hip-hop influences to the mix. I expected the set for this Barbican performance to draw heavily from that collection, but instead was privileged to witness a performance of Astatke classics from across his career, enhanced by some great arrangements and tight playing from the Heliocentrics, and one which had the Barbican crowd on their feet for much of the evening.
Despite being about ten-strong on stage, the Heliocentrics rarely obscured what was important about these tracks: the deep groove. It helped that they were supplemented by musicians of the calibre of saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings and trumpeter Byron Wallen, musicians capable of operating in straight jazz-funk idioms as well as the more out space-jazz environment that the Heliocentrics reach for, musicians as comfortable with ethnic forms and scales as they are with the Western. Speaking of ethnic forms, support act The Krar Collective, whose krar (a six stringed harp) player Temesegen Taregen joined The Heliocentrics on stage, really set the tone, traditional Ethiopian material given real fire by the scintillating almost electric guitar-like quality of Taregene’s playing. Those individuals never lost sight of the groove, even when soloing; any bursts of free noise were quickly washed away by an irrepressible tide of Ethio-jazz joy. While Astatke was the nominal leader of the band, it seemed to be the percussionist who had taken it upon himself to conduct them through the choice selection of tunes, leaping from behind his congas to wave his arms around – to little discernible effect other than making himself look a bit of a prat, it has to be said. It sounded like this band couldn’t get out of the groove if they tried.
Not forgetting the (considerable) fact that he had written all these pieces, Mulatu’s musical contribution on the night was more muted: there were even requests for him to be turned up. He added delicate vibraphone and Keith Jarrett-style humming on an glorious extended intro to “Yekerme Sew” (from the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers), his soft wurlitzer underpinned the electric Miles-esque “Netsanet”, and he added a latin shuffle via timbales to “Emnete”. But as I’ve already intimated, this was not a night about individual performances, it was about the collective, and the collective really animated these classic tracks. Only “Yekerme Sew” threatened to buckle under the sheer weight of musicians, twin guitars infiltrating corners which should have been left empty, but elsewhere they strengthened and supported the funk that was already present. Set closer “Yegelle Tezeta” was an absolute joy, with knots of Arabic-sounding sax and trumpet tethered to a deep bass drone. It dragged about half of the crowd to their feet, which is no mean feet in a relatively staid venue like the Barbican, the aisles becoming full of beautiful, big-haired, dancing Ethiopian women, rounding off one of the most enjoyable nights out I’ve had in some time.