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Mulatu Astatke

Old as the Hills

by Dave Durbach, images by Shruthi Nair and Dave Durbach / 27.09.2010

We live in a world that worships youth and progress. Out with the old and in with the new. Rampant ageism and pop culture homogenisation have seen our tastes, whether we choose to realise it or not, increasingly dictated to by market forces aimed at American teenagers at the vanguard of Generation Me.

And as much as we talk of “extended childhoods” and 20-something professionals still living with mom, the opposite is also true. Pumped up on bovine hormones and bombarded by images from electronic appendages, the kids of today are growing up fast, both physically and in terms of what society expects of them.

By corollary, old people suffer. Less and less is expected of them, other than to retire early and keep quiet. Western society’s obsession with youth is particularly tough on women, who start investing in placenta-laced facelift creams, plastic butchery and lying about their age soon after they hit 25, convinced by the machine that there is something wrong in growing older.

A second group of casualties in this battle of the ages are musicians. Whereas musical knowledge and skill are acquired over the course of years, a higher premium is usually given to youthful good looks, fashion and tech savvy. Experience becomes a dirty word. Musicians who have the misfortune of not dying young are swept by the wayside, duly dropped by labels and radio playlists.

This is decidedly a Western phenomenon. Traditional notions of African and Asian culture hold older people in higher regard.

Perhaps fitting then that two of the best gigs I’ve been to in recent weeks have been by men close on 70, hailing from far-flung corners of Africa and Asia. Decades of experience have seen both men study, perform and find fame at home and in the West, and allowed them to appropriate the best of both worlds to create their own signature sounds.

Last Friday, Ethio-Jazz originator Mulatu Astatke performed at the Great Hall at Wits, the first time in his illustrious career that he has visited this country. Astatke is best known in recent years for his work on Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, in which Bill Murray plays an aging playboy revisiting his old flames. Like many others, this was my first encounter with the man. The film’s soundtrack, more reminiscent of a Middle Eastern detective noir than the tale of a washed up lover, struck me as so mysterious and unique that after watching the film after its release in 2005 I was compelled to sit through the credits to jot down his name. In the UK he has also reached a new generation of fans via his collaboration with the Heliocentrics. Astatke is revered as one of Africa’s great musicians – Ethiopia’s answer to Fela Kuti, Hugh Masekela or Salif Keita.

Making the Arts Alive gig even more compelling was that instead of bringing his own backing band to go through the motions, the 67 year old Ethiopian assembled some of South Africa’s best jazz musos – including trumpeter Marcus Wyatt, saxman Sydney Mnisi, bassist Herbie Tsoaeli and drummer Ayande Sikade. In a matter of days, they succeeded in mastering the intricacies of Ethio-Jazz – swirling horns, funky bass and minimalist drumming. Rather than demanding centre-stage, Mulatu himself, alternating between vibraphone, percussion and keyboard, was content to let his arrangements speak for themselves and give the others on stage a chance to shine.

A second performer to defy people’s expectations of age was 76-year-old Japanese sax legend Sadao Watanabe, who performed two weeks ago at the Joy of Jazz fest in Newtown. Fresh from the release of his 70th album, the diminutive saxman’s forays into funk, bossa nova and the murky waters of smooth jazz have made him one of the most celebrated and respected Asian musos on the planet. While most other acts that night were happy ride all the cliches of smooth jazz or otherwise embark on freeform spaz-outs (like Ravi Coltrane), Watanabe was in a league of his own.

Thankfully, Astatke and Watanabe are two musicians still loved by audiences and who continue to write, release and perform around the world. Unfortunately, they’re a dying breed.

Sadao Watanabe

* Images © Dave Durbach and Shruthi Nair.

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