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Mulatu Astatke & the Heliocentrics

with Krar Collective


Barbican Hall

29 September 2010






A review by James Buxton for EXTRA! EXTRA!

The Krar Collective, who support Mulatu Astatke & The Heliocentrics tonight, open, playing modernized versions of traditional Ethiopian music. The group are led by a former pupil of Mulatu Astake, Temsegen Taraken, who plays the krar harp, a six stringed instrument associated with the azmari minstrel tradition. The harp is played with one hand pinching the upper strings, while the other strums the fast Ethiopian rhythm. Heard through the amp and with distortion effects, the krar has a similar sound to an electric guitar, but with a more earthy tone and higher, jangling pitch.  Taraken is accompanied by Robel Tesfaye on an electronic drum kit, which allows him to emulate the sounds of traditional Ethiopian drums, such as the Kebero. Taraken and Tesfaye play together on stage in white robes and black cloaks embroidered with silver, creating a mesmerizing sound. When lead vocalist Genet Asfa descends the stairs, she joins them on stage, cutting a striking figure with her golden afro, aquamarine dress and embroidered cape. Yet it is only when she opens her lips to sing, that you realize the soaring power and command of her voice. Her ululating outbursts and overpowering vocals create a feeling of extravagant celebration, further intensified by two dancers. A man and woman in brightly coloured traditional Ethiopian clothes perform a series of vigorous dances, consisting of rapid shaking and jutting of chests, necklaces spinning round necks and spasmodic body popping. As the music reaches its crescendo, the dancers jump and spin, waving limbs and ululating, abandoning themselves to the sound in an ecstatic release. The frenzy of dancing embodies the beatific freedom of tribal ritual - to shake off all cares or worries and dance with unrestrained joy.

Mulatu Astatke himself is the granddaddy of Ethio-Jazz, the kind of suave, funky music that you can imagine listening to in a smoky late night bar, couched in velvet, with one hand on a silk stocking, and the other clasping a tumbler of Scotch. Since the late 1960's, the Daddy from Addy has been stirring up his own funkadelic compositions, blending traditional Ethiopian folk melodies with Jazz, Soul and seductive funk. Tonight the Heliocentrics perform a series of tunes with him from his undeservedly neglected back catalogue and a few new numbers from their recent collaboration Inspiration Information. 

A hazy lounging funk descends over the audience as the Heliocentrics take to the stage; a London based collective, their music is a brilliant fusion of psychedelia, jazz and funk, with influences ranging from Sun Ra to James Brown. Their sound has a dusky, playful quality that suits the subtle nuances of Astatke's compositions.

Blue lights search the crowd, creating an effect of being immersed underwater, enhanced by the sound, you feel like you're floating inside a lava lamp as the narcotic haze sweeps you further along the liquid melody. When Mulatu Astatke arrives on stage in a white suit, there is a storm of applause as he humbly thanks the crowd in his gravelly voice and starts to tentatively tap his vibraphone, like a doctor testing for a reflex. With each note he hits, the reaction is involuntary as the crowd cheer in excitement. On tracks such as ‘Yegelle Tezeta’, the effect is mesmerizing as Malcom Catto the drummer provides a jazzy beat, the smoky saxophones pining languidly as the Hammond organ  replicates the melody. The saxes dual in a chaos of responses to each other, interspersed with blasts of trumpet while the guitars play funky up-tempo rhythms, with the band leader on percussion making sweeping gestures to conduct the musicians. The whole band in full swing is a sensory indulgence, truly engulfing you with the quality of their performance.

Astatke's compositions evoke the sultry heat of Sub Saharan Africa; he conjures mirages before your eyes through the unearthly, dreamlike quality of the vibes. His music is intoxicating and is complimented by the visuals of gold, crimson and turquoise liquid, that slip down the screen, merging in synaesthetic delight. At one point a cellist takes to the stage and provides a strikingly intense solo, as he looms over his instrument under a spotlight. A synth also extenuates the sound of the instruments after they have faded, leaving the air thick with the heady sounds of horns, guitars, drums and bass.

Under Astatke's gentle presence, you can tell all the musicians play at their utmost ability, as if all are united by the swirling charisma of his music and character. Despite the fact that he is not conducting them, Astatke is very much the figurehead, leading this caravan of musicians like a breeze of cool air sweeping across the sand dunes of the mind.



Barbican Centre
Silk Street
London EC2Y 8DS

Box Office: 020 7638 8891
9am - 8pm Mon - Sat
11am - 8pm Sun

11 September 2010 / 20:00

 Barbican Hall
Tickets: £15/20/25/30








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