As of this moment, the collaboration between Mulatu Astatke and The Heliocentrics titled Inspiration Information, the third part in Strut Records’ series, rests firmly at the top of my best records of 2009. An epic, mind-blowing beat exploration that is now awaiting contenders to drop their pressings and challenge this classic.
Mulatu Astatke is a giant of modern music who first rose to prominence in the 60s, fusing Western jazz and funk with traditional Ethiopian folk melodies, five-tone scale arrangements and elements from music of the ancient Coptic church. If you’ve not explored this guy’s formidable back catalog before, what on earth have you been doing?
The Heliocentrics are a London-based collective whose 2007 album Out There, released through Stones Throw offshoot Now-Again, is a psychedelic-jazz odyssey that explicitly invokes the spirits of Sun Ra, David Axelrod and, of course, Mulatu Astatke. Inspiration Information finds the band collaborating at length with their North African hero; the hook-up came about in April 2008 when Karen P asked The Heliocentrics to back Mulatu on his first UK live date in over 15 years. The gig was a roaring success and it was decided that a studio session was in order.
The bulk of recording took place at Quatermass Studios, an analogue set-up in East London, over the week of September 8th-14th, 2008. The Heliocentrics were joined not just by Astatke but by a bunch of London-based Ethiopian musicians including Yezina Nagash, Mesafnit Nagash and Dawit Gebreab, contributing traditional sounds coaxed from such instruments as the krar (six-stringed, five-tone thingy), washint (bamboo flute) and begena (15th century 10-string). Joel Yennior of Boston’s Either Orchestra scored the evocative horn lines and The Heliocentrics overdubbed and arranged the tracks after the main recording had taken place.
The results, a mix of standards and new compositions, are genuinely astonishing – representing a remarkably fluent, expressive clash of Heliocentrics gritty funk and spaced-out, avant-garde style with the earthy, virtuoso grooves and effortless melodic panache of Astatke. Says the band:
“We haven’t tried to recreate an Ethiopiques LP, this is more a collision of both our musical worlds, complete with the diverse influences and experiences that the alliance encompasses, a true exchange of ideas and influence. Something new, grounded in something old.”
Usually when people say shit like that, it’s patently untrue; in this case, it really ain’t. Find out for yourself.