There were many human casualties of the Ethiopian military junta which overthrew Haile Selassie in 1974. There was also a significant cultural loss. Prior to the seizure of the country by the Soviet-backed generals of the Derg, Ethiopia hosted a vibrant music scene, incorporating Latin jazz with local sounds, much of it collated by Addis Ababa label Amha. The Derg shut Amha down and chased its artists into exile. One of the most significant was Mulatu Astatke.
Astatke was, eventually, permitted to return home; he now divides his time between Addis Ababa and London. And, mercifully, Astatke’s legacy was rescued, around the turn of the 21st century, by the Ethiopiques series released by Paris label Buda Musique. Astatke’s sinuous, busy jazz found a ready audience, sampled in hip-hop tracks and featured in the soundtrack of Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers. Sketches of Ethiopia, the title an obvious homage to Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain, is a glorious survey of Astatke’s near-limitless horizons. The album is largely instrumental, and rarely in a rush: Only one track, “Surma,” comes in at under five minutes, and “Assosa Derache” clears 10.
Most of Sketches of Ethiopia is upbeat, gusting exuberant, from the fidgety horns of “Azmari” to the fluttering pipes on “Hager Fiker.” It is at its most affecting, however, when Astatke reels it in a bit, as on “Motherland Abay,” which begins as a violin-wreathed lament before easing into a gentle, languid saunter across a soundscape tinged with flutes and flamenco.