Originally released in 1972 and newly-reissued, the groundbreaking Mulatu of Ethiopia easily answers that question in under 30 minutes of adventurous, head-nod-inducing music that still sounds new today. These seven melodic tracks take the listener down moody rhythmic paths, all the while accompanied by organ, flute, horns, and Mulatu’s trademark vibraphone.
Born in western Ethiopia, Mulatu planned to study engineering. But upon moving to Wales, and later London, his field changed to music. He became the first student from Africa at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, focusing on percussion as well as vibraphone. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Mulatu recorded on trips to New York, working with a range of session musicians, many schooled in Latin rhythms; playing alongside Cubans and Venezuelans, he observed their experimentation. It sparked his desire to invent his own style, which he called “Ethio-jazz.” “I used the Ethiopian structures to create melodies, but instead of using cultural instruments, I used western instruments like the piano and the contrabass,” he once said. “I somehow created ways to use the Ethiopian modes, being very careful not to lose the feeling.