There is no one good question to ask a legend. There are plenty.
There I was, face to face with the father of Ethio-jazz. Mulatu Astatke. I was in a rush to ask him the question that is on everybody's mind these days. I needed to know what he thought of a slew of complements he has been receiving on Canadian social media from The Weeknd, AKA Abel Tesfaye.
How could I not ask, when a mere mention of a name on the famous Canadian twitter feed brings a neglected artist to near stardom and allow a public cause to be accomplished, such as bringing Ge’ez to the University of Toronto. But Astatke is no ordinary artist; he is an extraordinary talent, award winning and a respected pioneer in the local music industry, known as the 'father of Ethiopian Jazz".
Inside the magnificent and still the only Diamond Star mansion-like Sheraton Addis in Ethiopia, is where I had a face-to-face conversation with him. Dressed in casual faded jeans, with an immaculate colorful shirt with a red-rose perfect handkerchief placed inside the heart pocket of his Oxford coat, I had a rich back and forth with him. He was set to give a press conference and promote an upcoming public concert.
The press conference was late, almost 40 minutes late and in an almost disarray. With cell phones ringing nonstop and young publicists running around to drive the conference forward, what is heard in the background are beautiful sound. They are the music of the legend himself.
Mulatu Astatke performing in Rome
Some I have heard in popular movies, some sampled by artists but they are just breathtaking. Cool, collected and Quincy Jones-like, with the voice a lion, he is excited about the future of Ethiopian music and the next generation of local artists.
Like a concerned grandfather figure, concerned why anyone would name their kid, the "Weeknd", (unknown to him that his real name is Abel Tesfaye), he told me how excited he was that "famous Ethiopian" was kind enough to mention him, as one of his influences. He knows the magnitude of the endorsement, yet he told me, he has not yet heard his music.
"I am in to Ethiopian Jazz and he is in to something different", he reflected.
“My mother, grandmother and my uncles would play Ethiopian artists like....Mulatu Astatke..... I can speak and understand [Amharic], but I can't understand their poetry. When my mother would translate--it's the most beautiful thing ever", the Weeknd had said.
Astatke was born on December 1943, a week before the European Christmas into a prosperous family, who valued education. They saw a future Engineer, he saw an artist in himself. They sent him to Wales to an engineering school; he instead made his way to Lindisfarne College, then ultimately to the Berklee College of Music, becoming its first African-born graduate of the prestigious college. He must have been a stubborn young man, to have convinced his parents, a career in music, more so almost a half century ago.