Concert review: ÌFÉ and Mulatu Astatke at Concord Music Hall

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photo by Charlie Billups

By Don Macica –

We still have a couple of “must-sees” on our list for World Music Festival Chicago. Still, we’ll be really surprised if we encounter a double bill as strong as the one that played Concord Music Hall on Saturday.

In a sense, the two acts couldn’t be more different. ÌFÉ is a brand new electronic music concept out of Puerto Rico that hasn’t even released their first album. Mulatu Astatke, by contrast, is known as the father of Ethio-jazz, which first flourished in the 1970s, and he is still composing, playing and recording compelling music to this day. Dig just below the surface, though, and you discover a trans-Atlantic range of sound that emerges from a mixture of Africa and the Americas, one that is showing no sign of becoming a historic relic.

The musicians of ÌFÉ come from various backgrounds ranging from dance music to rock, hip-hop and reggae, but they come together here united around a very traditional form: Cuban rumba. The distinct clave and rhythmic patterns form a foundation for a bold experiment in sound by being transformed electronically into something like a new tribal music, ancient and modern at the same time.

photo by Charlie Billups
photo by Charlie Billups

The group is led by Otura Mun and filled out by three additional percussionists (Anthony Sierra, Beto Torrens and Rafael Maya) and two singers (Katherine Cepeda and Yarimir Cabán A.K.A. Mima). Rather than play traditional drums, though, they employ a collection of electronic drum pads mixed with wired acoustic instruments on which they combine several variants of rumba patterns in both familiar and unexpected ways. The result is a sometimes bone-rattling, sometimes celestial experience infused with an intense groove.

It’s safe to say that the large crowd in attendance knew little about the band coming in because of the lack of recorded material, but each song was greeted rapturously. The group finished their performance by setting aside the electronics for a pure rumba session playing, as Mun remarked, the music they love and still gather to play every Tuesday night back home in Casa ÌFÉ Santurce, Puerto Rico.

photo by Charlie Billups
photo by Charlie Billups

There was a lengthy break between ÌFÉ’s departure and the start of Mulatu Astatke’s set, but that’s pretty understandable in light of the size and complexity of Astatke’s orchestra, which was made up of musicians from the U.S. and Europe. The leader’s main instrument is the vibraphone, but he also plays electric keyboards and percussion, all of which were arrayed in a semi circle in front of him. Add another keyboardist, two horn players, bassist, drummer and a second percussionist (Chicago’s own Juan Pastor, who leads the South American flavored jazz ensemble Chinchano) and you have a very powerful sound.

Astatke’s personal journey is instructive of the way music travels and cultures are exchanged. Born in the western Ethiopian city of Jimma, Mulatu was musically trained in London, New York City, and Boston where he combined his jazz and Latin music interests with traditional Ethiopian music.  In his music, then, you have two streams of the African Diaspora flowing back to the continent from which they sprang to create something new.

photo by Don Macica
photo by Don Macica

There was a sizable Ethiopian contingent in the audience, gathering to enthusiastically welcome a hero, and they were especially excited when the band, on the third song of the night, reached back to the 70s for Yekermo Sew. This was no nostalgia fest, though. Astatke’s music has seen a revival in this millennium, and the man has used this opportunity to create anew, recording albums as both a leader and collaborator. The musicians for this show are working on yet another new album project. A case could easily be made for a headlining slot at the Chicago Jazz Festival (and someday they absolutely should), but tonight, hearing this amazing mix of jazz improvisation matched to Ethiopian scales and rhythms in the company of several hundred Ethiopians, Puerto Ricans and world music fans was blissfully intoxicating.

photo by Don Macica
photo by Don Macica

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