Mulatu Astatke & The Heliocentrics – Barbican (Live Review)

The best night’s jazz in many a year at the Barbican


Krar Collective played one of the best support slots at the Barbican I can remember seeing with just a funked up harp (krar) an electric drum set and a singer whose vibrato was so extreme as to become ululation. Spine tingling stuff. But what really set them off was the amazing man and woman dancers in stunning costumes head banging and shoulder rocking to the extreme with just a hint of domestic violence.
The Heliocentrics kicked off with the mesmeric sound of Ethio-horns mournfully weaving in out and around the beat and then over the tripped out organ, teasing into an introduction for the man myth himself Mulatu Astatke. The thing about Ethio-jazz is that it’s a wonderful, impossible hybrid that never took. The fact that you can hear it at all these says is to a music lover as exciting as it would be to spot a woolly mammoth on a hike in the mountains of Finland.
Oh and what forms it contains! Funky, melancholic and fierce at turns and sometimes all at once. It is the Nietzschean ethic of the Ethiopian in mid century Manhattan made sound. And like Nietzsche himself the man is mildness personified. And lovely instruments you rarely hear like baritone sax played hard, cowbells played with terrifying relentlessness, cello reverbed out, funky pan and whatever it is that gives you that spacey sound that is the Heliocentrics trademark sound.
Star of the show apart from Mulatu was the trumpeter. Blistering. It turned out to be none other than Byron Wallen at his finest. Perhaps it was the Bubber miley muted trumpet antics or the orchestration or the Afro themes but I couldn’t help thinking that this fragile encounter was Duke Ellington in the 21st Century come alive.

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