Tuning In to the Rhythm and Spirit of L.A.


By day two of his five-day visit here, Mulatu Astatke, a jazz musician from Ethiopia, had visited radio station KLON-FM in Long Beach and Universal Studios in Universal City, had dined in a private home in Beverly Hills and observed the noisy, tacky mix of tourists, beggars and high rollers on the sidewalk outside his hotel on Hollywood Boulevard.

The experience wasn't what Astatke, raised on Hollywood films in Africa, had expected. But the elements were already playing together in his mind like rhythms, base lines and harmonies. The result, he said, was beautiful.

"It's unique," said Astatke in the lobby of the Hollywood Roosevelt, surrounded by fake palm trees and tourists climbing on a cast-iron likeness of Charlie Chaplin. "It's different," he said. "It's what I like."

A short, mustachioed, upbeat man in a printed sports shirt, Astatke was on a State Department-sponsored tour to promote culture and democracy and his African Jazz Institute in Addis Ababa. He and his official escort, Normal Satchell, a former high school vice principal, had already stopped in Washington, D.C., and Boston. Astatke prefers the soft sounds of West Coast jazz and was looking forward to meeting with some of the big-name musicians here.

It didn't happen. When he arrived, his local host, the International Visitors Council of Los Angeles, informed him no one from the Los Angeles Jazz Society could see him. Herbie Hancock was out of town. Tom Carter of the Thelonious Monk Institute was out of town with Hancock. Quincy Jones was in New York.

Still, Astatke was happy.

The staff at KLON "have a fantastic jazz collection. They are very helpful," he said. He had experienced the collapsing bridge and quaking tunnel at Universal Studios. Also fantastic. He had dinner with a fantastic volunteer couple from the Visitor Council, Louis and Angela Davis, who he said live "three villas up the street" from Johnny Mathis.

A world traveler and celebrity himself in certain circles, Astatke said he was recognized by Ethiopian taxi drivers in Boston and Washington, D.C. But at the Roosevelt Hotel, he went unnoticed on Friday while a man he had never heard of, Don Francisco, host of the talk show "Sabado Gigante," was surrounded by cameras and crowds as a star was set in the sidewalk for him.

At 50, Astatke still aspires to the same sort of fame himself. A vibraphonist, percussionist and keyboard player, he is considered a pioneer in the fusion of traditional Ethiopian music and jazz.

He and Satchell, also a musician, headed out for an evening at the Jazz Bakery, a small theater located in the former Helms Bakery in Culver City. Some of the staff wanted to talk politics, but Astatke turned the talk quickly back to music. One of the things he wants Americans to know is that while jazz developed in the United States, it had its roots in Africa and musicians from many different countries have contributed to it.

He slid into a seat among the rows of plastic chairs and tapped his foot to the sounds of a quartet from the Nat King Cole era. "We have a gentleman from Africa," the singer Bob Dorough breathed into the microphone. "Something about the State Department."

Astatke was not surprised by the smokeless atmosphere of the theater. Jazz clubs all over the world are following California's lead and banning smoking, he said, although Ethiopia's single jazz club still allows patrons to smoke. If a lack of blue haze ruins the decadent atmosphere for some, it promotes more respect for the musicians, he believes.

Astatke was increasingly impressed by the time required to get anyplace in Southern California. "If you go to a place like New York, there are subways. You can walk. Minutes are everything. Here, it takes you 20 minutes, half an hour, and driving. It's a long way," he said.

He had the impression that he saw more foreigners than Californians, judging by the diversity of the population. "I saw Indians. Japanese. Koreans. That's how it should be," he said. "This is the best spot in the world. So it's the dreams of all the people in the world to see. So I don't expect to see a lot of Californians anyway."

Astatke was surprised by the size of the local Ethiopian community. On Sunday, he dined with fellow countrymen at one of four or five Ethiopian restaurants located on Fairfax. "I thought this thing happened only in Washington on 18th Street," he said. "I didn't expect it in Los Angeles. It's great." The following day he would meet with jazz educators at USC.

Ever positive and appreciative, Astatke said everyone he met was interested in helping him. "I haven't heard anybody say, 'No, sorry, I can't help you.' " He realizes Americans have a reputation for lip service, but said, "From what I see, something's going to work out.

"I'll let you know."

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