Jim Jarmusch’s Ear For Music

by Kiko Matsing

Jim Jarmusch Mulatu Astatke Screamin' Jay Hawkins

If it takes some robust constitution to sit through a Jim Jarmusch film–watching bored characters bore themselves to death, and where the joke is really in the awkward long pauses–we are at least rewarded with the director’s acute faculty for picking ultra hip music. We can endure several minutes of Bill Murray sitting on his couch contemplating his drink, or fidgeting with his pillow on a plane, because the scene is impeccably enjambed with another, and punctuated with the coolest soundtracks. This razor-sharp cutting, and pitch perfect ear for the right music, is key to Jarmusch’s style of dead-pan humor. They provide the rhythm to his character’s inertia, and a wry commentary on their uneventful existence.

In Broken Flowers, I was introduced to the music of Mulatu Astatke (or Astatqé), the father of Ethio-Jazz–a fusion of latin, jazz, and traditional Ethiopian music. Astatke (b. 1943) trained in New York, London, and Boston, and has performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, Lincoln Center in New York, Beethoven-Haus in Bonn and Barbican Center in London (www.ethiojazz.com). His is one of the coolest jazz music I’ve heard in a while–and I’m one who listens to UFO (United Future Organization) and Kruder & Dorfmeister! I’m surprised that Broken Flowers is his film debut. This only goes to show Jarmusch’s knack for the offbeat.

Yegelle Tezeta
by Mulatu Astatke from Broken Flowers

To listen to more of Mulatu Astatke’s music, visit his Ethio-Jazz website.

The singular thing I remember in Stranger Than Paradise is Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ rendition of I Put A Spell On You. I was already familiar with Nina Simone’s and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s versions, which made me even more acutely aware of how different Hawkin’s take was. It was hypnotic: at last, it felt as though the singer was really casting his spell.

I Put A Spell On You
by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins from Stranger Than Paradise

It turns out that this mesmerizing version came out of the band’s being intoxicated during the recording session. Screamin’ Jay later performed the song on TV like a voodoo stage act, complete with leopard print tights, skull on a stick, and wound-up chattering teeth. The effect is both creepy and silly, making Screamin’ Jay the original rock-shocker (Wikipedia and Rolling Stone, 14 Feb 2000).