QWANQWA is an instrumental quintet based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, whose music is a modern, experimental take on Ethiopian traditional music.
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QWANQWA in Amharic means language. Music has long had the beloved nickname “The Universal Language”; it is the world’s mother tongue, understood by all, and has the reputation of bridging socio-economic groups and joining the young and old. QWANQWA is named for this concept.
The music is characterized by tight arrangements, psychedelic sounds, extended experimental moments, and occasional audience sing-a-long sections. It is driving, powerful, and different than anything else coming out of Ethiopia at this current Golden Age of Ethiopian music. The live show ranges from intimate to wild, from whispery conversations to full blown rock show, and it is hard to believe these psychedelic sounds are coming from traditional harp and violin.
At its core, this band is instrumental, however, the list of guests and collaborations is long, including both beloved and famous singers such as Fikraddis, Habte Michael, Amelmal Abate, as well as Azmari singers Selamnesh Zemene, Ertibu Agengehu, and Etenesh Wassie. Qwanqwa also has invited the virtuoso masinqo player Endris Hassen, the father of washint Johannes Aferwork, Dawit Frew (Ethiopia’s foremost clarinetist).
This Addis Ababa-based quintet dives into an intoxicating pool of traditional Ethiopian melodies with elements of funk and psychedelia and an experimental approach. QWANQWA’s (translating as ‘language’) music speaks loud and clear – it digs into a groove that will keep you rocking out and swaying along. The tunes are full of riffs and beats that loop and spiral into a blurry, funked-up haze, connecting with the audience in uproarious call and response sections.
The four Ethiopian musicians are featured on traditional electrified stringed instruments (krar, masinko), running through effects pedals. Add to this the dizzying sounds of a five-stringed electric violin from American Kaethe Hostetter (Debo Band co-founder), the heavy riffs of the kebero (goat skin drum), and Mesele’s hyped-up vocals and you can imagine Qwanqwa’s crescendo into a riffed-up amped up dance party with wild looking instruments.
Members of QWANQWA have performed at Womex and toured internationally with The Ex & Getachew Mekuria, Mohammed Jimmy Mohammed, Fred Frith, Paal Nilssen-Love, Thurston Moore, Trio Kazanchis, Debo Band, Fendika, Mulatu Astatke, Addis Acoustic, Ethiocolor, Nile Project, and more.
The band name QWANQWA is thanks to original supporter Yayehirad Alamerew (Yayu).
Were Ornette Coleman still with us, I’ve little doubt he would enthusiastically endorse this sophomore effort by Qwanqwa, an instrumental Addis Ababa-based quartet that integrates a number of disparate styles into its bold take on indigenous traditional music.
Great concept, great improvising – this is one of the most impressive albums I’ve heard all year.
Qwanqwa is for sure is an incredible experimental traditional Ethiopian rock group that deserves to be played in every living room, at every party and on every radio station from Gondar to Santa Cruz.
Very interesting debut by an instrumental quartet from Ethiopia who work in a style that takes traditional music and rocks it up a bit. I’m reminded of the way Fairport Convention did this to UK trad stuff – amping up and stretching without really distorting the rootage too much. The violinist, Kaethe Hostetter (who played a great set with Fred Frith at this year’s Victoriaville Festival), is originally from the US, but three other members are from various spots in Ethiopia and their music is a great blend of inputs.
–Byron Coley, The Wire
FPE is really showing off the breadth of their label here with a fine collection of music by this Ethiopian band which features an American violinist. These cats play crazy instruments like the krar, a bowl-shaped lyre, which, when amplified, sounds like some trippy-ass guitar fingering. The three songs on the first side are particularly killer. I’m not hugely knowledgeable about the bevy of music recently made available of African rock-type bands (these guys are less rock than some), but I’ve heard enough to know that this stands up quite well. It’s not blazing like Group Inerane and other Tuareg bands, but they build up quite a head of steam at points. There is common ground here with Erkin Koray as the strings are often engaged in that woozy dance he did so well. Shit, for all I know this band is like the Headhunters of Addis Ababa. One thing I do know is that I dig it.