Photo: Gonzalo Guajardo
QWANQWA is a primarily instrumental quintet based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, whose music is a modern, experimental take on Ethiopian traditional music. The members are Kaethe Hostetter, Mesele Asmamaw, Endris Hassen, Bubu Teklemariam, and Misale Leggese. 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.
Music has long been regarded as “The Universal Language.” It is the world’s mother tongue, understood by all. The name Qwanqwa (literally meaning “language” in Amharic) was chosen for this meaning. Qwanqwa, based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is comprised of four of the finest Ethiopian traditional instrumentalists, plus Kaethe, who has been living in Addis and working with Ethiopian musicians since she first set foot there in 2009. It’s been called a supergroup of master virtuosos, each of whom is a bearer of tradition, uniquely brought together by a spirit of experimentalism.
Photo: Vemund Brune-Hareide
The group was formed six years ago, and since then has been steadily growing artistically: they have two albums to date, with a third set for release in early 2018, and they perform regularly in Addis.
– Misale Leggesse (Ethiocolor, Addis Acoustic, Fendika) on kebero (goat skin drum)
– Mesele Asmamaw (The EX, Paal Nilssen-Love) on krar
– Anteneh Teklemariam (Ethiocolor, Atse Teodros) on bass krar
– Endris Hassan (Nile Project, Trio Kazanches, The EX) on masinko
– Kaethe Hostetter (Debo Band, Ubuntu Rising, Cirkestra, Fred Frith and Butch Morris) on electric 5-string violin
Qwanqwa’s sound is marked by Endris’s swirling masinko melodies, Mesele’s punk krar solos, Kaethe’s wah-violin, and Bubu’s dexterity on the bass-harp, all held together with Misale’s heavy goat-skin drum beats.
Mesele has been active in Ethiopian music for over twenty years, releasing original albums and touring internationally, performing Ethiopian traditional music and joining experimental projects with partners like “The EX” and Paal Nilssen-Love.
Kaethe first worked in Ethiopian music as a founding member of critically acclaimed Debo Band, and since relocating to Addis, she has participated in numerous exploratory and professional projects, as she honed her sound and immersed herself further into the culture of her surroundings. She maintains an active international performing life, also appearing solo as Ubuntu Rising.
Joined by Misale Leggesse on kebero, Anteneh “Bubu” Teklemariam on bass krar, and Endris Hassan on masinko, Qwanqwa’s vision merges a passion for the richness and diversity of Ethiopian musical traditions with a modern sensibility and a desire to expand present boundaries.
Members of Qwanqwa have appeared internationally with Getachew Mekuria, Mohammed “Jimmy” Mohammed, Thurston Moore, Nile Project, Fendika, Mulatu Astatke, Addis Acoustic, Mahmoud Ahmed, Fred Frith, Butch Morris, Ethiocolor, The EX, Atse Teodros, Imperial Tiger Orchestra, and have played stages from Lincoln Center to Bonnaroo, Jazzfest (New Orleans), Moers Festival, Roskilde, WOMEX, WOMAD and more.
Qwanqwa performs about thirty concerts a year in its hometown of Addis Ababa, and also had a featured performance at Roskilde 2016 (biggest music festival in Northern Europe). Since their founding in 2012, QWANQWA have released two albums: Volume One (2014) and Volume Two (2015). Their third album, Volume Three, produced by Shahzad Ismaily, is set for early 2018 on FPE Records.
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.
Below is a selection of available images. For more options including variations on some of the full band shots, go here.