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.
The new band, “Qwanqwa”, based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is named for this concept, Qwanqwa being the Amharic word for language. The members vary in age and background, but have come together for a unique and powerful sound with an equally meaningful message. At its core, this band is instrumental, since they believe that to reach the widest audience, a single singer can limit the effect. 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 beloved Azmari singers Selamnesh Zemene, Ertibu Agengehu, and Etenesh Wassie. Not limited to only singers, Qwanqwa also has invited the virtuoso masinqo player Endris Hassen, the father of washint Johannes Aferwork, Dawit Frew, Ethiopia’s foremost clarinetist, and many other treasures of traditional instrumentalists.
The four members at Qwanqwa’s essence bring unique stories to this group.
- Mesele Asmamaw, kirar, has been a composer and arranger in Ethiopia for over twenty years. He has released many albums of his compositions as well as traveled extensively throughout Europe and Africa performing the traditional music of Ethiopia. Since the mid-2000s, Mesele has been a favorite guest of the extremely influential punk band “The EX”, has recorded several albums with the experimental Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, and has toured and recorded with his experimental rock group Trio Kazanches. He uses several interesting techniques in Qwanqwa, including a wah pedal, a distortion pedal, a coke bottle and a plastic tube!
- Dawit is Qwanwa’s secret weapon. Master of the bass kirar, his interests and experience have informed his unique sound which is at times funky, at times sentimental but always solid and appropriate. He has put in his years at the national theater house Hagr Fikr, and through this is well versed in the variety of styles of music found in Ethiopia.
- Sami, Qwanqwa’s rhythmic backbone, brings a young fresh enthusiasm to the group’s sound. He incorporates tambourine, bells, and other homemade percussion to increase the variety of moods. Sami is an avid listener of music from around the world, but also an expert in his own country’s musical history, making his contribution unique and his sound distinct. His nightly work at the traditional azmaribet has made him flexible and intuitive.
- Kaethe Hostetter, 5-string electric violin, has been playing Ethiopian music for six years. She is a founding member of the critically acclaimed Debo Band (signed to Sub Pop), the first Ethiopian band in the US to top many charts including iTunes and CMJ, and who has played many stages from Lincoln Center to Kennedy Center, from Chicago World Music Festival and GlobalFest to Bumbershoot and Bonarroo. Kaethe has relocated to Ethiopia to start a music school, although she still travels to US for musical engagements. Qwanqwa for her is an opportunity to explore the music of Ethiopia with creative, likeminded open musicians. Although she is well versed in the traditional music, she naturally brings her experience, love of world music, and inspiration to this group.
The vision of Qwanqwa is to reach as many people as possible with their music. Where many groups play at clubs, Qwanqwa strives to organize concerts in remote places and unique situations. They know that there are many people who would enjoy their music but would not be able to attend a concert at a club because they can’t afford a taxi, they can’t get a babysitter, they are too young, they don’t drink, or other infinite limiting factors. But music is for all, and Qwanqwa seeks opportunities to play to as many demographics as possible. Oftentimes, the members have found, the concerts in unconventional settings prove equally as memorable and rewarding as regular club shows.